Monday, 19 November 2018

Remembering to Remember in November

Oh look, I forgot to blog about remembering the War to End All Wars. What am I like? Especially as – 100 years on – the 11th November fell on Remembrance Sunday. Perfectly predictable, of course, as a calendrical matter, but still quite satisfying on a human level. But what on earth was that business with all the elevens all about? Hey, why not squeeze in a few more hours of slaughter while we can? It's been such fun!

It has been a long, hard slog, "commemorating" the centenary of the First World War from beginning to end in what feels like real time, hasn't it? What did you do in the Great Media Commemoration, daddy? I mean, did anyone actually listen to four years of soap-style acting in Home Front or Tommies on BBC Radio 4?  If you did, then well done you – long-service medals will be awarded – but perhaps now we can all finally dump our cosplay uniforms and get on with our 21st century lives. And if I hear the Last Post played one more time on a quavering bugle I will beat myself over the head with my copy of the Up the Line to Death WW1 poetry anthology until I get repatriated to Blighty. They also serve who endure relentless bombardments of solemn sentimentality delivered by the media's heavy guns.

I reckon I've done my bit, though, with regard to the Great War. For example here, and here. You're welcome for/to my service. But I confess I have become increasingly repelled by the tacky turn our commemorations have been taking, especially since Danny Boyle's 2012 Olympic ceremonies raised the bar of meretricious show-bizzery in public life to a whole new level of awfulness. It's a far cry from the simple dignity of the Cenotaph and the masterstroke of the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, perhaps the most sincere and resonant act of conceptual art ever. As Ian Jack pointed out in the Guardian recently, the broad gestures of contemporary art may be popular, but are ultimately empty and inadequate to the tragedy of 1914-18. In the end, it just gets harder and harder to distinguish between "art" and the efforts of a particularly ambitious yet shallow set-designer or window-dresser. "This is not just commemorative public art, but Marks & Spenser commemorative public art" [1]. Bear in mind that booking in advance may be necessary; the queue for your selfie-opportunity starts here.

I think many of us these days have a problem with words like "service" and "sacrifice", when applied to hundreds of thousands of unnecessary premature deaths, to young lives squandered like some abundant natural resource, or to men forced against their will to endure inhuman conditions and follow unquestioningly the suicidal commands of inadequate and doltish officers. It's true that my grandfather was a volunteer soldier, practically a professional as a pre-war Territorial, but after 1916 the depleted ranks were filled by conscription: young men forced by the state to offer themselves up as fuel to an industrial engine of warfare. For what, precisely? I defy anyone to explain quite how or why the Balkan problems of the Austro-Hungarian Empire so quickly became a national priority for Britain, requiring the death of 800,000 young men and the maiming and traumatising of over a million more. I suppose "service" is not an unsuitable euphemism for such indentured labour, although "servitude" would be better. But "sacrifice" is just insulting. Nobody is "sacrificing" their life when forced to walk into a hail of machine-gun bullets, or getting blown to pieces by a random shell, unless of course what is meant is that men were sacrificed by the nation to achieve some grand but ill-defined end that out-weighed the value of their disposable little lives. Which is merely insulting in another way.

There seems to be something of a revisionist move under way among historians, one which regards the "lions led by donkeys" version of the war as an aberration, conjured up by a handful of over-sensitive poets and '60s lefties like Joan Littlewood. It seems those generals knew what they were doing, after all. It is certainly true that my father, born in 1918, was not given the forenames "Douglas Haig" with any level of irony whatsoever by his father, who had served the entire duration of the war as an infantry sergeant and, towards the very end, as a 2nd lieutenant. I suppose he must have thought of Haig as something of a hero, despite everything, and a quick search on a genealogical website suggests he was far from alone in this. Although I very much doubt whether he had been made privy to whatever strategic considerations had been passing through Haig's mind (old joke: "The general spoke to me the other day!" "Cor, really? What'd he say?" "He said, Get out of my fuckin' way, soldier!"). Whatever the case, from this end of the historical telescope it's hard to see any plan of battle that amounts to "send thousands of men to certain death; repeat as necessary" as anything less than compound madness.

Did we learn anything worth remembering from WW1? In a sense, you might say that the main lesson of WW1 was WW2. That is, that if you believe your own rhetoric and end up comprehensively punishing the defeated for – well, for what, exactly? – and keep trying to squeeze the world into a series of pleasing but ill-fitting boxes – boxes with labels like Versailles Treaty, Sykes-Picot Agreement, Balfour Declaration – then you shouldn't be surprised if it all comes back to bite you in the arse as you sit on the lid. So, tragically, no, on the evidence of recent history it seems "we" (a.k.a. "they") have learned nothing much. Although, to adapt the Vietnam Era formulation, I suspect that if "they" were to give another proper war, that nobody would come. And, what's more, they know they won't be able to make us turn up, next time, either.

From the trench magazine The Wipers Times

1. A particularly smug TV advertising campaign by the British department store for its food products ("This is not just any [insert food product], this is Marks & Spenser [food product]").


Martyn Cornell said...

Charles Jagger’s Royal Artillery memorial is, in my opinion, particularly fine, and so too is the armed forces memorial in Staffordshire, though I’m probably biased about that one, as the sculptor was my ex-brother-in-law

Mike C. said...


I've always been impressed by Jagger's memorial at Paddington Station whenever I've passed through. I wonder how many he made?