I am sure that I’m not alone in welling up while listening to Radio 4 broadcasting the roll call of soldiers killed at Passchendaele during the centenary commemoration of the start of that battle. The list of names was rounded out with their ages, regiments, jobs and how they were killed; which gave a picture of them as living individuals, and so brought home all the more the sadness of their loss. The diversity of the names too, that the British armed forces were not simply domestic, but from all over the then Empire. The ghost of an Empire in the ghosts of those who died in its name.
In 2014 – and how long ago that now seems – Michael Gove and David Cameron wanted the WW1 commemoration to be a “celebration”; to recast the war as something to be proud of not, appalled by; to exorcise the ghosts of the war poets with a revived spirit of Bulldog Drummond, to fire up a new generation to willingly allow themselves to become “forever part of some foreign field”, and overcome the accumulated war wariness of twenty years of continual interventions points East; Iraq to Afghanistan to Iraq again, seemingly without end, with their steady drip, drip of casualties announced on the news like a tolling bell and commemorated with silent dignity and mounting double-edged anger at Wootton Bassett.
It hasn’t worked out quite like that. The problem is that, to commemorate you also have to remember, and the events that are being remembered do not easily lend themselves to be spun into easy glory. Mud and the blood spoil the bunting. BBC reporting of the official ceremony, complete with royalty and soldiers in full dress, and as establishment as you can get, can’t help but reflect the sorrow and the horror; without which it would have been hollow and inauthentic. Sassoon’s poem Memorial tablet, accompanied on the BBC news website by photographs of haunted men and shattered tanks, lost in a devastated sea of mud, shell holes and blasted trees, their shattered trunks pointing accusingly heavenwards; that’s not the image that Gove and Cameron would have liked us to have lodged in our minds.
Mud and the blood spoil the bunting
This centenary commemoration of WW1 has in other countries been less significant. This may be partly because they have less continuity than Britain does with the form they had in 1914. The Russian Empire collapsed in 1917. Austria Hungary followed a year later. Germany is no longer an Empire and is on its fourth incarnation after the Kaiserreich. France is still a Republic, but the Fifth, not the Third. All have had more traumatic 20th century histories than Britain; all have lost wars or been occupied in whole or part. As the press attache at the German Embassy in London put it in 2013: “There is simply a different culture in this country. You have much more military events than we do, like Trooping the Colour. We don’t want to commemorate the battles. We want to commemorate the dead.”
Although the First World War still looms large in British popular memory as the worst war, for nearly every other country, WW2 hit harder; for some, dramatically so – the Russians in particular lost more people in WW2 than all the casualties in all the countries combined in 1914-18. A Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red installation for France or Austria-Hungary would have had to be a third bigger, for Germany and Russia more than twice as large. An installation for all casualties from all countries would have to be 20 times the size. Something like it might be a fitting way to mark 1918; help us break out of our national cocoon and connect.
In our official commemoration rituals, the dead are the only casualties routinely mentioned; usually in a wistfully romanticised way, almost as though premature death had done them a favour:
“They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old.
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.”
Given the chance to grow old, get weary, and even condemned, most of the dead would surely have taken it. But most of the casualties did grow old, prematurely aged from their injuries, physical and mental. The ratio of injuries to deaths was 2:1 for Britain and Germany, 3:1 for Austria and 4:1 for France. A million and a half men survived with wounds in Britain, more than four million in France and Germany, perhaps as many as five million in Russia. Some of these injuries were not always visible; lungs damaged by gas, mental illness. There were 80,000 reported cases of shell shock in the British Army alone. Those that survived with it had to somehow keep calm and carry on in the post-war world. Many injuries were horrifically impossible to miss: lost legs and arms, faces torn to shreds by shrapnel. One and a half million of the French casualties were permanently maimed. Hence the injunction on the Paris Metro to give up your seat for “Mutilles de Guerre”.
Most recruits were no taller than 5′ 3″ and many showed signs of malnutrition
On the contrary, the deaths sanctified in the language of these rituals are those of fit, loyal soldiers from a long time ago, doing their duty without question. As Laurence Binyon wrote in his For the Fallen:
They went with songs to the battle, they were young.
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.
But by 1917 the flow of volunteers signing up to go to war for the ‘Glory and Honour of the British Empire (as posters had it) was drying up. Conscription had to be introduced in Britain in January 1916, simply to keep the cannon-fodder supply up. By 1918, 2.2 million had to be called up. Of these, four in ten would not have had the vote. Britain still had a restricted male franchise; Germany had a universal male franchise since 1871. Neither allowed women to vote until after the war; France not until 1944.
Which puts Michael Gove’s claim that this was a war for “democracy” in an unflattering light. Gove’s purpose in making this claim is an unhistoric one, that Britain stands for ‘fundamental’ values that are outside of time and place, one of them being democracy. That is, of course, irrespective of exactly how democratic Britain actually was. And, in so far as the volunteers let into the army had been “straight of limb”, that was largely because four in ten of those seeking to sign up were turned down on medical grounds. Most recruits were no taller than 5′ 3″ and many showed signs of malnutrition. By 1917 even the songs they went with to the battle were becoming sardonic – “We’re here because, we’re here because, we’re here because, we’re here…” or “When this lousy war is over, no more soldiering for me…”
More soldiers were beginning to crack, some to resist out of sheer self-preservation, or even question why they were fighting; some why they were fighting “for Squire”, as Sassoon put it. Mutinies were small-scale in the British Army, perhaps because it had a higher proportion of volunteers than any of the others, but it was not completely immune; 2,000 soldiers were charged with mutiny during the war, and there were at least three significant outbreaks in late 1916-17. Three mutineers were shot at dawn. Other armies, under the impact of catastrophic defeats rather than bloody stalemates, fell apart on a larger scale. The Austrians were on German life support from 1915 onwards. Whole units of the Italian army, worn down after nine continuous and terrible offensives in less than two years, under brutal military discipline and in appalling mountain terrain, collapsed altogether at Caporetto and streamed to the rear shouting “Long live Austria”. The French Army, after the morale-sapping failure of the Nivelle offensive in spring and summer 1917, mutinied on a large scale and was not considered fit for offensive operations. On large parts of the front there was an uneasy modus vivendi between the troops and the high command; it was understood that the soldiers would hold the line and defend themselves if attacked, but asking them to take part in another offensive was asking for trouble.
This was considered lack of moral fibre by the high commands, but in a limited and defensive way was serving notice on all the Empires involved that they could not push on indefinitely, and was an early sign that their time was passing. The greatest collapse was, of course, in Russia, where the disaffection of the soldiers was crucial in the collapse of Tsarism in February 1917. A desire for “peace, land and bread” led radicalised regiments to support the Bolshevik revolution in November after the Kerensky government tried to keep them fighting. The Bolsheviks made an immediate offer to both sides of peace without annexations or indemnities. Neither side accepted it, pressing on regardless in the hope of winning for another bloody year. All of the Empires involved thought they could win and were prepared to sacrifice millions more lives to do so.
Britain is a funny place. It wants to be “open to the world” but be closed to most of the people who live in it
So the ritualisation of remembrance in Britain is more subtle than the crude “celebration” that the government initially had in mind. It mourns, but does so in a way that worships the symbols and institutions of the system of power that sent those men to die in the first place. It tries to make any remembrance outside this framework, especially any that challenge it, disloyal and insulting, not to the state but to those that died. In so doing, it sanctifies itself and uses the blood of the dead to seal it. The venom with which this is projected is still very potent with older people. Less so with the young, who have grown up through a quarter century of continuous and largely unsuccessful overseas interventions and have began to question them.
The problem for those in authority seeking to use a selective reading of History to bolster a simplistic, or self-serving narrative, is that it leads to people seriously digging into the past and coming up with awkward questions. Although the commemorations will have been appropriately sad and moving, without these awkward questions being asked, they will keep us comfortably numb to our own limitations at a time when we need to be challenging them. Britain is a funny place. It wants to be “open to the world” but be closed to most of the people who live in it. It sees itself as a ‘plucky little island’ that has always stood up for democracy, whereas the rest of the world sees a country that ran an Empire on which “the sun never set and the blood never dried” and in which democracy was reserved for selected groups of white people.
If we don’t understand our history and content ourselves with a self-serving, self-congratulatory version, we will make mistakes with our future.