By Helen Parr, Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Keele University. This article first appeared as a Personally Speaking column in the Stoke Sentinel in May 2023.
Our Armed Forces are a source of huge pride for many people in Britain. The ties between the public and the military feel even stronger in places like Staffordshire, where generations of the same families have passed through the ranks of the Staffordshire Regiment - fondly referred to as the Staffords and now known as the Mercian Regiment. Each November, thousands of people turn out to pay their respects at remembrance services across North Staffordshire, as people remember those who have lost their lives in wars and conflicts.
The tragic losses in the First and Second World Wars might be what immediately springs to mind for some people when it comes to these services, but over two million men were called up to serve Britain through National Service between 1945 and 1963, and many more chose to join up then and after.
More than 7,000 service personnel have lost their lives in British conflict since 1945. The main monument at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire inscribes all their names. It is the only site in Britain dedicated to the memorial of conflict after the world wars.
We are all familiar with the traditions of war commemoration. Those traditions were created in response to the heavy losses of the Great War - thought then to be the 'war to end all wars'. It seems astonishing now but even one month before the first anniversary of Armistice Day on 11 November 1919, the government did not know how it was going to mark the day. The Cenotaph was originally envisaged as a temporary structure, initially made from wood and plaster. Nothing like the two minute's silence had been attempted before in Britain. When The Silence, as it was then called, was held to mark the cessation of hostilities, trains stopped, industrial machinery was halted, men removed their caps and crowds stood still.
The government then did not assume these traditions would last. The Cabinet remarked that future generations might find the Silence too inconvenient. They did not anticipate that more than 100 years later, these traditions would have become part of national life. Of course, in 1918, they did not envisage the Second World War, which globally was more catastrophic than the First. They could not have foreseen that even after the Second World War in Britain, service personnel would lose their lives in every single year except – it is said – 1968.
Those post-1945 conflicts are much less well known outside of the military communities who fought in them. My new research project, made possible with a British Academy/Leverhulme Senior Research Fellowship, will look at changes in the way Britain has commemorated its military campaigns as society itself has evolved throughout the 20th century.
British servicemen, including those called up for National Service, fought insurgencies or Cold War conflicts in Palestine, Korea, Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, Suez and later, service personnel were deployed to Borneo, Aden, Northern Ireland, the Falkland Islands, the Gulf, Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Regimental and service associations mark the anniversaries of specific campaigns, and memory of these conflicts has been absorbed into Remembrance Sunday.
There have been some changes in remembrance practices. In the 1950s, nobody talked about military families. Those who died in Korea and Malaya were buried – as was the British tradition – where they fell, together in military cemeteries. The chances that their families would have been able to visit those cemeteries was remote.
After the 1982 Falklands conflict, for the first time, families of soldiers who had died in the land battles were given the choice of returning the bodies to Britain. Most chose to do so. A total of 64 bodies were brought home and laid to rest either in military cemeteries or in civilian churchyards in funerals with military honours. During the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, repatriation ceremonies became a national focus. In 2009, families and local inhabitants lined the streets of Royal Wootton Bassett to pay their respects as the hearses drove slowly past.
Starting with the so-called forgotten wars of Korea and Malaya, and the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, I would love to hear from anyone whose relatives lost their lives in these wars - whether you are a parent, widow, grown up child, sibling, niece or nephew or a friend, please do get in touch via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m working with the National Army Museum to create an archive of memories focused on the relatives of those who died, and with a photographer to capture people’s sites of memorial to their loved ones.