Defined as “something that is done to remember officially” and to “give respect” to either a “great person” or “event”, the act of commemoration can be both a joyous, or tragic event. Given the current political climate, it seems that we are increasingly remembering the more catastrophic events - the recent school shooting in the US has not escaped anyone’s mind. Silences, concerts, plaques and poppies are some of the more familiar forms of commemoration. In the light of this emphasis on remembrance, I was inspired to question exactly why, as human beings, we feel so compelled to remember those events such as the First World War despite the distress that these memories cause. “It’s not so much lest we forget, as lest we remember. You should realise the Cenotaph and the Last Post and all that stuff is concerned, there’s no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.” This is a well-known quote form Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, with reference to WW1. But is this necessarily true? In a recent seminar, when discussing Journey’s End by R.C. Sheriff, which focuses on the experience of soldiers in WW1 and is set in the trenches, the introduction to the play informed the reader that it was refused publication until 1928, a most significant fact. This is nonetheless hardly surprising: society did not want to remember the destruction and turmoil that WW1 caused instantly, they were too sensitive to be exposed to such a play immediately after the event. At what point did society realise that the war needed, crucially, to be remembered? Benedict Anderson’s concept of “imagined communities” is very much applicable to this discussion. The fact that there is such a diversity of forms in which events are commemorated can be understood with the aid of this model. The actual form of commemoration is perhaps unimportant, rather the very fact that, as individuals, we are assured that the rest of the nation, or even the world, most of whom we have never met are taking part in the same event inspires a sense of community and solidarity to combat the fracture that events such as bombings, shootings and wars cause. Therefore, in 2018, a year that is commemorating the 100th anniversary of WW1, in addition to the granting of the vote to women, there will undoubtedly be extensive coverage of the events that will remember these historic moments. The time is ripe therefore to consider the act of commemoration itself to appreciate its significance. Commemoration is everywhere, who can ignore the North East Railway war memorial in York?
Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. London: Verso, 2006.
Bennett, Alan. The History Boys. London: Faber and Faber, 2004.
Cambridge Online Dictionary accessed March 1 2018. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/commemoration.
Sherriff, R.C. Journey’s End. England: Penguin Classics, 2000.