paper delivered at Public History Now,
First National Conference, Ruskin College, Oxford, 20 May 2000
Forgive and Forget: the case against Remembrance Sunday.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, as the pacifist
movement began to impact on public consciousness in Britain, the
annual Armistice Day rituals in Whitehall, central London, were
noticeably less militaristic in character: fewer service personnel
took part and politicians argued that public rituals of remembrance
should in future have more of a civilian flavour.
The event became a warning against future war rather than a reflection
of past losses. It was even suggested that Remembrance Sunday might
one day cease to take place.
Yet this has not been the case. The 1990s have been a period of
sustained growth for the remembrance industry: the traditional Two
Minute silence is now enforced in most public places; the wearing
of poppies has once again become widespread, battlefield tourism
is booming, interest in military fiction and war documentary shows
no sign of abating. Across Britain there is an orthodoxy of remembrance
that is finely attuned to the post-Diana mood of ‘emotional
This paper will examine the many tensions in the commemoration of
military conflict in Great Britain. Drawing upon fieldwork research
in this country and abroad, the paper will explore the histories
of military memory, its physical manifestations in memorials and
monuments, and the surge of recent interest in rituals such as Remembrance
The paper will argue that these rituals ignore the founding principles
behind such events and, instead, asserts a new unproblematised reading
of history and martial memory.