August 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War and is likely to be the last major anniversary of WW2 to be celebrated with meaningful numbers of veterans left to participate. But should this event mark the end of our commemoration of events surrounding WW2, or should they continue far into the future?
The 31-year period between August 1914 and August 1945 has left an indelible memory on the British consciousness and psyche. Even over 100 years after WW1 has ended, there continues to be trips out to the Western Front, and a regular flow of battlefield tourists, including large numbers of school children.
The horrors of the trenches in WW1 have somehow blurred with the wider campaigns of WW2 to create a single period of history in which there is still, just about a link to the past.
At the time of writing this article, there are still a tiny number of exceptionally elderly OAPs in the UK, born before WW1 who grew up during the war, possibly even living through the air raids of WW1 on the UK and may remember it still.
One estimate suggests there are approximately 170 people still alive in the UK born before WW1 began, the oldest of whom would have been 10 when WW1 ended. This is a timely reminder that although the last combatants passed some years ago, it may yet be at least 10 years before the last of those alive during the war leave us.
This will mark the passing of an era, into a world where there is finally no one left who was alive in the UK during WW1.
This is perhaps a helpful introduction to the challenges of remembering and commemorating wartime events and the question of ‘for how long should we as a nation continue to remember the events of WW2’?
The youngest veterans of the war are now comfortably into their 90s, and growing increasingly few in number. Within the next 20 years or so, there will be none left.
This will come as a moment of profound shock to the UK and mark the ending of a story that is very much at the centre of our national history and narrative.
For those born since 1945 until the late 1990s, the knowledge of what your father or grandfather did in the war was arguably an essential part of school life. Arguments could, and almost certainly did, break out in playgrounds over whose father was braver, or whose grandfather was cooler.
To a post-war austerity generation, raised in the backdrop of ruins and devastation of the war, then latterly rebuilding and a new future, the war was a central part of their lives, even if they did not live through it directly themselves. Rationing only ended in 1954 – the last people to have been born during rationing will only have just hit retirement age in the UK.
The all-encompassing nature of the war, the stories and the impact it had, from knowing what your parents did in it, through to hearing stories until their dying day from grandparents about the time that the German bombers blew up their best china has helped make it an utterly indelible part of our national story.
People want to associate with it, or at least stake some claim to it – often in the strangest of ways. The fictional diary of Bridget Jones, set in London in the early 1990s features a scene where the author contemplates calling her mother, to ask if she had starting ovulating by the end of the war, in order that she could in some small way claim to have been present at the victory in the most basic biological way and share in its glory.
This sense of ‘wanting to belong’ comes perhaps from the sense of victory, and the knowledge that the whole nation pulled together as one and experienced conflict in a way previously unimaginable. WW2 is an event that will realistically remain part of our lived story and memories well into the 2050s, if not slightly further beyond.
While the WW2 generation, particularly veterans, remain with us, then it is right and proper that their efforts are recognised and remembered. The large-scale recognition of both the D-Day landings, and latterly the VE Day celebrations was a good final way to mark the efforts of the veteran community. But they are likely to be the last of their kind, with no further large-scale commemorations likely until the 90 or 100th anniversaries.
The purpose of remembrance is as much to focus on the present as it is the past, to learn from the history on display and try to make it relevant to the future to prevent mistakes being made again, and to appreciate the sacrifices made to permit the current generation to enjoy a better life.
The WW1 centenary events were marked by an international series of collaborative events intended to mark the moments over several years that defined the story of the nations involved. From the lights going out in Westminster Abbey in 2014 through to the final Armistice Ceremony in 2018, there was a comprehensive programme of events intended to mark the war, to learn from what happened and to educate the next generation.
In many ways this succeeded, with government funding being made available to ensure every school in the country could send its pupils to France to learn about the war.
Thousands of schools participated, helping raise awareness of the war and teaching of its history to modern students, whose great-great grandparents would likely have fought in it.
Should this serve as a future model for WW2, when the 100th anniversary events begin in 2039 – a means of sending pupils to key locations like the Normandy Beaches to learn of the sacrifices made by their ancestors? Will there be the same desire to learn, or is WW2 and our national involvement too broad to properly commemorate?
Unlike WW1, there is no conveniently static front line to visit, or easy short tours that can tell the story of the war in a day or twos visit – instead it requires time to travel across the globe, understanding a war that touched practically every corner of the globe.
For the Ministry of Defence (MOD), the question is a delicate one of how to continue to remember in an appropriate manner, and should marking WW2 be seen as a way of more widely recognising the efforts and sacrifices of the modern armed forces as well?
The challenge is that while WW1 and WW2 occupy a key part in the national consciousness, they do so in a way that is not enjoyed by more recent wars. The key difference is perhaps the shift from a ‘total war’ in which the whole nation was engaged, into a discretionary war of choice fought by small numbers of volunteers far from home.
The wars and operations fought since 1945 were often very brutal, bloody, and not a cakewalk. At times victory was far from certain, and things could, and did, often go terribly wrong.
In the dozens of operations and campaigns that the UK has engaged in over the last 75 years, more than 7,000 troops have been killed on active duty.
But these were often lost in wars that have long been forgotten except by those present – quiet operations associated with the mopping up of the end of the Empire, or trying to contain the communist threat. For example, nearly 1,500 troops were killed during the Malaya campaign, yet today it is arguably all but forgotten by the general public.
Perhaps it is the lack of general popularity of these events – seen as policing actions or involvement in unpopular wars, that means they enjoy little public interest. Or maybe it is the relatively tiny numbers involved – the slow but growing chart of casualties in an operation that may last for some years will rarely land with much impact compared to a single mass casualty event.
Even though the Falklands War was almost 40 years ago, the events that perhaps remain most firmly lodged in the public consciousness are those linked to large scale loss of life – the loss of HMS Sheffield or the Bluff Cove disaster. By contrast, the drip feed of casualties in operations in places like the Balkans never really connected into the UK consciousness.
Perhaps it is a sense from the public that our military are all volunteers and paid to take risks, and that for them, being killed is an occupational hazard in a way that it isn’t for conscripts during general war. While the losses are sad, and for the family and friends a tragedy, they do not enjoy the same level of awareness on the public radar, nor are they seen as something to stand out and be remembered.
This debate matters as the UK approaches the ending of the WW2 commemorations, and VJ Day, and begins to look to the future, of marking significant events of historical interest without those who participated being present. Is it time to look again at the whole concept of commemoration for wars and events when those who participated are all long dead?
While there is likely to always be a deeply held military respect for those who passed before, and the use of battle honours to drive events like ceremonies and dining nights (think Trafalgar Night or Battle of Britain dinners), these will over time become something increasingly of niche or irrelevant interest to those outside the military fraternity.
In 20 years’ time will the public want to commemorate, or even be reminded of, battles fought in places like Basra, Sangin and Syria?
Or, will these events pass quietly by, unremembered outside of the small military fraternity?
There is something important about trying to remember, both to commemorate those who have fallen, but also remember the lessons of the experience.
For the MOD, the framework of WW2 commemoration provides a way to help package up powerful messaging about modern activity linked to a past that others will understand and feel familiar with.
The modern armed forces are perhaps very unrecognisable to many of the public, while the images of soldiers in WW2 battledress or Spitfires still instinctively seem familiar.
An event to mark the Battle of Britain, even after all the participants have passed away, is a good way to help talk not just about the past, but the current and future too, comparing the roles of Fighter Command in 1940 to that of Air Command today, and what the modern RAF does in contrast to the past.
It is this link that is perhaps most crucial for the MOD, being able to show how technology has changed, how people have changed and how the armed forces have evolved since the end of WW2.
Being able to demonstrate to taxpayers how the armed forces work for them, and why their work remains as vital as ever.
This is of increased importance as the community of people classed as ‘veterans’ grows ever smaller, with the armed forces shrinking in size to barely 130,000 regulars and less than 40,000 reservists today, compared to roughly five million people in uniform in 1945.
This footprint makes it harder for the public to meet people who are either serving, or who have served. The ever-smaller forces, and the reduced areas in which they are based around the country means that many people are unlikely to ever routinely come into contact with members of the armed forces.
Compared to the heights of WW2 when the UK became an armed camp, with huge swathes of the population either serving in the military or involved in some form of war work, the modern armed forces do not enjoy the same presence in society.
This makes it much harder for the MOD to message about its role, and to let the armed forces have a positive impact on society – there are just too few of them out there to be an ever present part of British life.
The future of commemoration is perhaps one which shifts from that of direct remembrance and contributions from those who were present, to instead a chance to look more widely at the role the armed forces played, and continue to play in the defence of the nation during wartime. While there is likely to be a demand each year for a remembrance service in November, as an act that has become central in our national calendar, the wider means of commemorating will probably need to change.
But with this comes new challenges for the MOD, which will need to look at ways to message about not only the contributions of its predecessors, but also ensure that the public understand the commitment and capability of the modern armed forces.
The slow loss of opportunities like events commemorating WW2 dates, and the likely reduction in general interest in the war as it goes from lived memory to historical event means that the MOD will need to think carefully about how best to keep public interest alive in events that not only remember, but also reignite interest in the military for the future.
When though is it appropriate to stop commemorating?
We are now almost as far past the end of WW1 as the Battle of Waterloo was from the victory of 1918. These events are fading into the mists of time, and soon the battles of WW2 will become nothing more than stories and film footage.
Memories of WW2 are likely to linger longer in the public consciousness, as much because of the way it impacted the whole country. There is a much greater amount of media available for WW2 than compared to any previous war. The combination of film footage, archives, colourised footage and interviews with participants means that the story of the war remains far more vividly in people’s minds than other earlier wars do.
Those who were born during the war may well have children in their mid – late 40s, who in turn grew up hearing first-hand about the war from their parents. It is realistically likely to be many decades, probably into the early 22nd Century, before the last people who recall meeting a participant from WW2 pass away. This means that in some form or another the human memory of the war is likely to continue for many years to come.
But there will come a point when all the participants are long departed, when those who were born during the war too have gone and there is no one left who was alive during this time.
At this point the question becomes what are we commemorating? Is it the act of a direct relative known and loved by us, or is it a more theoretical act of recalling that a distant ancestor who died long before we were born, and who none of our living relatives met passed away?
At its simplest, why are we pausing to commemorate, and what do we want to gain by doing this?
This article is the latest contribution in our Lima Charlie columnist section.
This is part of a series featuring unattributed contributions from experts and insiders providing opinion, insight and analysis on today’s Armed Forces, the wider politics of the military and observations on military life.
Under the pseudonym Lima Charlie, our contributors aim to explore the issues facing today’s military and their comment remains unattributed to allow our writers to present their analysis candidly and under one editorial voice.