< back |

The thousands of memorials and plaques with the names of the dead that were built in the years following the war offered a kind of substitute for the absence of an actual body and the burial of the unknown warrior provided a surrogate body for those who were never going to be able to see the body of a lost family member.

The meaning and purpose of the death of soldiers is more complicated. Relatives were usually told that their son/husband had died doing his duty and serving his King and country and received medals and scrolls from the King. Public and official statements reinforced these private messages but they also seamlessly provided a justification for a bloody and pointless war in which men by the thousands were sent into the opposing sides' machine gun fire for no discernable gain.

People’s grief was conscripted in the service of the state – the pointlessly slain became ‘The Glorious Dead’. On Armistice Day the whole nation was conscripted into the collective mourning ritual even though the majority had no one to mourn and became complicit in the process of justifying the war.

In time the original rationale for Armistice Day and the cathartic silence faded, as did the need for naming the dead on memorials. Sometimes, however, inertia, conservative attitudes, habit and ‘new’ reasons for doing old things persist. For example in July 1939 just days before Britain mobilised its navy and London was being evacuated, in Mumbles they unveiled the local memorial to the ‘fallen’ of World War One.

Medals - also known as dead man's penny - were sent to the relatives of dead soldiers with a 22 word letter from the King

And today we have two lots of two minutes of silence for no very clear reason, except that a small group of old men with help from the British Legion managed to ‘impose’ it on an establishment that finds anything to do with the ‘glorious dead’ irresistible. So we can now ‘experience’ the ‘two minutes silence’ on some radio stations and even on the internet where it can be conveniently listened to anytime of the day. How far removed is that from: ‘I could not bring myself to open the telegram. I knew what it contained….’?

next page