Like so many other things in the Anglo-Saxon world recently, the First World War and the way we remember it seem to have been subsumed into a culture war between left and right. Therefore, if you decide not to wear a poppy, or decide to wear a white one rather than a red one, or voice distaste for the masses of poppy-related tat on sale in late October and early November – like a 75cm x 50cm poppy tea towel (“handy in any kitchen, as well as looking gorgeous”), or a giant glass poppy-shaped bird-feeder, or a cotton / polyester poppy onesie – or even question the political decisions that sent so many young men marching off to their deaths between 1914 and 1918, you risk having a baying mob chase you on social media and accuse you of being an unpatriotic, nay traitorous, dis-respecter of the fallen. See the abuse that Kevin Maguire, the Daily Mirror’s associate editor, has received on Twitter today for pointing out the uncomfortable fact that half the men serving in the British Army during World War One weren’t actually allowed to vote.
Well, with today the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War on November 11th, 1918, it’s time for me to stick my head above the parapet and say that I’ve felt uneasy about the more ostentatious ways that the war’s centenary has been marked in the UK these last four years: starting in 2014 with Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, which saw a huge crimson torrent of nearly 900,000 poppies (each representing a fallen soldier from Britain and its then-colonies) filling the moat at the Tower of London; and ending now with the Shrouds of the Somme, whereby 72,000 shrouded figurines (symbolising the soldiers from Britain and the colonies who died at the Battle of the Somme and were never given a proper burial) have been laid out at London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Both displays seem to turn commemoration of the war into something that’s part massive art installation and part transitory tourist attraction; which, despite the best intentions in the world, doesn’t convey what was surely its most important feature for the people involved in it, its absolute bloody hellishness. I wonder what World War One veterans themselves would have made of these showy centennial commemorations – but of course, we can’t know that because the very last of them passed away in 2011.
Indeed, a few days ago, the journalist Ian Jack wrote a thoughtful piece for the Guardian entitled Conceptual Art Can Never Capture the Tragedy of the Great War, which mirrors my feelings. The comments thread below the online version of the feature predictably has Jack being berated by a baying mob for his lack of patriotism, for treading “a fine line between risible and insulting” and being a “privileged liberal smughole.” But Jack simply observes that he finds the old, traditional means of remembering the fallen — the monuments, statues, plaques, services and ceremonies that were established after World War One — more moving and more informative.
I agree. At least those things were largely erected or initiated by the generation who’d been there. No doubt there was a fair amount of spin added by the establishment, mindful of what’d happened in Russia in 1917, worried about the thousands of demobilised soldiers who’d come back expecting but not finding the ‘land fit for heroes’ promised by Lloyd George, and desperate to channel those men’s energies towards something patriotic and away from something revolutionary. But still, for me, those monuments and rituals have always had a sad, sombre authenticity that strikes an appropriate chord.
When I was a kid, I had a paradoxical relationship with the First World War. On one hand, I was born into a Protestant community in Northern Ireland, over whose shared sense of heritage the Great War and especially the Battle of the Somme loomed incredibly large. (During the first day of the Somme, the 36th Ulster Division was the only UK division to achieve its objectives, overcoming a sizable chunk of the German line; but by the end of its second day, 5500 men in the division were dead, injured or missing.) Yet despite the yearly gathering on Remembrance Sunday at the big commemorative plaque in the local church, and like a lot of a little boys in the 1970s, it was actually World War Two that filled my imagination, thanks to the countless movies and series about it shown on TV and the slew of World War Two-themed comics on sale every week at the newsagent’s.
I only properly became acquainted with World War One in the mid-1970s when the BBC repeated its legendary 26-episode documentary The Great War (originally made in 1964, the fiftieth anniversary of the war’s start), narrated by Michael Redgrave and with music by Wilfred Josephs. The BBC aired it on Sunday afternoons. As a result, staid, God-fearing, not-much-happening Northern Irish Sundays got indelibly linked in my mind with melancholy, black-and-white film footage of the trenches.
It wasn’t until much later that I realised how the war’s tragic influence had seeped across the decades into, or almost into, my own memories. For instance, a few old spinsters, well into their 70s by then, lived in lonely seclusion around our village, and only years after did it occur to me that they’d never married because the war had culled so many young men from their generation that there’d been nobody left for them to marry. Meanwhile, my Dad would recall how, up till the 1960s, there’d been a World War One veteran living in the village who’d been shell-shocked and had never recovered from it. The village still had a functioning railway station then and, supposedly, every morning the poor man would visit it, march along the platform and salute the guards on the trains – believing from their uniforms that they were army officers.
And it wasn’t until 2008 that I went back to Ireland with my Dad and finally visited Ballyconnell Parish Church in County Cavan, on whose wall is a Roll of Honour commemorating the local men who served in uniform during the two world wars. The names of two of my great-uncles, Alfred and Walter, are recorded there for World War One. Both of them survived it.
In 1977, my family moved from Northern Ireland to Scotland, where World War One was less loaded with historical significance on a collective level; but was still remembered poignantly on a local level because it’d reaped a dreadful harvest among the populations of Scotland’s cities, towns and villages. Peebles, the town nearest our new home, had an impressive cenotaph commemorating the fallen, which had been unveiled in a ceremony in 1922 by none other than Field Marshal Douglas Haig, the 1st Earl Haig and commander of the British Expeditionary Force during the latter three years of the war.
(The Edinburgh-born Haig was massively popular at the time and his funeral in 1928 was marked by a day of national mourning. Which seems hard to credit now, given that historical revisionism in the form of, say, Alan Clark’s 1961 historical volume The Donkeys, Richard Attenborough’s 1969 film Oh, What a Lovely War! and the 1989 TV series Blackadder Goes Forth has made us less inclined to see him as a national hero and more inclined to see him as a deluded mass-murdering incompetent with such posthumous nicknames as ‘Butcher Haig’ and ‘the Butcher of the Somme’. As Rowan Atkinson remarked in one episode of Blackadder, “Haig is about to make yet another gargantuan effort to move his drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin.”)
Less fancy than the cenotaph in Peebles was the small statue of a soldier, head bowed in remembrance, that’d served as the war memorial in the nearby village of Walkerburn since 1920. The statue made the news in 1998 when it went missing, presumably stolen to be melted down for its metal. As a result, Peebles’ Beltane Studios were commissioned to make a similar (but bigger) statue as a replacement. Then, after the new statue had been installed, the old one was retrieved by the police, still intact, and returned to Walkerburn – so that now it has two war memorials. The original was placed in a different location, opposite the town’s old mill building. During World War One, Walkerburn lost a higher percentage of its men on the battlefield than any other settlement in Scotland. So it certainly deserves its two war memorials.
My favourite memorial, however, is the one pictured at the top of this entry: the one commemorating the men of the picturesque Slitrig Valley a few miles south of the Borders town of Hawick, which also stands near the entrance of a former military camp. It indicates how even the remotest, most tranquil-looking communities couldn’t escape the baleful reach of the war. And for me that still has more impact than floods of ceramic poppies or plains of shrouded figurines.