When Jeremy Corbyn made the front page of the Sun in November 2015, where he was lambasted for apparently nodding rather than bowing during a Remembrance Sunday service, he was one of a long line of public figures criticised for showing insufficient respect to those who died in the first world war.
Almost 100 years previously, it was the then Prince of Wales who received a public shaming as head of the Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC), which dealt with burying and commemorating dead and missing soldiers.
Lady Florence Cecil, the wife of the bishop of Exeter, was incensed at the simple design proposed by the IWGC to mark the dead. Having lost three sons in the war, she was outraged that the graves would be marked with rounded headstones rather than Christian crosses. She collected 8,000 signatures (much harder in the pre-internet days) to petition the prince.
“It is only through the hope of the cross that most of us are able to carry on the life from which all sunshine seems to have gone,” she wrote, in perfect calligraphy, in the covering letter.
The petition failed but was saved for the nation and now forms part of a fascinating and moving show at the Imperial War Museum North that explores the deeply subjective topic of remembrance.
The Corbyn front page – with the headline: “Nod in my name” – also features in the exhibition, which opens on Friday. It is juxtaposed with footage of the veteran Stanley Storey staging a protest at the Cenotaph in 1937, breaking the two-minute silence in front of the king.
Timed to coincide with the centenary of the end of the war, Lest We Forget? investigates how symbols commemorating the 40 million casualties have endured for 100 years, despite proving controversial since their conception.
I will now see the Great War’s most famous symbol in a different light, having been moved to tears by one of the smallest exhibits: an original battlefield poppy, pressed on to a ragged brown envelope and sent home to a much-missed daughter. “To Babs,” it begins, the rest of the space crammed with kisses and the sign-off: “from Daddy, 28.8.17”.
The soundtrack to the show was equally moving: Abide With Me, sung by mourners at the burial of the Unknown Warrior. With 700,000 British soldiers killed, the decision was taken to bury all but one of them on the continent, marked by the rounded headstones that so dismayed Cecil. Just one soldier, chosen at at random, was laid to rest on home soil, buried in Westminster Abbey on 11 November 1920.
The day before, a dock worker called William Chandler picked up a rose which fell from a commemorative wreath accompanying the unknown warrior’s coffin across the Channel. He sent it to his 12-year-old nephew; it has survived in a little wooden box, now on display in Salford.
Left without a graveside in their town or village where they could pay their respects, families remembered their loved ones according to their wealth and pain threshold. I loved the photograph of a female munitions worker with a homemade tattoo on her left arm bearing the name of her fallen sweetheart. Those with more means commissioned commemorative plates and cups.
Some refused to believe their loved ones were really gone: one intriguing exhibit details the work of psychics who offered families a line to their dead – for a price. I liked notes kept by one family during a seance in which they compared and contrasted the medium’s musings with the reality of their beloved son.
The best bits of the exhibition require careful examination and probably adult levels of contemplation, but there is enough to engage older children too: a Man United shirt worn by the Spanish midfielder Juan Mata in 2014, which has a poppy sewn on to the breast, and the original puppet from the stage show War Horse. If they have studied the war poets in English literature they may enjoy seeing how neat Wilfred Owen’s handwriting was in an early draft of Dulce et Decorum est.
It would take a hard heart not to be shaken by John Singer Sargent’s Gassed, his masterful depiction of soldiers blinded on the battlefield, which is back in the Imperial War Museum family after a long tour of North America. But it was the small stuff that punched me in the gut.
On the way out, visitors are asked: “Should we always remember the first world war?” There will be some who think remembrance glorifies war and others who feel we should move on. But I will now think differently when I pass Manchester’s cenotaph on my way to work.