By Gareth Ellis, Strategy Partner at Ogilvy UK

A hundred years ago, the War to End All Wars ended.  Over 1 million servicemen from Britain and the Empire lost their lives.  This year, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, Britain remembered.  Despite the rain, the nation commemorated Armistice, honouring those we lost. 

Today, Britain is a disunited kingdom.  Our small island is at war with itself.  Remainers and Leavers are divided by age, education and attitudes.  And yet, Remembrance Day united us.  People up and down the country wanted to remember.  The day mattered. 

Jeremy Paxman, a self-confessed Eeyore, gave a reason.  ‘We are an angry people,’ he said, ‘desperately in need of unity and purpose.’

Remembrance rallied the nation.  We lit beacons.  Big Ben rang out. Ten thousand marched passed the Cenotaph.  Memorials helped us to reflect.  Danny Boyle stencilled soldiers on beaches, filming them washed away. For one day, our Brexit wrangles felt petty and small. 

Different countries honour Remembrance Day in different ways.  Some nations, such as France and Poland, celebrate liberation.  The British see it as more sombre affair.  The early bucolic festivities gave way to something more reflexive.  Today, we don’t just grieve for those who fought, but reflect on why they fought.   We ask ourselves, why did so many young men put themselves in harm’s way?

On Sunday I attended the Shrouds of the Somme, a memorial service in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, home to the 2012 games.  London is a city of many places, and many people.   My London is Hackney, a place where migrants come and go, but mainly go.  A century ago, life in Hackney was grim.  Children lived hand-to-mouth on the streets.  Their parents worked 14-hour days in the factories and docks.  Everyone suffered malnutrition, poor health and disease. 

The army needed men, and lots of them.  Out of the slums emerged the 1st Hackney Rifles, the 10th Battalion of the London Regiment.  There is a Pathe film of short men with long moustaches marching down Mare Street.  (Public School officers had five inches of height on working class infantry men.)   A jubilant band leads the troops out the city.  The men are excited, off on a great adventure, ready to do their bit. 

They sent the 1st Hackney Rifles to the Gallipoli Peninsula. Those who survived patrolled the great deserts of Egypt.  What Cockneys said to Bedouin insurgents is no longer a matter of public record.

I took the train to Stratford.  Young families, clubbers and night shift workers commuted in silence.  I walked through an empty Westfield shopping centre, hunting for signs for the Shrouds.  The Olympic Park bustled with life.  Luminescent joggers mixed with mobility scooters.   People swam in the Aquatics Centre.  The new West Ham stadium gleamed.  A hundred years ago, 2000 professional footballers fought in the trenches, impossible to imagine today.  (The NCOs hurled footballs into no man’s land, encouraging the men to go forth.  At first the Germans feared they faced a secret weapon.)

They laid the Shrouds to the Somme before Anish Kapoor’s, the Orbit.  The installation represents the 72,396 British and Commonwealth servicemen killed at the Battle of the Somme, who have no known grave. For the past five years, artist Rob Heard has sown calico shrouds, binding them into small figures. It has taken him 13,000 hours, and around 1.6 million stitches.

When you first see the shrouds, they overwhelm you.  You witness the killing field in its entirety.  You cannot escape the physical reality of war.   All these young men died, and for what?  It’s a hard question to answer.

The ceremony was a very British affair, uniting the past and the present in its own idiosyncratic manner.  We huddled in the wind, determined not to complain.  We awkwardly mumbled hymns, poems and blessings, only raising our voices when the trains left Stratford International.  Canary Wharf blinked at us through the grey cloud.  And then, unexpectedly, uniformed soldiers blew trench whistles.  The sound pierced me.  What went through the men’s heads when they heard it?  How did they find the courage to overcome their terror?  Their bravery seemed unfathomable. 

After the service, I walked back through Westfield.  What would the lads of the 10th Battalion make of the casinos and restaurants and shops, I wondered?  I took the train to Hackney Central, and walked to St Augustine’s tower, the emblem adorning their regimental badge, which carries the motto, ‘Justita Turris Nostra’, or Justice is our Tower.  Today, St Augustine casts his shadow on betting shops and men drinking Ace cider.

Later, I took the kids to Broadway Market.  We bought pizza to eat in London Fields.  The kids wanted to sit on Zoe’s bench.  Zoe, a local architect, died last year of breast cancer.  ‘Here sits hope,’ is engraved on the wood. ‘Her friends changed the bench in the dead of night,’ said my eldest.  ‘Zoe hated the council’s design.  She always fought them on things like that.’  I didn’t know the story, but it made me remember Zoe differently, no longer a frail woman, but a crusader to the last.  As the new memory took hold, I felt grateful for the moment, and her bench in London Fields. 

That night, BBC2 broadcast Peter Jackson’s, They Shall Not Grow Old.  The film continues a rich tradition of WW1 storytelling.  The crude propaganda of the War Ministry gave way to the remorseful poetry of Wilfred Owens.  Then came the black and bitter farces of Oh What a Lovel War! and Black Adder Goes Forth, proof the British use humour to shine a light on the darkest of places.

Jackson’s film moves on the tradition.  You hear the authentic voice of soldiers, who simply saw war as a job to be done.  You see how the men did not run, but walked into the gunfire, keeping their regimental discipline.  And, in the final movement, you hear the soldier’s sympathy for the Germans, young men just like them, clerks, machinists and shop workers, asked to sacrifice their lives in faraway lands.  Despite the horrors of war, they found a common humanity, and a desire for reconciliation.  Forgiveness heals, but reconciliation is more involved.  You must reach out, share hurt, listen for remorse, and start to trust again. The young soldiers of WW1 still had much to teach us, I realized.

Britain struggles with change and continuity.  When to hold and when to let go.  Remembrance Day had the balance right.  We kept what mattered and found new ways to remember.  The day also revealed the contradictions that lie at the heart of Britishness.   A respect for the past and a restlessness for the future.  A regard for tradition and an openness to originality.  A masking of emotions and a passion for our fellow man.  An introverted nature and a pride in national displays.  In the past, these contradictions have served us well, uniting a patchwork of cities, counties and countries, under one flag.  

Benedict Andersen described the nation as an imagined community.  ‘It is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived of as a deep horizonal comradeship’.  Britain is an inclusive and civic community.   Remembrance Day helped us feel comradeship once more, not just for those who share this island, but for those who gave their lives for it.

When asked, 80% of people wished Britain felt more united.   Next year, we will see people hanker for more moments of national connection.  They will want to renew the bonds of Britishness, and British moments will grow in importance as we feel the urge to belong. 


There's more from Gareth as he gives the low down on modern men here.