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So it is a hundred years since the declaration in Great Britain of war against Germany. One hundred years ago from 11pm tonight, the deadline expired that Britain had set Germany to end its invasion of Belgium and France. And as I walked the streets of London tonight, in the darkening evening, I thought back to the London of old, and a picture that seems emblematic somehow of the naiveté of the age, of ranks of men raising their hats in cheer in Trafalgar Square. And of course to Edward Grey’s apposite and prophetic words as dusk fell: “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetimes”.

I won’t rehearse a long speech of familiar lessons to be drawn from the war. To be frank, I’ve found the commemorations alienating. The art has been misjudged, the television programs unmemorable, the newspaper articles a familiar recasting of attitudes of the present in the clothes of the past. The gatherings of the heirs of the British Establishment in our finest churches, and of European leaders standing in line before great memorials, “in stately conclave met”, seem to me to be a wholly appropriate repetition of the scene of the crime.

It also seems to me that far from lighting a candle– as some have suggested– to commemorate the war dead, should we wish to make a profound or meaningful connection to those past events, an effort should be made to de-ritualise the commemoration of the war. And as an English teacher, I can fortunately say that it is books, and reading, that are the way to do this.

The First World War was, and remains, a written war. Very many of the soldiers who fought were the product of the late Victorian education acts, and they wrote home to their families about their experiences; they wrote to their friends about their experiences; they wrote poems, plays and novels about their experiences. The raw and shocking and humbling stuff of the war is already out there. If you are reading this, you are a literate person: so, if you truly want to commemorate the war, don’t follow a timetable set for you by some sentimentalising politician, but read about it, read, read, read. Read the accounts of the men themselves, read the great writings that they produced, and read history books. Don’t have your thoughts about the war predetermined by me or anyone else. Read.

You’ll be a better person– and ours will be a better world– for it.

 

The Romantic vision of cavalry during the Great War: 'Cavalry and Tanks at Arras, 1918' by Lieutenant Alfred Bastien

I’m not sure if this constitutes a recommendation or a warning, but last night Channel 4 showed a new World War I documentary entitled, ‘War Horse: The Real Story’. This program is now available for viewers to watch again online, on 4 On Demand. If you are interested in a documentary that promises to tell the “extraordinary, moving story” of the horses used in the Great War, “beginning with the mass call-up of horses from every farm and country estate in the land”, I suggest you take a look.

I caught a large chunk of the show last night. It does contain some interesting background information about the cavalry and the perils faced by these men and their horses, and some of the footage shown is certainly illustrative of the horrors of the war– a shot of the Hawthorn ridge mine exploding, for example. As far as it goes, there’s some interesting and useful information here to give literature students a sense of historical context.

But… but. It’s difficult to watch a documentary like this and not feel a sense of horror at the prospect of all the low-grade, uninspired documentaries about the Great War that will swamp our television screens over the next six years, as we mark the centenary of the war. The narration of the show, when not downright offensive, caught exactly the wrong tone in speaking about the war.

Offensive? Try this on for size, when talking about Passchendaele, one of the bloodiest of all the late battles of the war (please read with a softly mournful tone, as if telling a four year old that their pet guinea pig had just died): at Passchendaele, “the horses suffered equally alongside the men”. Really. Really?

This was a statement of such cosmic ignorance and such utter lack of empathy with the subject in hand that I had to switch the television off immediately: I find this beats having to install a swearbox in the living room. So I don’t know how the show ends. Sorry about that.

AS students who are reading the Jon Stallworthy anthology, however, will recognise from Herbert Asquith’s ‘The Volunteer’ the show’s nostalgic longing for a more honourable age of knights and chargers. Just as the general staff longed for a war of movement, this show longed for the First World War to be a completely different war to the one that was actually fought: one of heroes on horses making the decisive intervention. The program repeatedly showed romantic reconstructions of cavalry silhouetted against the setting sun: “horsemen, charging under phantom skies”, indeed.

Of course, the First World War wasn’t like that. The First World War was the end of the cavalry in modern warfare, for obvious reasons: a horse can’t be armoured against enfilading machine gun fire, and works, at best, at roughly one horse power. Horses were, on the other hand, essential for transport and, at the end of the war, meat for starving peasants.

The argument that the documentary makes, that “the finest hour of the cavalry came in spring 1918 when – led by the warhorse Warrior – they checked the German advance before going on to help win the war” is, frankly, idiotic. On the contrary, the cavalry was an outmoded institution that no-one in the conservative British Army really knew what to do with, at least on the Western Front. The years of static slaughter during which, at each big push, hundreds or thousands of horse riders would hang about behind the lines waiting for signs of breakthrough, stands as an everlasting testament to the mental inflexibility of the general staff.

Similarly, our current fascination with the War Horse seems to be, in part, an attempt to substitute a romantic symbol for ugly reality. We better get used to this desperate revisionism in the years ahead.

The HMS Hogue and HMS Aboukir, sunk on September 22, 1914: scavenged, 2011.

A disturbing story that first emerged in the Autumn has found new prominence in the pages of Private Eye this month. Concerning the fate of three British warships sunk at the start of the First World War, it has the capacity both to surprise and disturb. After the traditional acts of remembrance that take place in November, the ongoing story of the wrecks of HMS Aboukir, HMS Hogue and HMS Cressy serve as a chilly reminder that, whatever the ethical standards the rest of us strive to live by, national and international commerce works by its own rules.

The three British battleships were sunk by a German U-boat not far off the coast of The Netherlands on the 22nd of September, 1914. In total 1,459 men were killed. The site where the ships sank might, you might think, constitute an internationally protected war grave. The reality is quite different.

In 1954 the remains of the sunken cruisers were sold by the British government (during an age of austerity greater than our own) to a German salvage company. Today, these rights to salvage have been bought by companies who have reportedly begun taking apart the British ships using “heavy duty claws”. The raw materials that make up the fabric of the ships– iron, steel, copper– are now so valuable that tearing up the ships for scrap is economically lucrative. The Eye follows up the work of the heritage campaign group Mortimer in bringing this issue to light, highlighting our current government’s lack of action to protect this resting place for the War Dead.

In doing so, Private Eye is following its own honourable tradition of pointing out hypocricy. The Eye is Britain’s most famous satirical magazine, a magazine for intelligent people who haven’t lost their principles or their sense of humour– and the earlier you start reading it, probably the better.

Poppy Appeal?

As Armistice Day approaches, the question of how we should remember the First World War has again hit the news.

Channel 4 News presenter, Jon Snow, does not wear a poppy when he reads the news. Many presenters on television choose to at this time of year, but he does not. This has led to controversy in recent days, summed up in this BBC report, ‘TV’s Snow rejects ‘poppy fascism’‘.

You’ll remember that the poppy is worn as a symbol of remembrance for the deaths of soldiers during war. The blood-red flower has been associated with death in war at least since Waterloo: it flourishes in turned over ground, such as fields churned up by horses and artillery, or, a century later on the Western Front, folded and cratered by massive shell explosions. Fed by lime and human fertiliser, the poppy famously began to cover Flander’s fields.

John McRae’s famous poem, ‘In Flanders Fields’, led to a wider identification of the poppy with the butchery of the First World War, especially in his homeland Canada. The poem begins:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row…

By twists and turns, but directly inspired by the poem, the Royal Canadian Legion eventually began giving paper poppies as symbols of remembrance for the dead of the First World War. This custom spread worldwide, and hence the poppy is still worn today.

The question at the heart of the controversy is whether and why a poppy should be worn today. Snow isn’t against the wearing of poppies; he says he doesn’t wear any kind of symbol. Some people are angry that he seems to have rejected the poppy: in doing so, they say, he is rejecting the dead that the poppy represents. Tempers are high. What do you think about this issue? Some people say the whole thing has been whipped up by the media. Does it matter that Snow won’t wear a poppy on the news? The Daily Mail weighs in, here: a historian defends Snow, here.

Meanwhile there seems to be a more bothersome problem with remembering the First World War on television. Where are the stories and accounts of WWI on the mainstream terrestrial stations? A week before the anniversary of the end of the First World War, and the BBC hasn’t shown a single new documentary on the conflict. Less emotive perhaps, but more important for the nation’s remembrance than the fact that a telly newsreader isn’t wearing a flower? Perhaps.

At any rate, in a nice irony, Channel 4 has repeated a fascinating documentary on the First World War, ‘Not Forgotten’. Presented by Ian Hislop, it looks at the history of the reviled ‘conchies’, or conscientious objectors to the war. These were people who objected totally to the fighting, and decided to take no part in it, for personal or religious reasons. They suffered social isolation– and worse. You can watch the episode on the web at Channel 4 online.

Beginning at the beginning of First World War poetry, Stallworthy opens his collection of Great War poems with Hardy’s ‘The Men Who March Away’.

It is an ambiguous poem– we can’t say for sure what meaning it offers readers. Is it a straightforwardly patriotic poem? Does it voice doubts about the conflict?

Some critics contend that if we want to answer this question, we have to look to the “friend with the musing eye” in the second stanza: how he views the leaving soldiers, and how they view him.

What do you think this onlooker in the poem represents? Think about the time of the poem’s composition and the prevelant feelings about war at that time. Is ‘The Men Who March Away’ a straightforwardly patriotic poem? Is Hardy casting doubt on the patriotism of the time? Or is Hardy perhaps ambivalent about the conflict to come?

What do you think?

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