One of the iconic images of the First World War: Lt Ernest Brook’s photograph of a British soldier standing over a grave near Pilckem during the Third Battle of Ypres, 22 August 1917. (Imperial War Museum)
In eighteen months we will be marking the beginning of a centenary which, I suspect, will be inescapable; a centenary commemoration that will mark the period from 4 August 1914 to 11 November 1918 when we were at war with Europe’s ‘Central Powers’ – the ‘Great War’; the First World War.
With the desire – nay, the need – to commemorate these events, there has already been significant announcements about some of the undertakings being put in place, with substantial monies set aside by the UK government for commemorative projects and a major refit of the Imperial War Museum underway. There will undoubtedly be a wave of television and radio documentaries; and plans are already in place for major academic conferences such as that programmed in Oxford in September 2014 on British poetry of the First World War. One recent announcement has filled me with some degree of horror: that the Christmas Day 1914 football match in no-man’s land, when Allies and Germans set aside their differences and, in an unofficial truce, played football together, is to be recreated. The ‘recreation’ of such an iconic moment can only be (to my mind) an empty and hollow gesture that can in no way recapture the spirit in which the original was played. Such moments might be recreated in the artistic context of a film, perhaps, but it should otherwise remain a unique piece of historical iconography. The only context in which such a thing might recapture any of the ‘moment’ of the original is if perhaps those soldiers at the Israel-Palestine frontier, or similar, were to come together in such an activity.
While historical documentaries will relay some of the detail of the war, the due nobility and poignancy will undoubtedly find its voice in acts of commemoration that come from formal ceremonies, such as the Remembrance Day parades and services, and through the arts. The poetry of the First World War has become the defining voice for much of the conflict of the last century, and poetry and music, art and sculpture will play an important role in the commemorations. I know of two major commemorative commissions: a mojor work for the Three Choirs Festival titled ‘Echoes’, currently being written by the German composer Torsten Rasch (see here), and a choral symphony titled ‘Unfinished Remembering’ by Paul Spicer, to a libretto by Euan Tait.
Although the commemorations will last four years, there will undoubtedly be major landmarks within that period when the commemorations will come to the fore – particularly at the beginning and end of the period, but also the major battles within. With such a protracted timeframe I suppose we risk a waning public interest in the matter. But such a trial of endurance should be had, as was experienced by those who lived through that period. As we progress through the centenary we will already know that any hope that such commemorations will be ‘over by Christmas’ will be fruitless: its period is now set by history; we know the outcome, and we know its time-frame.
But there will always be questions from some as to why we should bother. Indeed some people may feel entirely disconnected from the First World War, where the Second is more immediately memorable and directly affected many who are still living. Following a trip to Ypres and its environs with my friend Sebastian Field, undertaken in early November 2008 as part of my research into the work of Ivor Gurney, I returned to my job as a Lay Vicar Choral with Lichfield Cathedral Choir, with whom a couple of days later I was singing for the annual Remembrance Sunday service. The proximity of the events spawned an idea for poem, which I give here merely because it seems relevant to the question in hand:
not yet cleaned from my shoes;
the morning shows more potent
in heart and in mind.
But who can understand
the truth of that experience?
Its joy; despair;
mundanity; insanity . . .
Wind sweeping round the cathedral
lends breath to this latest Last Post . . .
Cadets, hands clasped, seem unmoved
by this service of mummery,
acting their part with reluctance
this ceremonial morning,
as minds, like the rain,
drum a gentle retreat.
Poetry of poppies perpetuates clichés
in memoried half-truths,
but none can know the full truth of each tale,
or the million tales untold.
© Philip Lancaster, November 2008/March 2011
When I visited the Front Lines, one thing stood out for me: the architecture of memorial, for which Edwin Lutyens was in a large part responsible, and the sheer quantity of headstones, spoke louder than any poem, or music, than any documentary or book. Closer to home, almost every town and village in this country is scarred with a memorial to those who died in the First World War, often appended by those who died in the Second. These individual memorials are being recorded in a project that is perhaps long overdue, but which is perfect for the internet. However, the sheer scale and numbers of the memorials in France and Belgium is staggering; not only the British, but the allied and more austere German cemeteries also. I would tell those who don’t understand why we should remember to visit Tyne Cot (particularly at sunset), or the Canadian memorial on Vimy Ridge, or Thiepval, or any of the smaller cemeteries dotted apparently randomly in the countryside. These places are numbing, but the monumental beauty is noble and timeless. We must Remember and understand, whether through art, memorial, documentary, book or otherwise, why we are Remembering.