At the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, the guns on the Western Front fell silent. A hundred years ago the barbarous folly of the ruling elites of Europe known to us as the First World War or Great War came to an end. The suffering and scars it caused remain long afterwards and changed the world. How should we remember and more importantly honour those of our forebears who endured so much suffering and sacrificed so much? Is it just enough to once a year listen to the hauntingly sad ‘Last Post’, and watch the poppies falling in the Albert Hall?
There is also a view today that we should not remember or that we should remember all who have suffered or perished in war. Also that somehow we are being jingoistic, xenophobic, racist, privileged or even supremacist. And that the symbols of remembrance should be forcibly suppressed. Such thoughts may be well intentioned or to serve ulterior or fashionable motifs, yet they also deny basic humanity and respect to past generations. These were ordinary, flesh and blood human beings who felt emotions and pain. Such denial of them may itself be a precursor of denying basic humanity and respect to us and the generations following us. It is unanchored ideology reining supreme in the present regardless of where it could drift to. Remembrance, however, places us within a community of shared feelings and responsibilities, in a continuum of past, present and future.
The past is another country and so it often seems. We know or can discover much about those who fought, who they were, where they came from, who they left behind, the terrible conditions of hardship they endured. Sometimes their ‘voices’ speak to us through their letters, their poems, their paintings, the faded photographs and small everyday items they used that somehow survived. Yet, why they often voluntarily enlisted, why they fought, what inspired them, what they believed in to the extent to be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice are for the most part long forgotten mysteries. It is far too simplistic to say they did it for their comrades or for God, King and Country or for some abstract concept of freedom or duty.
The famous war poets and artists can’t help much in understanding the ideals, values or motivation of those who fought. They were understandably often responding to, or describing, images of inhumanity or futility. Whilst such graphic images must surely act to discourage wars of aggression, the carrying on of foreign policy by other means, they can’t help much in creating a better world, just hopefully, prevent another slide into barbarity. So to try to understand it is necessary to look beyond the horror of the killing fields of Flanders or the Somme and to speculate, sometimes no doubt incompletely and somewhat erroneously. Yet glimpses into the souls of these real people seem to be there for the finding. And sometimes the realisation of discovery is a rewarding, if poignant and thought-provoking, encounter with the past.
The pre-war poetry, literature, art, architecture, and music often portrayed a serene, dignified confidence. Such an ideal was frequently aesthetically attractive. It added dignity and humanity to the portrayal of even the humblest person and activity. There was wonder and inspiration in the most mundane or simplest of scenes from town or country. Such a vision was of course not the reality of Victorian or Edwardian Britain, with its many failings including an often impervious and insensitive class divide. However, it was seen as a worthy ideal; to be expressed in some form and passed onto others. This ideal was far removed from the disillusioned, dehumanised and ugly cynicism which often followed the war and reaches its apogee today in post modernism.
Many of those who understood the pre-war ideal and were influenced by it perished in the war. Then alien unsubtle cultural imports afterwards squeezed out an older vision of a Sceptred Isle that had inspired successive generations from at least the time of Shakespeare’s Richard II. It was another casualty of the war to be seen henceforth as kitsch or maudlin by the fashionable, if they saw it at all. And the pre-war ideals or values could never again be turned into inspiration, ambitions and practical achievements.
Cynicism, ugliness and dehumanised ideologies and cultural icons do not make a better world, only a more bitter and oppressive one. People are reduced to ‘resources’, ‘masses’, or ‘categories’, to be deceived, manipulated, controlled and ultimately exploited; dehumanised unthinking, uniform pawns of the state and corporatism. Sadly, this then is a unifying theme amongst the ruling elite and their sycophantic or vogue fellow travellers throughout Western Europe. If the war had not happened things may have been different; we will never know.
What is certain is that much has changed in this country, over the years following the war up to the present day. Often the uniqueness of our country, its better qualities, has been needlessly squandered. Those who have been impacted the worst are often the most vulnerable individuals and communities. Is this what our forebears would have foreseen and wanted? If we remembered and understood more about them, perhaps we would take better care of what remains of the special inheritance they left to us. And that is a worthy way of honouring the fallen.