The Great War and honest memory

I’ve lost count of the cemeteries I’ve visited in the last ten days and wouldn’t want to hazard a guess at how many graves that makes After a time Sassoon’s ‘intolerably nameless names’ starts to make sense. It gets easier to just walk along the green lanes between the stones without really thinking about the lives they represent. And that’s not the spirit.

Every stone represents a story: a whole story, with a beginning and a middle, as well as an end, even those Known unto God. Cemetery registers provide tantalizing hints, enough to breathe a little life into all those silent stones. But there are so many. How can we distill that vast multitude of narratives into some kind of coherent whole – either for purposes of understanding or remembrance? Should we even bother?

It is a classic problem for historians. We’re struggle constantly to identify and synthesize the representative. But I am not sure how far awareness of this problem intrudes on the public consciousness, at least when it comes to remembering the Great War. The default mode of remembrance for the public appears to be solemn commemoration of glorious heroes, who sacrificed their lives for some higher ideal: freedom, king, empire. It is a version of Horace’s ‘old lie’, so brilliantly and bitterly skewered by Owen, of sweet and decorous death for the fatherland. The idea that such attitudes might be strengthened by the war and the rituals and monuments of remembrance it spawned appalled Sassoon. He, you’ll recall, refused to accord the dead the status of victors, much less heroes. For him it was enough that they were human beings each with his feuds, and jealousies, and sorrows’, who had soldiered and suffered, even if some were ‘cold-footed useless swine’.

I must admit a certain sympathy with Owen and Sassoon on this point – though I’m afraid they were (and are) anything but representative, whatever Fussell claimed about a change in the modes of writing about war in the sequel to 1914-18. The old-fashioned ‘high diction’ reminiscent of Brooke’s ‘corner of a foreign field That is forever England’ still surrounds and permeates most contemporary commemoration of the Great War. Two aspects of this trouble me particularly. First, that the dead made of themselves ‘a sacrifice’, willingly laying down their lives for the higher cause in question; and second, that ‘age shall not trouble them’. Certainly there were many cases where men consciously took profound risks to rescue colleagues or achieve objectives and died as a result. Some, perhaps many must have known that death was the almost certain result of their actions. But I wonder if they were thinking of honour, king, country, and/or empire when they made their choice? Or were they focused entirely on the moment: saving a friend, silencing a machine-gun that was shredding their unit? And how many of the dead (and wounded) had such agency? We don’t have to rely on the poets’ images of ‘white eyes writhing’ in the face of a gas-casualty or men struck down to ‘grunt and wriggle’ or flap ‘along the firestep like a fish’. What of the man who stopped for tea like the Irish poet Francis Ledwidge only to be killed by a random shell burst? Or the soldier who slipped and fell from the duckboards, disappearing into the morass of Paschendaele? Or the man sniped while taking a leak? Or shot by a random burst from a machine-gun trained on a communication trench? Consumed by a flamethrower as he huddled in a dugout? Buried alive in a collapsed tunnel? Atomized by a mine beneath his trench? Driven to suicide by the horrors he had witnessed? Those men didn’t lay their lives down; not did they lose them. Their lives were torn away. And it’s hardly compensation that age would not trouble them. It’s true, but by such logic we might all just as well shuffle off this mortal coil and be done with life’s manifold joys and trials.

Now, one could argue that all who took the king’s salt as it were, made the bargain of sacrifice knowingly and willingly. I can accept this for professional soldiers or ex-soldiers with combat experience, for mature men who left wives and families, and even for that small percentage of exceptionally reflective and worldly young men who joined with a due sense of their peril. This is especially true for those who volunteered late in the war. But I remain unconvinced that the average 18-24 year old from Montreal, or York, or Otago, or Cairns had any such bargain in mind. For them it was an adventure, a chance to see the world, an opportunity to prove their masculinity or at least conform to social expectations of manliness. Then there are the conscripts. Most no doubt did their duty well once in uniform – but we cannot say that they signed on willingly, prepared to sacrifice themselves for King and Empire. The did it because, in simple terms, they were coerced and in a sense had their lives taken away twice. Granted, this can be seen as part of the social contract, the price the state can exact from citizens/subjects. But lets not call it self-sacrifice.

Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded trenches and parapets there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! An angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, ‘Lay not they hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son…

So why does the high diction of heroic self-sacrifice in a higher cause persist? I think there are two reasons. The first may be found inscribed on many of the stones decorating quiet corners of France and Belgium. The dedications chosen by next of kin speak of a need to give meaning to their bereavement, to ensure beyond doubt that the loss of their cherished son, father, husband, or brother was not futile. The search for higher, indeed timeless meaning naturally led many to the bible (and some to the classics), just as it was natural for Kipling to turn to the scriptures for the phrase (Their Name Liveth for Ever) that angered Sassoon, and for architects like Lutyens to employ the classical in their monumental commemorations. We still, naturally perhaps, grasp for such meaning when we encounter the dead multitudes in their garden cemeteries. Unable or unwilling to confront the awful reality that many died squalid, random, and at times pointless deaths, that they had been brutalized, that some were cowards, some were wicked, some were shirkers, we often retreat to the banal but reassuring platitudes of high diction that makes them all heroes and their deaths uniformly self-sacrificial.

The second reason – and yes, I know this sounds like a contradiction – is that there’s something to the idea that these men were killed in the course of a meaningful struggle that shook and shaped the world. What that meaning might have been and how it shaped the future is a topic for another post. But there’s no denying that they were involved in something great – not good, but great.

So where does this leave the average visitor to the ‘Commonwealth’ cemeteries dotting France and Belgium? Do we continue the reflexive all-encompassing invocation of glorious self-sacrifice? Do we shake our heads and with the canonical poets deride them as ‘sepulchres of crime’? Or do we take a middle road, one that is more honest about the nature of the conflict and the individuality of those who fought and died, one that acknowledges that even in a just and necessary war most lives are stolen, not given?

About cahagerman

Dad, husband, writer, historian, recovering academic, and the Consulting Professor.
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