At 11am this morning, we paused for a two-minute silence for Remembrance Day. Please find below Miss McColl’s address from this morning’s Remembrance assembly.
Remembrance Day, a custom established by King George V in 1919 to mark the end of the First World War, is an occasion steeped in tradition: from the rhythm in the phrase “the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month” (a date which marks the signing of the armistice and the end of First World War hostilities), to the haunting words of the Exhortation in the Act of Remembrance (“They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old”), to the sounding of the Last Post and Reveille, we are wrapped in practices and customs that provide us with plenty to ponder during our two-minute silence. Of course, since this tradition was first inaugurated in 1919, there has been a second World War and countless other conflicts that have resulted in a needless loss of life. All of these we reflect upon today. This year, we remember, in particular, those affected by the ongoing war in the Ukraine.
The purpose of Remembrance Day is that we not only acknowledge the past, but that we learn from it, so that we can do what we can to make the world a better place. All the customs and rituals around Remembrance that are so familiar to many of us are, therefore, significant and important.
However, there is something problematic about a tradition that is so ingrained in our national psyche. I don’t want to in any way diminish the importance of these commemorative acts. On this day, the 11th November, we remember real people, some of them your age, who made the ultimate sacrifice. But there is a problem with the traditions that have wrapped themselves around those lives. The word “remembrance” is essentially a passive word, despite the ceremony that surrounds it. Traditions can become too cosy, almost comforting; routines can bind us, they can determine our perspective, restricting our view and twisting the narrative into a single story.
The same thing can be said for my experience of learning about the two World Wars through literature, firstly as an English student and then as an English teacher. Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke, Robert Graves. These are the names on the roll call of my memory. The words of these men have shaped my perspective of the two World Wars and have always been part of my internal script on Remembrance Days.
Now there is nothing wrong with the poems I have read or the Acts of Remembrance in which I have taken part, it’s just that they haven’t told the whole story. It is so important that we keep challenging the given narrative and, as we state in our school aims, that we learn to “value different perspectives”.
Happily, things are starting to shift. Look at the poppy, the traditional symbol of Remembrance. Red is the dominant colour – the colour of bloodshed, a reminder of the loss of life. When we see a poppy, many recall the lines from John McCrae’s poem, ‘In Flanders Fields’. Again, there are connotations and associations here that have become our default.
But red is not the only colour of poppy you will see.
Some people feel that the red poppy glorifies war and conflict and choose to wear a white poppy – the white poppy commemorates people who died in conflict, but focuses on achieving peace and challenging the way we look at war. In other words, it gives us a different perspective.
Then there is the purple poppy, sometimes worn to remember animals that have been victims of war. Horses, dogs and pigeons were drafted into the war effort, and those that wear the purple poppy feel their service should be seen as equal to that of human service.
But it is the black poppy that offers perhaps the greatest challenge to the traditions I mentioned at the start. The BlackPoppyRose is a charitable organisation that was launched in 2010 to highlight “largely untold historical legacies”. The black poppy commemorates the contributions of black, African, South Asian and Caribbean communities to the war effort, both as servicemen and servicewomen, and as civilians. And it is one strand of this narrative that I would like to reflect on today by referring back to the Sussex Writers event we had in school last half term. One of our visiting writers, Dulani Kulasinghe, told the story of how she discovered an untold part of the story of the First World War here in Brighton, when she learnt about this local monument: the Chattri.
The Chattri is a memorial to 53 men of the Indian Army who were injured while serving with the British forces and who died in makeshift hospitals in Brighton, like the one housed in the Brighton Pavilion. The memorial was built in 1921 on the site of the funeral pyre, or ghat, where 10 soldiers were cremated in accordance with Hindu and Sikh religious rites. This elevated, dome-shaped structure of Indo-Islamic architectural design sits on Patcham Down – the juxtaposition should be something that jolts us and makes us question. Instead, it’s something that reminds us, as Dulani wrote, that “sometimes – often, with Black, Asian and mixed ethnicity history – stories are hidden in plain sight”.
The Chattri holds within it multiple narratives that shift our perspective on Remembrance. There’s the story of the one million Indian soldiers who fought for the allied powers during the First World War; there is the truth that, in September 1914, a third of the British Expeditionary Force stationed in France was Indian; there’s the reminder that India remained under British colonial rule at that time, despite a strong political movement in the country to gain independence; then there’s the story of the leading figures of the independence movement who believed that if India proved its worth to the British during the war, they would be given the gift of independence as a result – and the reality that independence would not be attained until 1947, long after the war’s end in 1918.
Reflecting on the largely hidden history of South Asian soldiers who fought in the World Wars and thinking about the voices of those war poets who shaped my thoughts on Remembrance, I want to end by giving you another voice from World War 1. This time, the voice belongs to a female Indian poet.
Her name was Sarojini Naidu. She was an Indian political activist, feminist and poet who campaigned for Indian independence. In her poem, ‘The Gift of India’, written in 1917, Naidu pays tribute to the service of the Indian Army, but also makes a statement about how their sacrifice should be recognised. I’m just going to read you the first two stanzas this morning.
In this poem, we have a challenge to some of white, western narratives of Remembrance. In the opening stanza Naidu adopts the personified voice of India, who has “yielded” her sons, her “priceless treasures” to the “drum-beats of duty”. The themes of loss and sacrifice are universal, but the perspective is different. Note Naidu’s reference to the Flanders. The bright-red poppies of our familiar John McCrae poem are replaced by “blood-brown meadows” – a more gritty, less romanticised image perhaps.
There is a lot more we could analyse in this poem. Likewise, there are many more stories to be told, like the stories of the 20,000 Caribbean soldiers, the 80,000 African soldiers and 92,000 Chinese labourers who supported the British war effort during World War I.
There is so much more thinking and reflecting to do. The important message here is that we should force ourselves to look beyond the given narrative. Even acknowledging the sacrifice of those South Asian soldiers is only half the story. We are starting to come to terms with the appalling racism many surviving servicemen and women of colour were subjected to in the years following the two World Wars – on the streets of the very country they had served.
To remind you of the progress we have made as a nation, however, here is an image of our recently appointed Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, the UK’s first Prime Minister of colour and first Prime Minister of Hindu faith, handing out poppies at Westminster Station.
I will leave you with this thought. When you hear the words “We will remember them” and when we pause at 11am this morning, consider who you are remembering.
We will remember them.
We should try to remember them all.