TODAY is Remembrance Sunday. It is worth pondering that word, remembrance, and considering just how close to its true meaning and original intent the various acts of commemoration we see now in the early 21st-century UK actually are. 

The centrepiece, the annual gathering at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, marking the appalling losses of the great wars of the last century and other conflicts, ­remains a largely solemn, sombre and dignified occasion.

Were it only so for so much of what passes for remembrance elsewhere. For the uncomfortable and largely unspoken truth is that the further we have travelled in time from the horrors of total war, and the closer we edge towards the ­complete extinction of any ­living ­memory of it, the more trivialised and ­inappropriate many of these “­commemorations” have become.

The National: People view the wreaths laid at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, London, following the national Remembrance Sunday service. Picture date: Sunday November 13, 2022. PA Photo. See PA story MEMORIAL Remembrance. Photo credit should read: Yui Mok/PA Wire.

A related trend is the move towards the hyper-veneration of the military and an almost fetishistic obsession with the ­Second World War and everything to do with it. Don’t take my word for it. It is now much more than a decade since a ­retired British Army general – a former ­commander of UK forces in Iraq, no less – spoke out against what he decried as an ­over-infatuation with the ­military and the “mawkish” nature of what ­Remembrance was by then, in his view, already ­becoming.

Lieutenant General Sir Robert Fry, speaking before Remembrance ­Sunday back in 2010, said: “I think that the ­British people hold the Armed Forces in a state of excessive reverence at the ­present time. It is a greater infatuation than at any other stage of recent military history that I can recall.”

He went on: “There is some of this that is good and laudable and there is some that is pretty mawkish. It is a question of trying to celebrate what is good and ­trying to avoid the Diana, Graceland stuff.”

Those remarks were made 13 years ago, and if General Fry thought back then that the true meaning of Remembrance had become badly compromised, it’s worth reflecting on how far that trend may have ­accelerated in the intervening years.

Fry’s comments were long before ­Brexit, before the almost complete ­Faragification of the Tory Party and the seemingly endless culture wars they now propagate. It is that ever-rightward tilt to the Tories that has seen them, drunk on the phantom promises of Brexit and ­“Empire 2.0”, appropriate the language of the Second World War into everyday politics.

Witness, for example, the decision of the Tory government, through the ­interminable fog and fury of the Brexit debacle, to style its meetings under Theresa May and then Boris Johnson (below) as “War Cabinets”. As contemptible and inappropriate as that term was, equally culpable were the swathes of media who gleefully embraced the phrase as part of an endless, perhaps in some cases unconscious, desire to turn everything into a rerun of Dunkirk.

The National: Boris Johnson. Issue date: Friday September 8, 2023.

It is the mindset that revels in the ­Second World War and all its trappings as the foundation myth of modern ­Britain. So much so that in the run-up to Brexit, a TV vox-pop included the almost unbelievable observation from one – ­relatively young – Leave-voting woman that she thought the UK needed to be much more “like it was in the 1940s”. Presumably, she wasn’t looking forward to rationing, near non-existent foreign travel, ­rampant TB, appalling gender ­inequality and much else besides.

It is also the mindset that has spawned in recent years a circuit of gaudy Second-World-War-themed “festivals” around the UK, with grown men and women in full 1940s cosplay, either combat or home front themed. The same cosplay that has been, in recent years, beamed into our living rooms as what were in decades gone by, serious and ­sombre ­national commemorations, such as VE-Day ­anniversaries, have turned ­instead into variety-show-type knees-ups.

Witness also, the trivialisation of ­poppy-wearing. What was once a ­simple, personal act has become an orgy of ­ostentation, with preposterously ­outsized poppies on vehicles, buildings and much else besides. When you see a monster truck sporting a monster poppy, do you think it means that the driver or the ­company cares more about the sacrifice of past and current wars than the rest of us, or do you think it’s just crass?

A few years ago, there was an almighty row when world football bosses at Fifa objected to Scotland and England’s men’s teams displaying a poppy on their strips. The incorporation of poppies into football shirts is a useful demonstration of how the culture of remembrance has evolved in a short space of time, because when Scotland played England in a key match at Hampden in 1999 – the day ­before Remembrance Sunday – there were no poppies on players’ shirts and no one batted an eyelid.

The poppy trend perhaps reached its nadir a few years ago when ­Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster was seen ­wearing one on the BBC’s One Show, an event which at least sparked something of a backlash and accusations of ­trivialising ­remembrance.

What would many of those who fought in the wars of the 20th century think of such displays? There are precious few of them left to tell us. But Harry Leslie Smith (below), a Second World War RAF veteran who died in 2018 at the age of 95, gave up wearing a poppy in his later years ­because, he said, its original meaning had become so corrupted, observing that he would “no longer allow my obligation as a veteran to remember those who died in the great wars to be co-opted by current or former politicians”.

The National:

There are those who would tell you that no level of infatuation with the armed forces is enough, that no poppy is big enough and that expressing any ­sentiment to the contrary is in some way treasonous.

I prefer to listen to some of those who have actually worn uniform, in ­peacetime and in wartime – men like Robert Fry and Harry Leslie Smith – who are far better qualified than most of the rest of us to see the dangers of how what began more than a century ago as solemn ­commemoration can all too ­easily slide into the mawkish, the crass and the ­jingoistic.