The centenary of the signing of the Armistice to end the Great War, the war that was supposed to end all wars, has had a huge impact in Britain over the days and weeks leading up to November 11th It has even been big enough to take our minds off Brexit for a few days!
Families have blown the dust off old letters, photographs, and medals, many have enquired for the first time about their great-grandparents’ lives, television and radio have amassed a wealth of material to provide wall to wall media coverage. The War Poets are being read again, the footfall on the cemeteries in France and Belgium has increased, shops have window displays of war memorabilia, school projects introduce new generations to the sacrifice of men and women in their families, red paper poppies are everywhere.
For me, I have a vague memory of my grandfathers. One was a commissioned officer at the Western Front but was reduced to the ranks because of his enthusiasm for alcohol. The other had a ‘cushy’ number as a paymaster for the armed forces. Interestingly he later became an innovative moving film cameraman and was commissioned by the government to film the proceedings of the Locarno Treaty in London in 1925.
I became more aware of the war in 1970 through someone else’s story. While helping in a house clearance in St Albans, I discovered a cache of letters and war memorabilia in the attic of the deceased occupant. The pencil-written letters from the Front were invariably cheery and positive. But letters from the sons to their mother and sister ceased, one by one, as they were killed or went missing in action. Here I was holding letters and postcards from soldiers I never knew, but which drew me to their stories and to the women at home whose lives were changed forever.
Another experience, this time in 2009, helped clarify my thoughts about the war. I drove with my teenage son to Wells in Somerset to witness the funeral of Harry Patch who died aged 111. He was the longest surviving soldier who fought in the war, having spent his service fighting in the trenches at Passchendaele. As part of the crowd of thousands outside Wells Cathedral I watched the body of the last ‘Tommy,’ Harry Patch, taken into the church and later removed to his final resting place in a Somerset village. Harry was an ordinary man and soldier. He gained unique public affection not just because he outlived everyone else but because he articulated with his gentle West-country voice the futility and waste of the war. These weren’t the ramblings of a mentally frail man, but the passion of a modest man, a plumber by trade, who lived the experience of warfare, and the belief that the fighting was largely for nothing.
There were no red poppies at Harry’s funeral and indeed he had stipulated that no weapons, even ceremonial weapons, should be brought to the church. Harry had been a conscripted soldier and was more reluctant than many others to leave his home life to join a war he was not convinced about. His memoirs of fighting show him to be as brave as the next man, but his Quaker influence did lead him to an agreement with his Lewis gunner partner to fire his machine gun over the heads of the enemy wherever he could without endangering himself and his colleagues. Harry may not have been a typical Tommy, and he didn’t buy into the jingoism of the day. But as the ‘last man standing’ his words affected me and many others. ‘War is a calculated and condoned slaughter of human beings. It is not worth one life’.
Harry and all the men and women who went abroad in 1914-1918 to play their parts in the First World War are now long dead. Up until a few weeks ago our image of them at war has been as shadowy characters in black and white grainy, jerky films. They seemed to be from another world. Most of them were born in a Victorian Britain that hadn’t experienced warfare, other than the distant Boer wars in Africa, since the 1850s. The war initially seemed exciting and an opportunity for young men to have an adventure abroad, being more than a match for the Hun. ‘All over by Christmas’ they predicted. The 2018 Remembrance Day centenary of the Armistice might seem to be the right time to say a final ‘thank you’ and let them go. We must also commemorate the sacrifices of the sons and daughters of those surviving soldiers, who were called to stand against the threat of fascism in 1939-1945
In October 2018 something unexpected happened. The black and white figures filmed in the western front and other theatres of war received a digital make-over by film director Sir Peter Jackson. Having access to hundreds of hours of film and sound footage from the Imperial War Museum Sir Peter removed the jerkiness from the film, added color and stereoscopic 3D and sound-dubbed the action. He also gave it a verbatim commentary from archive testimonies of over one hundred surviving soldiers. The resulting film ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ has deeply affected those people who have seen it. As we perhaps consign the First World War to history, there is a poignancy in that we have come to glimpse the men as people ‘just like us’, which of course they were.
What emerges in the verbal contributions of surviving soldiers is a pragmatism, lack of self-pity, a humor and a resilience that has perhaps made us review our impressions of the war as being of unmitigated horror. For many soldiers the experiences included times that were actually enjoyable, with a camaraderie and purpose that they didn’t have before the war, and as survivors that they probably didn’t have after the war. Certainly, my own education included a diet of the war poets such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon who rarely wrote of the lighter moments of the conflict.
Each year on November 11th, and the days leading up to it, many of us in the UK wear replica paper or metal poppies to remember the dead of the ‘Great War’ of 1914-1918 and subsequent armed conflicts.
The red poppy originated in the 1920s in Canada and USA as a symbol of the sacrifice of the allied combatants. Within a couple of years, it became emblematic in Britain and the Commonwealth as the leitmotif for subsequent Armistice Days. The deep red flowers of the Flanders Poppy (papaver rhoeas) grew well in the soil that was churned up by shells on the Western Front in France and Belgium. Poppies remained throughout the twentieth century an emblem of remembrance of the human tragedy of the four years of the ‘Great War.’ They endured after the Second World War and indeed all other military engagements since. Wherever there are military conflicts there are casualties of wars that need support after their return. The poppy is a highly effective piece of charity merchandising that raises millions of pounds for veterans in their life after military service. Volunteer poppy sellers collect door to door, on street corners and in workplaces, with the funds sent to the Royal British Legion for later distribution.
But not everyone chooses to wear a poppy, and there has become some unfortunate ‘political correctness’ associated with it, including pressure upon public figures to be seen to wear the poppy several weeks before Remembrance Day. Some also feel that the remembrance events are too closely associated with today’s military and may inadvertently glorify warfare. Remembrance Day is nevertheless an important day in the British calendar with parades at the Cenotaph in London and elsewhere, and a gathering of armed forces in the presence of the Queen and Royal Family in the Royal Albert Hall.
In towns and villages, there are formal events to lay poppy wreaths, often with a bugler playing the Last Post. In my village, there is a special church service with a roll-call of those from the village who went to war. A muffled peal of church bells adds to the atmosphere. This year we also unveiled a poppy-themed glass mosaic in a new public space set aside for contemplation about victims of war.
Author Michael Morpurgo, the creator of the War Horse story, has spoken about his approach to the commemoration of wars. He chooses to wear a white poppy alongside his red poppy in order to remember those that died in service but also offer hope for the future peace. The white poppy was devised by women in the 1920s as part of the No More War movement and has since been worn by pacifists as well as others who want to look to a future where conflicts can be solved without warfare.
I can’t help feeling that Harry Patch and the soldiers whose letters I found would say that solemn remembrance of past warfare is not in itself a commitment to the peaceful future for which they fought and died.