Book: How the First World War Shaped Rituals of Remembrance

A new book explores the evolution and continued resonance of remembrance rituals in post-World War I Britain.

Every year on November 11, bright red artificial poppies appear prominently across the UK and Commonwealth: pinned to clothing, made into wreaths and placed on monuments, and in recent years digitally added to networks’ profiles. social. In the years following the war, the poppy became the quintessential symbol of Remembrance Day, itself a commemoration of the end of the First World War and of those who died in the line of duty.

“The First World War is when many of the rituals that we associate with commemorating the dead begin: the poppies, the two-minute silence, the list of names of the dead, the reading of certain poems,” explains Bette London, professor English at university. University of Rochester. London explores the rise and evolution of these commemorative rituals in a new book, Posthumous lives: the First World War and the culture of memory (Cornell University Press, 2022).

“[Virginia] Woolf implicitly asks a central question: who is – and, perhaps more importantly, who is not commemorated at this time? »

Hers is a book “about lives after death – the afterlife of the First World War, the afterlife of her memory and the afterlife of individual soldiers”, she writes. After the war, “the scale of the losses and their impact on the whole population” caused a kind of “memorial mania” in Britain and Europe, according to London. In addition to traditional war memorials such as the Cenotaph in Whitehall and the Edith Cavell Memorial in London, many villages and hamlets in Britain have erected their own, more modest memorials.

The devastating loss of life has also prompted a wave of posthumous compilations and publications by family and friends seeking to build on and commemorate the lives of loved ones who have passed away. London brings the tools of literary analysis to the range of these sources: the homemade memorial volumes compiled, and often privately published, by the families of soldiers who died more than a century ago; the life and work of relatively unknown war poet Charles Hamilton Sorley, who was killed in action aged 20 but has become something of a cult figure for various constituencies; by Virginia Woolf A room of one’s own, a long meditation on women’s writing which, according to London, can be read as a “monument to the immemorialized”; the campaign to obtain a pardon for soldiers shot at dawn, executed by firing squad for desertion; as well as recent art installations and exhibits commemorating the centenary of the First World War.

Research from London sheds light on a diversity of remembrance rituals that have taken shape in Britain over more than a century – a diversity that is perhaps belied by the ubiquity of the remembrance poppy:

Source: University of Rochester

Angela C. Hale