Remembering a Different Kind of Consistency

By Bernard Wood
November 12, 2012

The armistice at the end of the First World War (also called the Great War) was signed at 11am on November 11th in 1918. For a long time, what in the UK we call Armistice, now Remembrance Day, was celebrated on November 11th, no matter whatday of the week that date fell.

The other name for November 11th in the UK is ‘Poppy Day.’ Red poppies were plentiful in the low-lying fields in Flanders, where much of the slaughter on the Western Front took place. They were so plentiful that their very profusion helped capture the scale of the losses suffered by the armed forces of the UK and the countries of the Commonwealth. So great were the needs of the widows and the many injured soldiers and sailors (there were just a few airmen) who came home from the Great War that an organization, now called the Royal British Legion (RBL), was formed to look after them. It decided that it would raise funds by selling poppies that would be made by injured servicemen in RBL Workshops. Single poppies were available on the street; you could get more elaborate poppies for your motorcar or house, but these had to be bought from the local branch of the RBL. My paternal grandfather had been “in the trenches” in WW1 and he and my grandmother were life-long supporters of the RBL; he was for many years the President of the local branch (but my grandmother did most of the hard work distributing poppies!). Poppies started to be seen on the streets early in November; they were not ‘sold’, but it was frowned upon to take one and not put coins in the collection tin. People would look accusingly at you if you did not have a poppy pinned to your person by Remembrance Day; my ever generous grandmother would put some extra cash in her own tin and then pin poppies on people who looked too poor to contribute.

The British Legion still organizes all of the events that surround Remembrance Day. When I was a boy, the nation went silent for two minutes at 11am on Remembrance Day. Drivers stopped their buses – in London they stopped in the middle of the road – climbed down out of the cab, took off their caps, bowed their heads and stood in silence for two minutes. If you were in a bank, buying a rail ticket, or in a restaurant, all transactions or service would cease for two minutes. But by the time I left the UK in 1997, Remembrance Day was scarcely being observed, so it was transferred to the nearest Sunday to November 11th, and renamed Remembrance Sunday.

The publicity surrounding the casualties of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has helped re-kindle interest in the RBL and in Remembrance Sunday. In the UK the national war memorial is not a cemetery, but the Cenotaph (Gk. kenos = empty and taphos = tomb), a small, plain, building is in the middle of the street in London called Whitehall. If you did not know it was there you would miss it, and it was there yesterday that the Queen led the country in a service of Remembrance. The night before the RBL organizes a Festival of Remembrance, where the armed services and all who support them are honored. The Queen and the Royal Family all attend, and last night the three members who have seen active service (Prince Philip, and the Dukes of York and Cambridge) were conspicuous. The fourth, Prince Harry, could not be there; he is currently serving in Afghanistan. At the end of the Festival poppy petals come down from the roof of the Albert Hall, one for everyone who has given their life since the beginning of the Great War. Last Saturday one and a quarter million petals settled on the floor and on the heads of the participants.

But what does all this have to do with paleoanthropology? During the day on Remembrance Day, the much-maligned BBC broadcast an interview with a 92-year-old survivor of the Battle of El Alamein, a crucial battle that marked the beginning of Allied ascendance in North Africa and in WW2 as a whole. As Churchill said (somewhat hyperbolically) words to the effect that “before El Alamein the British had achieved a victory, after it they never suffered a defeat.” What drew my attention to the interview was that this old artillery officer used a word, “contingent,” that we use in connection with human evolution, but you seldom hear spoken these days. He was one of twelve officers in his gun battery; six were killed and six (including him), survived. He said that what made those deaths so difficult for him to live with for the rest of his lifetime was that surviving was a matter of dumb luck, or as he referred to it, it was contingent.

So while we have the freedom to busy ourselves with paleoanthropology, in this season of remembrance think of the brave paleoanthropologists who went to war and never came back, or contingently survived (e.g., Morris Goodman, Clark Howell), and even though war may not be your choice, spare a thought for anyone you know whose family are involved in conflicts such as Afghanistan. They all deserve a moment of your time.