A Litany of Names: Remembering the First World War

A short time ago I was asked to give some thought to what might be organised for the commemoration of the forthcoming centenary of the First World War at Lichfield Cathedral.  In the few days prior to a meeting with Anthony Moore, the Cathedral’s Canon Chancellor, to discuss what might be done, I had a cup of tea with Tony Piper, a visiting friend who is a Bass Lay Clerk at Southwark Cathedral.  From that conversation and our ensuing discussions there arose an idea which has taken hold of both he and I, and which, as well as taking it on locally, we hope might become a national act of commemoration.

Something that I have been increasingly aware, personally, of is the anonymity of the war memorial.  These stone scars upon the towns and villages of our land are there to memorialise and remind us of those who gave their lives during the First and Second World Wars, but they are but names; often they are nothing than a name.  And there are so many names: There were nearly 996,000 British casualties in the First World War (not including its then colonial dependants), the sheer scale of which list means that it is unlikely that many of these names will ever find voice again.  They are doomed to silence, carved into a silent stone that will in time fade and be lost as weather erodes or lichen conceals. Some may already have succumbed.

In 2012 Tony was at the opening of the Titanic Belfast visitor attraction (www.titanicbelfast.com), during the course of which opening the names of the more than 1,000 casualties of that accident were read out.  However, they were not read out as a single list.  They were named simultaneously:  each person attending the event was given a piece of paper bearing just a few names, and at the given moment each person read out the names they had been given.  You can hear this moment during that exhibition opening here.

Tony mused upon what it would be like to do the same for the First World War; whether it might be possible to give voice to those silent dead at one moment at the point of commemoration of the centenary of the Armistice, on 11 November 2018.  In one roar – a great wave of sound – those who gave their lives in the war would be heard again; each and every one of them: a great cry across a century of silence.  How many names would how many people need to read?

This got me thinking that, on a perhaps more practical level, why shouldn’t each and every casualty of the war be named and heard?  While the mere reading of a name doesn’t provide any flesh to the body that was their being and life, it is a step beyond the silence of stone.  It occurred to me that there could be a daily roll-call.  The cathedrals of Britain hold services on a daily basis, during the intercessions of which are named those who are ill, have died, or whose anniversary of death occurs on that date.  Why should the litany of First World War casualties not be spread across the 4 years, 3 months and 1 week period of the war’s centenary, from 4 August 2014 to 11 November 2018?  This would still require the reading of some 600 or so names per day; but there are 43 Anglican dioceses in the country, not to mention the Catholic dioceses, mosques, synagogues, Quaker meeting houses, and other places of worship – not to mention whatever other public venues might join the fray (museums, galleries, libraries, concert halls?).  If each diocese of the Church of England alone were to read c.10-15 names per day, during the centenary period every name would be heard.  It would be impractical to read such names on the anniversary of the passing of the individual, but each and every casualty would in that period be named.  The division of whatever master list is compiled for this task (the Commonwealth War Graves Commission have an exhaustive database of the grave and memorial locations for each casualty, which might, I hope, constitute most, if not all of the 996,000 British casualties! I must get in touch with them….) might be done with consideration of locality (Battalions originating within a diocese would be the logical approach), although some balancing may have to be effected upon assessment of the density of such battalions within each diocese; or Parishes, villagers, town residents across their respective diocese could seek out the names on their local war memorial and submit them to the diocese for the greater project, and also use their local memorials as the basis for their own litanies.  If members of the public were to gather the names on their local monuments, then this could also feed into the War Memorials Online project, which still needs so much ‘data’.

In a centenary that is likely to come in waves, with pivotal moments and important battles being commemorated at intervals throughout the period on their respective anniversaries, a daily litany, spoken quietly across the land, would keep the commemoration of the centenary in the consciousness, but without risk of incurring what one might call ‘Remembrance Fatigue’.

But what about that roar?  What about the sounding of a great wave of names, whether at the start or close of the silence on remembrance day 2018?  It would be impractical to do this in one place, but it could be done across the nation.  The lists used for the daily roll-call could be divided amongst the commemorations taking place at that moment up and down the country, in churches and other places of worship; at memorials or elsewhere; and at that one moment could all of those who lost their lives during the war be given a voice in a single great shout; a cry of remembrance, reminding us that they lived, and that they gave everything in the pursuit of freedom and peace.  If the BBC were perhaps to undertake a simultaneous broadcast from several locations to capture some part of that roar, it might allow people to participate in the confines of their own living rooms or their places of work, and to be a part of that simultaneous litany.

Is this pie-in-the-sky?  I have made the suggestion here in Lichfield, and I think it is being pursued, and there are intentions to spread the word in the hope of making it a national endeavour.  But there is much work needs to be done to make it happen; indeed, it is possible that it might not happen at all – but one can try to get the wheels moving and to make it so.  Tony is beginning to think about the mechanics for disseminating and dividing the names; I am trying to spread the word for the idea and get other people interested.  To give the each of The Lost a voice during the centenary, however brief, is the least we can do.  We must remember.