To acquire wisdom, one must observe

Dispatch from Bath: Remembrance Day

On the 104th anniversary of the Armistice of Compiègne that ended the First World War, I accepted without hesitation an invitation to attend a commemorative service at Bath Abbey in honor of those across Britain, the Empire, and the Commonwealth who had committed themselves to war. Few events throughout my time abroad in Britain thus far have contributed more to my understanding of the country in relation to my own than my experience on Remembrance Day. I would like to first express the thoughts I derived from my observations.

The observance of remembrance in Britain centers upon two principal dates, which help to isolate the complexity of the Armistice into contexts of celebration and lamentation. There is Remembrance Day, referred to originally as Armistice Day until 1931, which falls annually upon November 11 as the triumphant historical date at which the guns of the Great War ceased finally to fire; Remembrance Sunday, by contrast, falls upon the second Sunday of each November as a means to reflect upon the losses by which the relief of peace had been won. The changeability of the latter date ensures that in some years, most recently in 2018, Remembrance Day and Remembrance Sunday will occupy the same date. Though the observation of grief and gladness are conducted differently, their occasional overlapping confirms an intrinsic unity in the way the holiday is designed, which renders it equivalent to America’s own Memorial Day. 

Though Memorial Day in the United States confines its elements of grief and triumph to a single day, its calendrical magnitude, as represented by its effective three-day sprawl, evokes a significance that far exceeds the way by which the country commemorates November 11. If Memorial Day is America’s Day of Remembrance for its fallen, November 11 is the day it reserves for all veterans, current or gone, as its equivalent to Britain’s Armed Forces Day in June. It is a curious but certainly understandable fact that for both countries, the more important date – if measured through its prominence in the national consciousness, in the form of school closings, coverage, and other such metrics – is reserved for fallen rather than surviving service members. 

Yet the determination of a date’s importance is reflected also in their various designated calendrical positions, which between America and Britain occupy opposite seasons of the year. The selection of these dates can reveal the wounds which for either country run deepest, and to which all subsequent trials and national hardships are retrospectively compared. 

In 1868, after a nebulous succession of speculated folk origins, the United States established Memorial Day upon the last Monday of May, to straddle a stretch of time that corresponds with the formal conclusion of the American Civil War on May 26, just three years earlier. No American war has surpassed the Civil War in absolute or proportional deaths. Between 620,000 and 750,000 American soldiers and civilians died within a population of 30 million circa 1860, from a combined toll of combat, disease, and violence whose bloody work exceeded, according to upper estimates, the number of Americans who died in all the other wars in which the Republic had fought since its inception. An equivalent death toll in our own time, were the untested capacities of twenty-first century weapons to substitute the nascent instruments of nineteenth-century war, would amount to 7 million American dead. Into the nation’s young memory the war had burned an intimate tragedy, a fraternal battlefield, which smoldered behind homeland shores and between the gardens and rivers of Americana. The memory of such domestic desolation ensured that the Civil War would preserve a central position in the national mythology, which imprinted its associated images upon every successive generation in the likeness of a memory, within even those who can attribute no direct familial ancestry to America before 1865. Within the civic ancestry of the nation, the war occupied such an unparalleled position as to make its date of conclusion the most obvious choice for a holiday of remembrance.

Yet for England, whose own civil war is too far removed within its long political evolution, the most haunting trauma of its contemporary memory is without doubt the First World War. The conflict caused 886,000 British fatalities, which in a population of fewer than 45 million in the British Isles circa 1915 delivered a similar death toll as a proportion of the population to that of the American Civil War. This death toll doubled that which Britain suffered during the Second World War, when its population was millions higher; its mark upon the youth, in tandem with the ravages of influenza, after a century of confidence in the Pax Britannica, bestowed upon the war and its conclusion a haunted, scarred quality that forever associated November 11 with loss and military mourning like no other event in British history. Where spring recalled the end of the civil war for Americans, for the British the greatest trauma resided in autumn. Remembrance Day would gradually expand, like its American counterpart, to encompass all other wars of national loss and sacrifice; yet at different times of year for Britain and America, recollections of war and peace attain their greatest historical clarity and resonance.

I accordingly entered the soaring interior of Bath Abbey with only Memorial Day as my frame of reference for the importance of this commemoration. The grand dimensions of the structure, which even in ordinary contexts daunt its visitors, acquired a sacred veneer, as if its divine moorings had decided to awaken in answer to the hallowed occasion. Outside, a massive cross of poppy-flowers was laid upon the public square.

Central to this service on the 11th of November was a special exhibition organized by 44AD artspace, a wonderful art gallery and artist studio which I had been so fortunate as to be accepted for an advanced tutorial this fall. The theme of its Remembrance Day exhibition encompassed the “Heroes of the Commonwealth,” which arranged for numerous schools in England to provide a beautiful array of student artwork to illustrate the remarkable wartime endeavors of various soldiers throughout the present-day Commonwealth. The same schoolchildren were now seated in rows near the front.

Being but a lowly American resident artist within the studio, I was uncertain initially of where to sit; yet, graciously, I was provided a seat by the lovely Katie O’Brien, the project director of 44AD artspace and my tutor for this term. Throughout the hour-long service I was moved to tears on several occasions as choirs sang and various speakers recited scriptural verses and remarked upon the timeless applications of courage and steadfastness. As was inevitable in such a setting, Lawrence Binyon’s “For the Fallen” rang out towards the end, between the hymns and melodies, which I had dreaded to hear for the devastating emotional effect of its words, of which few works possess the capacity to equal: “They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.”

The words linger always in my mind, containing within such brevity a true expression of the powerful force that Remembrance Day conjured upon the visceral imagination; its magnitude I fully understood leaving the abbey, affected forever by the terrible weight of millions fallen. Against the colossal tumult of such a loss, and the memory of swift and unimaginable calamity, the physical solidness of the abbey reassured me, its stable architecture strengthened by ancient pride. Towards the end of the service, a chilling rendition of God Save the King echoed round the pews; I remembered then that no Remembrance Day had heard such an anthem for seventy years. Yet it seemed so natural that I had to excuse my American reservations and disappoint the founding fathers, having begun to sing along with the rest of the congregation. 

I left the abbey having acquired not merely a strengthened consciousness of the special importance of November 11 to countries like Britain, which after all had suffered eight times as many deaths in World War One as the United States, but also a newfound generational sensitivity. The destruction of a previous generation of youth, immortalized in its death, acquaintanced me to the perilous position of the youth of today, my own generation; I felt both a gratitude that the Long Peace had continued thus far, to spare generations of the present and past, and a fear that the century’s bildungsroman was yet to unleash a new trauma upon the hitherto fortunate youth of the Western world. I thought of the generation who had fought in World War One, who had struggled admirably and tragically beneath the compressive force of a circumstance of which they had no control, and wondered about the rarity of that valor and heroism which they had been forced to display. Could new generations possibly emulate such conduct and sacrifice under similar duress, if tested as their forebears? Upon subjection to similar trials, with stakes of an existential nature, could any generation become a “greatest generation,” their flaws airbrushed by the retrospective kiss of heroic aggrandizement and romantic eulogization? 

I suspect that, in the midst of similar circumstances, these unlucky generations would have no choice but to enter combat and perform the duty required of them. The elders of society will always lament the supposed adulteration of morality in the new generation, without any consideration for the timeless fundamental instincts which every generation of youth preserves across the centuries. Any would be eulogized if subjected to such a horror as a world war; all are reimagined after death with an angelic guise during life. Instead, we should ask: upon which generation will calamity choose to fall?

 I suppose it is this which draws me the most to the world war generations: these are generations just like ours, but who had the singular misfortune of a war in their time. As I think of days of remembrance, in Britain and America, and Bath and Brandeis, I realize the seriousness with which everyone must approach questions of war and peace in present and past, for the sake of future days to come.

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