Remembering Remembrance

It’s Sunday 9th. November 2014. Here, in Brittany, it’s ten o’clock, but I’m listening to the Nine O’Clock News, on BBC Radio Four. ‘The Archers Omnibus’ has been retimed. ‘Broadcasting House’ has been cancelled, to accommodate the Service, and Act, of Remembrance from the Cenotaph in London. Her Majesty, the Queen, will lead the Nation’s tribute . . . et c., et c. The second item concerns the destruction, by American aircraft, of a column of cars in Syria, it is believed that up to twenty people were killed. We are about to begin the Service to remember the dead of the ‘War to end all wars’, and already we are remembering killings this very morning! The ‘Remembrance’ institution was expanded, in 1946, to include the dead of the Second World War, and since, further expansion to meet the needs of the dead in Colonial wars across the Commonwealth, the Falklands War, the murders in Northern Ireland and those killed more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will be interesting to revisit these words, at this time, next year, to see where our Westminster politicians have despatched young Britons to die, before the ceremony of 2015. Then, on a Current Affairs programme, on the TV., a senior military officer bemoans the fact that the Tory cuts do not omit the Army, and that he is willing to ‘Fix bayonets!’ and charge to the defence of the Army (and his own job, no doubt!).
The War to end all wars? Mmmmm.

Britain never seemed very inclined to remember the dead of the Napoleonic Wars, and there were many, the Crimean War, except in poetry, Ashanti or Zulu Wars (embarrassing defeats by ‘natives’?) and the Boer War is only remembered in garrison towns, that, actually, sent men to South Africa. Although, St. Anne’s Sq., in Manchester has a fine memorial to the city’s dead in that war, and Liverpool had its ‘Ladysmith Day’ parade. It took a war of titanic proportions, the first great industrial killing spree in Europe, to awaken a nation to the horrors of death in such huge numbers. The Americans, of course, had had a little practice all of their very own, in the niceties of industrial slaughter, the American Civil War. But that was an example, to Europe, of ‘out of sight, out of mind’. A reversal of the situations in 1914 and 1939.

When, on what date, to ‘remember’ was always problematical. ‘Peace Day’ was to be celebrated on July 19th. subsequent to the Treaty of Versailles. There were to be parades in London. ‘Remembrance Day’, actually during the war, was August 4th., marking the day that Britain declared war, in 1914. This was a day celebrated with high patriotism, which only really assumed a commemorative stance in the years after the armistice. In the years after the war, memorials sprang up all over the country. They were in main, town, squares, churches, railway stations, factories, places of work, sporting venues and schools, bearing names that people recognised, they knew these people. Everyone wanted to honour the dead. Honour them, not ‘remember’ them. They didn’t need reminding. Every family had a real memory of someone whose life had been taken, a face, a voice, a laugh, if not in their own family, in a neighbour’s, or a friend’s. The pictures were on the mantelpiece. The letters and Christmas cards were kept in special places. They had not been dead so long, their memories were fresh. The sight of a crippled, blinded or maimed soldier was common. Even I remember the ‘McIndoe’ airman, with his rebuilt face, who lived round the corner from Nan. He frightened all of us children, and that was in the early 1950s. Did war do this? Now I’m ashamed of my childself, being terrified, and not proud, of a brave man. Visible, indelible, memories. On Armistice Day itself, when the maroon went off, from the Lifeboat Station, everything stopped. The trams stopped and the drivers stood up. People in the street stopped, stock still. Cars pulled over. No-one spoke. Everyone could picture, or hear, someone who had died, or who had been bereaved, this was actual remembering. The men who came back had their own memories, perhaps guilt at having survived, when their friends had been killed, in front of them. They may even have looked at their experiences as rewarding, the time, in their life, when their emotions and feelings had been operating at an intensity as never before, if, indeed, ever again.

My family still have the pictures and the cards, from the Front, from both World Wars. The photographs of both Grandads, and of Great Uncle Dick, are for me a real memory. My Dad, looking proud and splendid, in his Royal Marine uniform. I can still remember them. I knew them all. But Great Uncle Jim, who died at Passchendaele, and Great Uncle Bob, who died of his experiences at Gallipoli,
I never knew and they are the ones, the names on the memorials, that I am expected to ‘remember’. How can you ‘remember’ someone you didn’t know? It is important that I recognise, and remember, what they were sent to do, and by whom they were sent. Important, because I don’t want to lose my sons, or family, in a war, particularly in a war that proves nothing, and achieves little, except perhaps starting the war that was to be fought by the sons of those who fought in the Great War.

So, it’s not our memories of them, but their memories, of their experiences, that are important. Why did they go? What was it like? My Grandads and my Dad are no longer with us, so many questions will remain unanswered. But there are clues. My Dad’s Dad was a quiet, beautiful man. He didn’t say much, but he was a gardener, he loved Nature. He had a lovely, soft, Northumbrian burr, surely one of the most lyrical accents in our country, and could sing ‘Bobby Shafto’ and ‘Blaydon Races’ with the best of them. Every time I smell someone smoking St. Bruno, he is almost standing in front of me, the memory of his pipe is so strong. He was a stretcher bearer in the Royal Army Medical Corp. He cared about people. He was born and brought up in Broomhill, near Morpeth, a miner. When his eldest son became old enough to leave school, old enough to go down the pit, the whole family ‘upped-sticks’ and moved to Blackpool. Eddy was not going underground. I don’t know, for a fact, that he was a pacifist, but everything about him says that he was. I don’t know, for a fact, whether he was a conscientious objector, who chose the RAMC, but I would like to think he was. I remembered him yesterday. Really remembered him.
My Mum’s Dad was the opposite. He was a loud, larger than life, sort of character. Loved a drink with his mates. When the work dried up in Cumberland, after he left the Army, he didn’t hang around, he took his family south, in search of work. He fetched up in Blackpool as well. But en route from Workington, to Blackpool, my Mum was born in Barrow. He joined the Border Regt., finished up in the East Lancs Regt., as a musketry instructor, and stayed on, after 1918, to see action, in 1920, in County Cork, during the ‘Troubles’. If he hadn’t have enjoyed what he was doing would he have signed up for more? I don’t think so. I remembered him yesterday, as well. Really remembered him. But who would my sons remember? My eldest knew Grandad, as a very frail, bed-ridden and sickly, old man. That’s my son’s only contact with the Great War. So where do we look for memory? Poetry? Poetry written by people who were there? It is one route.

The poetry of the Great War strikes such a huge chord with everyone. One of the poets who appeals to me is Charles Hamilton Sorley. Not one of the more well-known ones, but, nonetheless, significant. He wrote ‘Sonnet’ in 1915:-

‘When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things, as other men have said,
That you’ll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, ‘They are dead’. Then add hereto,
‘Yet many a better one has died before’.
Then, scanning all the o’ercrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all his for evermore.

Hamilton Sorley was a Scot, from Aberdeen. He went to school at Marlborough, and then, to Oxford. He was killed in October 1915, at the bloody debacle, that was the Battle of Loos. He was 20. To see a photograph of him tells all. He looks more a boy than a man, fresh faced, with a wispy, bun-fluff, moustache. But a man he surely was. He only had one volume of poetry published, posthumously. In fact this, tremendous, poem was found scribbled on a piece of paper, in his kit, after he was killed. He was a twenty year old public schoolboy who, before the abattoirs on the Somme and at Passchendaele, foresaw ‘millions of the mouthless dead’, that is less than one year into the conflict. It’s almost a vision. There is no need to remember them, for their sake, they are dead. If you imagine them, as they were in life, in their sepia photographs, that is not how they look in their violent death agonies. This is a powerful poem from a man who was there. Compare this with the poem you will hear at the Cenotaph, ‘For the Fallen’ by Laurence Binyon. He was another public schoolboy, but not a soldier:

They went with songs to the battle, they were young
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.

This was written in 1914, before the carnage. They aren’t dead, ‘they sleep’. ‘Fell with their faces to the foe’, how, almost, glamorous. Would Charles Hamilton Sorley, Wilfrid Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Ivor Rosenberg or Robert Graves have recognised this war? Or, for that matter, any German or French poet? In the setting that is the Menin Gate, at Ieper, it is easy to become washed in sentimentality. It is difficult not to weep, when the ‘Last Post’ is played, and the middle stanza read. But, as you look up, at the 60 000+ names that surround you, and Great Uncle Jim is one of them, their’s was not a sentimental, or quiet, death. ‘Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.’ Is it memory, or the pure theatre of it, that affects you? Are we remembering, or have we been thought-processed? Are we being given a memory, we never had, to be remembered? Are we being instructed in the ‘memory’ of Binyon or Sorley?

On the subject of public schoolboys. It is easy to be misled by TV. The ‘chinless wonders’ of ‘Oh what a lovely war!’ and ‘Blackadder’ are an easy, almost cheap, cliché. In reality, the bravery of these lads, from the Officer Cadet Corps, who were thrown in as Junior officers was astonishing. Initially, without protective helmets, and carrying only revolvers, they led their men (boys?), fearlessly, into the guns. They were the targets for the snipers and the machine gunners. Six schools, Harrow, Charterhouse, Eton, Uppingham, Rugby and Sedbergh lost 20% of the boys who enlisted (enlisted!) that is, out of 18 600, 3800 were killed. Eton alone sent 5 650 of whom 1 157 did not return. Bravery was not the sole prerogative of the ranks! Looking at the present sample on the Government Front Bench, it does give one pause for thought.

So, if we have not, directly, lost a loved one, or been bereaved by a recent conflict, who are we ‘remembering’ or honouring? At the Cenotaph it appears that it’s just the British dead. But weren’t (aren’t) all the dead victims? Nine million people died, fighting, in the Great War. Twenty one million were wounded or injured. Twelve million civilians were killed. Three million have no known grave. They were men and women who came from all corners of, what was then, the British Empire, and, for that matter, from the French Empire, not just from Europe. When Jim was killed his battalion were relieving an Australian battalion who had ferociously, and at great cost, wrested territory from the enemy. When Jim’s battalion left the line, they were relieved by Canadians, who were going to go on, and take Passchendaele. The Americans may have arrived late, but they made a difference and how difficult must it have been for German immigrant Americans to fight their own kin? The French at Verdun, a battle that still leaves it’s deep scars on the French psyche and the ‘gallant’ Belgians, who tried to stem the first waves. Russians who died in two wars, in their millions. They won’t get a mention. It is salient that this week the French President will unveil a memorial to ALL the dead. Perhaps it is generally accepted that only the victors that should be honoured, as well as write the history. Was it the individual bravery of the ‘Tommie’, ‘Poilu’, ‘Anzac’, Canadian that won the war, my relations, your relations, probably not, Germany was starved out by the Royal Navy. So should we remember the 250 000 Germans who, in 1918 alone, died of malnutrition? ‘Bomber’ Harris would say that Bomber Command won World War Two. Should we remember the countless thousands upon thousands, ( literally), who suffered that awful death by fire, in Dresden, Cologne, Essen and Hamburg, as well as the innocent in Blitzed British cities?

So the theatre will be carried out around the Cenotaph, around Sir Edwin Lutyen’s ’empty tomb’, (from the Greek, Kenos-empty, taphos-tomb). Oddly enough, the only tomb in Britain carrying a dead Great War combatant, is the tomb of the ‘Unknown Soldier’, in Westminster Abbey. The bands will play martial music, there will be marching, there will be prayers, there will be genuine tears and there will be the real guilty party, the politicians (Sean McMeekin’s book, ‘July 1914’ is absolutely required reading). It’s as if the Great War was a planned media event of centenaries, ceremony and TV documentaries. 1914, the Retreat from Mons. 1915, the massacre that few will have heard of, yet, the Battle of Loos. 1916, The Somme. 1917, Passchendaele. 1918, victory. We will, quite rightly, honour those who lives were taken by war. But what should we remember on Remembrance Sunday? Perhaps that wars are started not by the people who are going to die in them. Those who die are going by proxy, on some politician’s behalf. With the exception of the Queen, none of those bearing political wreaths will have sent a son, oor grandson, to war. But ordinary people do go, still, and die, still :-

A Private

This ploughman dead in battle slept out of doors
Many’s a frozen night, and merrily
Answered staid drinkers, good bed men, and all bores;
‘At Mrs Greenland’s Hawthorn Bush,’ said he,
‘I slept.’ None knew which bush. Above the town,
Beyond ‘The Drover’, a hundred spot the down
In Wiltshire. And where now at last he sleeps
More sound in France – that, too, he secret keeps.

Edward Thomas

In an article in today’s ‘Guardian’ a 105 year old man, truly, a hero, Sir Nicholas Winton, who saved 669, mainly Jewish, children from Czechoslovakia during the war says, and he is quoting the philosopher Hegel, ‘There’s only one thing we’ve learned from the past and that is that we have learned nothing from the past. It’s all being done again, but rather worse. We’ve learned how to do the bad things better.’

These words come from experience, a man who can remember, who was there. But we who weren’t? Our memories are given, they are second-hand. We take from photographs and accounts in books, like the moving words of Harry Patch in ‘The Last Fighting Tommie.’ From TV series, such as ‘The Great War’, delivered by Michael Redgrave’s mellifluous voice, but showing the ‘official’ footage. From the flood of poetry. From orchestrated national memory, at the Festival of Remembrance or the moat of the Tower of London. Our memories are presented to us. Unless . . . your family has suffered the horror of bereavement, or you were there. But for all of us war is wrong, war doesn’t endow, it takes away. It rips away mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, wives and husbands, whether combatants or ‘collateral damage’. Is this not what ‘Remembrance Sunday’ should emphasise, not ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria more’?

As I finish writing, it is a Armistice Day. Here in France, it is a National Holiday. As I write the guns of ‘Les chasseurs” are blazing away. Death is still in the air.


July 1914 (Countdown to War) – Sean McMeekin
The Unknown Soldier -Neil Hanson
Never Such Innocence – Ed. Martin Stephen
Mud, Blood and Poppycock – Gordon Corrigan
Six Weeks – John Lewis-Stempel
To End All Wars – Adam Hochschild
The Pity of War -Niall Ferguson


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