We have just passed the centenary of the outbreak of the most calamitous war in history (a judgement based on its long-term effects as much as what Jack Aubrey, in another conflict, calls ‘the butcher’s bill’). For volume two of my family history I have been researching and writing about the experiences of my grandfather and his generation, which range from draft-dodging through being wounded in action to a solitary, hard-to-trace death.
I was naturally interested, therefore, in the first major study to appear of the man responsible for the forms in which the Allied dead are commemorated.* Fabian Ware overcame accusations of Bolshevism to impose his vision of burial in situ, even for those few whose families could afford to repatriate their remains; identical memorials and inscriptions irrespective of rank; and full lists of the missing at necropolises like Thiepval. It is an expression of comradeship if not equality in death, a posthumous levelling that some objected to at the time but which now seems the least that could have been done.
Of late the rule on bringing bodies home has been relaxed and in country graveyards one comes across white headstones bearing a serviceman’s details, reverently preserved by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission from the lichen, grime and erosion that has disfigured its contemporaries at home. Such purity in the face of age is somehow unnatural, like peering into a mouth devoid of fillings. But the point is made, I suppose. They seem forever young.
The counterparts of these set pieces of remembrance are the war memorials erected in towns and villages across Britain. Unlike the vast cemeteries and lists of names in Flanders and France the men recorded were all known by those who paused to look. Sometimes brothers appear, more than doubling the sadness. As a small boy, seeing the letters Pte repeated, I wondered why so many of them were called Pete. Many of the inscriptions were engraved in his distinctive font by Eric Gill, genius, satyr and religious crank. His patient chiselling in countless locations, a bearded eccentric clad in a smock to let his manhood swing, amounts to one of the great if dispersed expressions of public art, even if his achievement has been sullied by our less indulgent view of incest and interfering with young girls.
Or maybe that is the point. What were intended as monuments to a shared ordeal where differences are not only silenced but in bad taste cannot escape the bickering of posterity. Nor perhaps should they. That war was a crime against humanity, a seismic collective blunder prosecuted with indifference to the cost and in sanitising its memory we make it more likely to happen again. That said, it is seemlier for someone who survived the carnage to break ranks and flout the conventional pieties. Siegfried Sassoon, on viewing the Menin Gate in 1927, wrote a poem containing the lines: ‘Well might the dead who struggled in the slime/Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime.’
Forty years later the establishment responsible for those horrors was still parading at cenotaphs as if to dignify their complicity, arousing anger in another poet impatient with the past. Philip Larkin, flying over London on Remembrance Day, imagines far below ‘the solemn-sinister wreath rubbish in Whitehall.’ And more recently, in the context of another war, the unveiling of a memorial to Bomber Command received flak from those still aghast at the slaughter of civilian populations.
These are difficult sentiments to express. How can one reconcile honouring the fallen with bitterness at the circumstances surrounding their fate; or reverence for the act of mourning with dissent from those taking the salute? Perhaps by not thinking of the dead as passive recipients of our respect, saintly non-combatants in the life of which they were cheated. Making them party to our arguments, even objects of controversy is a way of keeping them present in our thoughts. That is a more honest, involving and appropriate tribute to their memory.
* Empires of the Dead by David Crane (Collins)