Our Rememberance rituals should recognise our allies more

We've always fought alongside allies and we must not forget that.

The rituals of Remembrance Sunday – above all the televised Cenotaph ceremony in Whitehall – offer Britain’s most evocative festival of national memory each year.

Unchanged since after the Second World War, the ceremony is a memorial to British sacrifice.

No allied representatives take part in the parade. The imperial contribution to Britain’s efforts in both world wars is scarcely acknowledged, with just a line of Commonwealth high commissioners laying wreaths.  

But the ceremony symbolises Britain alone, standing alone: the underlying myth is of Britain as an exceptional country, ‘saving Europe’ and the world for freedom and democracy.

Four years’ official commemoration of the centenary of World war One has followed the same narrative. 

Some generous gestures were made towards Germany. After some hesitation from the Prime Minister’s office, the German President was invited to lay wreaths at the Cenotaph and in Westminster Abbey in 2018.

But there was no attempt to recognise the enormous contribution the Indian Army made, both in Europe and across the Middle East; nor of the West India Regiment in Palestine.

Westminster Abbey ensured in its November 2018 commemoration that young people from Britain’s South Asian and Afro-Caribbean communities – many of whose grandparents or great-grandparents had served in imperial forces in one or both wars – played visible roles in the service.  The Cenotaph ceremony, however, was unaltered.

The only event in the UK to mark American participation in the war was on the west coast of Islay, where two US troopships were wrecked – a ceremony unnoticed by the national media. 

Suggestions that there should be some public recognition of the point at which British forces came under French command led to a small ceremony in front of the statue of Marshal Foch outside Victoria station, with two French soldiers and a Guards band. 

There was no recognition of the efforts of the Belgian army, sections of which held part of the Ypres front throughout the war, with bases in England to support them.

The French approach to the centenary was far more generous to its allies and partners. 

In September 2014, an open-air exhibition along the Champs Elysees displayed picture of allied and colonial forces caught up in the conflict, from English regiments and Scots Highlanders to Sikh infantry, Moroccans and Algerians. 

President Trump was invited to attend the march-past of US forces in Paris that ceremoniously marked the centenary of American entry to the war. British contingents were also invited to march down the Champs Elysees to commemorate our role on the Western front.

We never stood alone, either in the First or the Second World War.  Even in the Battle of Britain, Poles, Belgians and Czechs played significant roles, alongside Australians, South Africans and New Zealanders. 

The Polish role in World War Two from their intelligence contributions in 1939 to the Polish divisions in the 8th Army – has been scrubbed out of our national history. 

The British forces that invaded Normandy in 1944, alongside a larger American contingent and a Canadian corps, included Free French divisions, a Czech brigade, and ships crewed by Dutch and Belgian sailors.

The myth that ‘we beat Germany in two world wars’ on our own, feeds into complaints from eccentric Tory backbench MPs that ‘now the Germans are telling us what to do’. 

I have heard that sentiment on doorsteps countless times. Sadly, our rituals of national memory reinforce that myth, rather than educating our citizens about the wider alliances on which we relied. 

A visible Indian presence at a future Cenotaph ceremony, an American, French or Polish contingent as part of our remembrance, would tell our younger generation that we fought for our values alongside others, not as an exceptional nation on our own.  

National rituals matter; they feed into popular assumptions about our national identity and our place in the world.

William Wallace is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords and a former member of the government’s advisory board for the commemoration of World War One

As you’re here, we have something to ask you. What we do here to deliver real news is more important than ever. But there’s a problem: we need readers like you to chip in to help us survive. We deliver progressive, independent media, that challenges the right’s hateful rhetoric. Together we can find the stories that get lost.

We’re not bankrolled by billionaire donors, but rely on readers chipping in whatever they can afford to protect our independence. What we do isn’t free, and we run on a shoestring. Can you help by chipping in as little as £1 a week to help us survive? Whatever you can donate, we’re so grateful - and we will ensure your money goes as far as possible to deliver hard-hitting news.

8 Responses to “Our Rememberance rituals should recognise our allies more”

  1. Gary

    It’s a shame that the ceremony is always hijacked for political purposes. It should be remembrance and solemnity, remembering the individuals who’s lives were ended before their time, often without good reason by politicians who were power hungry and grabbing land from neighbouring countries or far flung lands. Only the innocents died, never those actually responsible.

    Yet we seem still to glorify war rather than remember it’s stupidity and the enormous loss of life. We remember sacrifice as though it was what the individual soldiers wanted when none wanted to die.

    We still send innocents to die because our politicians keep failing to solve problems and want to engage in illegal wars with trumped up reasons. We send African leaders to The Hague but hesitate to send our own when they cause the deaths of thousands illegally.

    But, most sickening of all is those hijacking our war dead for their own nefarious purposes. I’m talking about the Orange Order hiding behind Remembrance Sunday to promote their sickness – sectarianism. The have the gall to march to the war monuments with men dressed as soldiers and lay a wreath as though they have some official capacity to do so. They describe themselves as a ‘religious/political organisation’ and not only should they not be playing soldiers it is actually illegal for a political organisation to march in uniform on the streets of the UK (something enacted after the fascist Blackshirts did so many years ago)

    Remembrance is being hijacked, we need to take it back and remind ourselves it was instituted because of a Lost Generation, millions of men who didn’t come back in an utterly pointless war over a hundred years ago. It should serve as a reminder and we should be mindful of the words THEY said at the time – “Never Again”

  2. Dave Roberts

    Gary makes a good point, virtually his only one, about the Orange Order which is a terrorist organisation and should have been banned years ago.
    Tom Sacold, who I thought has made some sensible comments at times, completely reverts to type by claiming that “socialism” in Eastern Europe defeated the Nazis. It was first Lenin and then Stalin that facilitated the birth and growth of Fascism and Nazism. Lenin by his attempts to invade Western Europe and impose communism and Stalin by his pact with Hitler. Essential reading is ” The Devil’s Alliance” by Roger Moorhouse on those events.

  3. Blissex

    So the russian ally contribution has been completely airbrushed out.

Comments are closed.