'The power and pathos of the occasion is in its simplicity; its peace and quiet in an angry world. And we, the people of Wootton Bassett, want it to stay exactly like that.' This plea appeared in a letter to the Guardian on July 16th, 2009, signed by the Mayor of Wootton Bassett and other civic leaders of the Wiltshire town. It was a heartfelt response to mounting media interest in the reception given by the townspeople to the repatriated bodies of service personnel killed on active service in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Some commentators had questioned aspects of public behaviour, in particular applause or cheering. Others had suggested that the occasion should become more elaborate or formal. But before passing judgement we should pause to reflect. The people of Wootton Bassett are, on behalf of the nation, attempting to respond to a situation unprecedented in British history: the trickle home of the dead from an ongoing, morally questionable war of uncertain outcome.
Historically our war dead remained, to paraphrase Rupert Brooke, in 'some comer of a foreign field'. Only rarely were they brought home, Nelson and Wolfe being two examples. But while 'great men' might be commemorated in public monuments and the affluent might honour fallen relatives with memorials, until the 20th century the final resting place of ordinary soldiers and sailors was often a matter of indifference to the nation. Most remained where they fell, in unmarked mass graves, unremembered officially at home. Attitudes changed during the Second Boer War (1899-1902). Army reforms had brought more 'respectable' recruits, supplemented by middle-class volunteers serving in Yeomanry regiments. Soldiers were no longer synonymous with criminals, and their deaths were widely mourned at home, but distance prevented their return. The result was the first war memorials. This process became widespread after the First World War, when most servicemen were civilians who had 'joined up' to protect hearth and home. Once again, many who died remained overseas. This time it was not distance but the huge numbers involved that made universal repatriation inconceivable and in 1915 the government officially banned it. The state could not carry out such an enormous undertaking, yet it was unacceptable for the wealthy to bring home their loved ones when the poor could not. Instead, the state turned to the Imperial (later Commonwealth) War Graves Commission, established in 1917, which built cemeteries and 'Memorials to the Missing' around the world. One symbolic representative of all, the 'Unknown Warrior', was brought back from the Western Front for interment in Westminster Abbey.
Faced with the absence of the dead on such a vast scale, communities built unprecedented numbers of war memorials as surrogate grave sites. …