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REMEMBERING THE GREAT WAR : what should we remember? How? Why? 


'4 October 1918. What can one say? And yet I've got to write something because however little I remember now I'll remember less in years to come. And it's not true to say one remembers nothing. A lot of it you know you'll never forget, and a few things you'll pray to forget and not be able to. But the connections go. Bubbles break on the surface like they do in the flooded craters round here.'
Pat Barker: The Ghost Road 1995

'It is more than three-quarters of a century since the Great War ended. In that time millions of words have been written about the futility and waste of that conflict....

While we remember those who died, perhaps we should also remember the tens of thousands who returned from the front. Some were relatively unscathed, others badly wounded and permanently disabled....

Of the thousands of men who returned in 1918 to pick up the threads of their lives, only a tiny number is still living today. No one knows exactly how many remain, but the number is rapidly decreasing, and it will not be long before the Great War moves out into the darkness beyond living memory.'
Tom Quinn: Tales Of the Old Soldiers (1993)

Remembrance Day gets harder by the year.

First, its date is fixed by its closeness to the anniversary of an armistice that did not last.

Then, what sense can still be made of 'remembering' events and people we never knew? We have to find ways of locating world history in our own lives.

And the Great War was not the war to end wars; it was merely the war to end wars like itself. The lesson learned was not to renounce war, but to wage it more efficiently.

And the Great War was a stupid war. A war which could not be stopped because the trains carrying the armies had left their stations. A war in which heavily burdened men were ordered to walk slowly in straight lines across open ground in full daylight towards a concealed row of hostile gunners. A war in which officers (English) were easily picked out, and picked off, by their collars and ties and the fact they carried pistols, and officers (French) were easily targeted because they wore white gloves - white gloves! A war in which one side wallpapered its dugouts and another side sent men out without equipment or supplies. A war in which latrines looked, to aerial reconnaissance, so like gun emplacements that the men didn’t dare to use them. A war in which the 'living' conditions were so dreadful that more men died as a result of infection than from direct attack. A war of which the outcome was determined, miles from any front line, by the collapse of domestic economy.

'I was at the front for thirteen months, and by the end of that time the sharpest perception had become dulled, the greatest words mean. The war had become an everyday affair, life in the line a matter of routine. Instead of heroes there were only victims, conscripts instead of volunteers. Life had become hell, death a bagatelle. We were all of us cogs in a great machine which sometimes rolled forward, nobody knew where, sometimes backwards, nobody knew why. We had lost our enthusiasm, our courage, the very sense of our identity; there was no rhyme or reason in all this slaughtering and devastation; pain itself had lost its meaning; the earth was a barren waste. We used to hack away the rings of unexploded shells out of sheer perversity; only the other day one had blown up two men - but what did that matter?'
Ernst Toller: Eine Jugend in Deutschland (1933)

'I, along with millions of others, was standing up to be killed. Very well; but who in fact was it who was proposing to kill or maim me? I developed a certain inquisitiveness on that point. I saw clearly that it was not my German opposite number. He, like myself, was an instrument. That we were all on a fool's errand had become plain to many of us.
The scapegoat-on-the-spot [as suggested by Siegfried Sassoon's bitter poem] did not appeal to me:

'Good morning; good morning!' the General said,
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of 'em dead
And we're cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
'He's a cheery old card,' grunted Harry to Jack,
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

That was too easy and obvious. It amazes me that so many people should accept that as satisfactory. This conventional grouse against the imperfect strategy of the military gentleman directing operations in the field seemed not only unintelligent but dangerously misleading. 'Harry and Jack' were killed, not by the general, but by the people, whoever they were, responsible for the war.'
Wyndham Lewis: Blasting and Bombardiering (1937)

There have been many efforts to capture the quality of life in the Great War by writing fiction about it. Many have met with acclaim and admiration, from Remarque's ‘Im Westen Nichts Neues’ (translated as ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’) and Hemingway's ‘A Farewell To Arms’, both published in 1929, to Pat Barker's trilogy (‘Regeneration’, ‘The Eye in the Door’, and ‘The Ghost Road’, published in the 1990s). What is important about these great best-sellers is that they exist at all: they heighten consciousness, even if only for a while.

But if remembering is to get and hold meaning, then it must be done through the eyes and ears, the camera lenses and sketchbooks, the letters and diaries and memoirs, of the men who were there and noticed things.

At the start of the war, there was a kind of hope. Alfred Blake said, ‘I had a dead-end job in a dead-end town. Here was a chance to see the world.’ Olive Powell ‘thought we would have a good time, have a good adventure. It was supposed to be over by Christmas 1914, what a joke.’ Vera Brittain's fiancé Roland Leighton (a volunteer: the war soon ran out of those) told her he felt he was ‘meant to take an active part in this war. It is to me a very fascinating thing, something if often horrible, yet ennobling and beautiful.’ Sven Hedin ‘wanted to become familiar with war as it really is’.

Four years later the war struggled to an exhausted, muddled and bitter end.

Ted Berryman wrote from Mesopotamia on November 23 1918:

'From all accounts the wildest scenes took place in London on several successive nights after Peace Night... For ourselves, I was awakened on a wet miserable night - Nov 11 - by a signaller with a message just saying the Armistice had been signed and hostilities had ceased that morning. I donned a British warm & slippers & went & woke the General up & told him; he grunted... Next morning I apologised for having woken him but excused myself on the grounds that the news was rather epoch-making; & his only reply was “Did you wake me? I don't remember.”

My cold reception there made me wonder if anyone else would like to hear the news - I decided they would, so slopped off in the mud & rain to the West Kent regiment next door, & after much difficulty woke their CO and 2nd in cmd, who took rather more interest than the General had; they got up & came out of their tents & we watched the next brigade to us - some 2 miles off - entirely losing their heads and sending off Very lights and SOS rockets and other coloured signals. Meantime the rain came down harder & I decided the rest of the brigade must wait... Next morning at 6 I sent the messages & a few rounds of cheering told me they had arrived at any rate. We had a bonfire or two, used up our rockets and SOS signals, & since then have been solemnly digesting the wonderful fact of Peace.'

Even then Ted had no prospect of going home: his brigade was an occupying one; and then he was posted to India. Illness alone sent him back for a few months in 1919.

Just a few moments looking at the photographic record of those four awful years, just an hour or so re-reading the words of the men who lived through them, make a powerful argument for a new and more private act of remembrance. Each November, perhaps everyone, and particularly the young, should be re-acquainted with glimpses of war like these.

Nowadays, each November, we're invited to look beyond the Great War memorials to consider the dead of all wars that have happened since then anywhere in the world. The global focus is absolutely right, but it is hard to handle. Remembering might best begin where Remembrance began. It might best begin with word-images like those printed in these pages: images that restore to the imagination of a technological age the Great War's special intimacy with death.




Peace Pledge Union 1 Peace Passage London N7 0BT Britain