When we remember the fallen we should never forget why they fell
Remembrance Day is for all who died in the conflicts of the wars of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. This post is predominantly about the Great War that stopped one hundred years ago today. (Technically the war did not ‘end’ then as an armistice is a ceasefire, not a declaration of peace or a reconciliation.)
We fool ourselves that we live in a time of peace yet in August 2014, one hundred years on from the start of the war to end all wars, a study by the Institute for Economics and Peace found that there were only 11 out of 167 countries examined that were free from conflict. (The UK was not one of them due to involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.) There are currently some 5 conflicts that have resulted in more than 10,000 deaths in the last year and a further 16 that have incurred between 1000 and 9999 deaths over the same time period.
Why? Why, why, why, why? Why can’t we stop doing it? Do we never learn?
My understanding regarding the futility of the First World War was fuelled by three seminal and excellent works:
- Good-Bye to All That a memoir by the poet and novelist Robert Graves
- A Testament of Youth a memoir by Vera Brittain
- Oh! What a Lovely War a stage play by Joan Littlewood and the Theatre Workshop, and later a film by Richard Attenborough (screenplay Len Deighton).
First-hand accounts of WW1 frequently use the term ‘big push’ especially with reference to the Battle of the Somme – a catastrophic carnage if ever there was one. That battle would eventually claim 456,000 British, 200,000 French and 500,000 German lives. One hell of a push. One hell of a fall.
There were other pushes; other falls.
Famously the war to end all wars was triggered by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria by a Bosnian Serb but the origins of it are a much more complex web of international tensions founded on territorial claims, trade protection, colonial attitudes, political allegiances, a rise in militarism and nationalism, and power vacuums created by fading states. All of that was strongly infused by the pride and arrogance of the power-brokers.
The first push is the worst push of all: the push to be first. First among nations, first among peers, first above the equally inferior, first in the concept of oneself. This push had little to do with those being levered towards the battlefields but they carried the sentiment, and the initially reassuring belief:
Are we downhearted? No.
Not while Britannia rules the waves, not likely;
The second push is not unrelated, building on the sense of national and personal pride and played out brilliantly in the big screen version of Oh! What a Lovely War by Maggie Smith and the ensemble, as military recruitment is depicted as an Edwardian end-of-the-pier show, with dancing girls and a drill sergeant. Volunteers are seduced from the stalls, the galleries and the private boxes with Smith’s rendition of I’ll Make a Man Out of You.
On Sunday I’ll walk out with a Bo’sun
On Monday a Rifleman in green,
On Tuesday I choose a ‘sub’ in the ‘Blues’,
On Wednesday a Marine;
On Thursday a Terrier from Tooting,
On Friday a Midshipman or two,
But on Saturday I’m willing, if you’ll only take the shilling,
To make a man of any one of you.
One by one the dancing girls are found willing companions, enticed by feminine allure and propelled by a tidal wave of public approval bordering on adulation. In a dazzling cinematic twist Attenborough gives us a glimpse of the close up over-painted singer revealing the cruel truth of her appearance and her attitude, as she prods the recruits towards the backstage door that leads directly to the road to the trenches.
Over-elaboration you may think, but it is hard to overestimate the pushing power of peer pressure to enlist, or the lift in self-esteem to be had from being seen to volunteer.
The film frequently contrasts the joyful glory of Brighton Pier with the grimness of dugouts and shell-holes. The pride of signing up switches savagely to the realisation of the reality of war.
A true life replica of that misapprehension can be vividly witnessed in historic footage of soldiers leaving British railway stations – episodes recreated in painful sweetness by Attenborough’s shot of ‘brother Bertie’ going to war via a pier fun ride.
His mother’s broad smile shrinks to stunned foreboding as the next shot pulls back to reveal her alone amid the vastness of Brighton station.
The third push surely came from a dream of adventure and the camaraderie to be had in escaping from the daily drudge of life a misconception not tarnished by selective media reporting that would not be possible today.
The Duke of Wellington is reputed to have said that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton and Attenborough’s film of Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop masterpiece continually reiterates how the entrenched privileged mentality stoked the slaughter. A century ago the Officer Class really was constituted from a different social strata and those men infused their regiments with the procedural rigors that had been drilled into them during their upbringing and education. The captains of the national war making teams did not intend to lose at any cost.
Field Marshal Douglas Haig commanded the British Expeditionary Force from 1915 onward. Over two million British casualties were suffered under his command earning him the nick-name ‘Butcher Haig’. He pushed on regardless of the losses. He seemed to see men as wickets; it didn’t matter how many we lost as long as the enemy lost more. He is depicted admirably by John Mills in Attenborough’s film. His thick skin may have won the war. Ask the dead.
For good or bad [the War] has shattered our faith in idols, our hero-worshipping belief that great men are different clay from common men.
It’s hard to envisage that the lower classes ever held a widespread belief that they were born less worthy than their ‘betters’ but they almost invariably understood that, like it or not, they were inferior, they had to comply. (Arguably one of the few lasting achievements of the war was the impetus it gave to socialism and an erosion of class acceptance.) Whatever push was inflicted, they were obliged to absorb and relay it. Even when the gloss of enlisting began to tarnish as truths seeped back to the homes of the dead and wounded, very few could find the greatest courage of all – the bravery to refuse to fight.
At the front, there was no turning back. Desertion carried the death penalty. The choice was simple – go forwards and risk death, or turn back and guarantee it. This was the deadliest push of all.
The most reassuring push, however, is the perceived supernatural one. There’s nothing like a faith in the afterlife for mitigating the fear of death. Attenborough’s film doesn’t hold back with this aspect either, poignantly reprising Joan Littlewoods integration of actual military appropriation of hymn tunes for irony or innuendo and mixing them with their ecclesiastical counterparts. This takes place at a religious service where each of the main denominations sanctions a relaxing of restrictions, so that men may die more healthily. The notion that God was on both sides is clearly made as Stille nacht, heilige nacht is heard emanating from the German trenches to herald an all-too brief truce on Christmas Day. Subsequently, the generals don’t let Good Friday spoil a mass execution spree.
A war on the scale of the 1914-18 conflict would not happen today. Warfare has moved on. It is more remote. More people can be killed at a greater distance. It is also much closer. If there had been smartphones in the trenches the fighting would have stopped. The troops on both sides would have been needed back in their home countries – to quell the civil unrest. Yet despite modern technology someone is killed or injured by warfare every two minutes.
‘Hero’ is a diminished concept. It is a term used much more frequently than in days of yore. Here too, the First World War was influential. There was talk afterwards of building homes fit for heroes. What Prime Minister Lloyd George actually said was “habitations fit for the heroes who have won the war”. Some of the men and women who contributed to the combat were heroic in their individual deeds or in the mental resilience in the face of terrible consequences, but there is nothing heroic about being pushed and pushed and pushed and pushed into a situation where a randomly splayed bullet or one of a million airborne shells may strike you, disable you for the rest of your life; or kill you. Being a hero in the true sense of the word implies making a choice. Most of those damaged by the war did not, or could not, make those choices. The majority of the people who died in the Great War were not heroes; they were victims. They did not fall, they were pushed.
If we are to honour the dead of World War One we must not just remember their loss, we must serve to terminate the apparently interminable repetition of it.
It can be surmised that, if we were to contact the fallen, those who were injured, or indeed those who survived, they might tell us that their experience was so horrific that their aim became not to win, not even to achieve an armistice, but to end all wars.
And, they might say: “We failed.”
They would be right.
Illustrations from Oh! What a Lovely War, Paramount Pictures 1969.
The above mentioned texts, along with other works of art, and personal experiences of remembrance events strongly influenced my own work notably Home for Christmas in the Christmas Present collection of ghost stories, and Siren, a World War Two drama which was also very heavily influenced by Len Deighton’s novel Bomber.
 Chilton, Raffles & Littlewood, Oh What a Lovely War Act One.
 Hart, History of the First World War, Pan Books, 1970 (first published Faber & Faber,1930)