The First World War: Commemorating, not merely remembering

In 2014 the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War will be widely commemorated. And everywhere many will wonder – and question yet again – what 10 million deaths achieved, especially as the flawed “peace” that followed led to the rise of totalitarianism and the bestialities of the second-half of the 20th century. When it comes to “We will remember them,” much will depend on speaking honestly about the politics of memory.

One way of thinking about the neatly rounded figure of 10 million deaths is to imagine 6,452 for every day of the four years and three months that the war lasted. But that is not how it happened. Some days were unimaginably worse than others (19,240 men were killed on 1 July 1916 – the first day of the Battle on the Somme). And the estimated total figure ignores the living deaths of those who survived the War, but who suffered physical and mental trauma; those who were executed for military disobedience (more than 900 by France and Great Britain); and the lasting impact on families left without fathers and sons, mothers and daughters.

Immediately after the outbreak of the “war to end war”, the British author and social commentator H. G. Wells published a number of articles in London newspapers that roundly blamed the conflict on Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria, arguing that only the total defeat of German militarism could bring about an end to war. And yet it was also H. G. Wells who published Mr Britling Sees It Through (1916), which raised the spectre of war’s obscenity:

“What have we to gain from hurting one another still further? Why should we be puppets any longer in the hands of crowned fools and witless diplomatists? Even if we were dumb and acquiescent before, does not the blood of our sons now cry out to us that this foolery should cease? We have let these people send our sons to death.”

A similar sentiment was expressed by the writer D. H. Lawrence in a private letter: the old world is “done for, toppling on top of us” … “this world of ours has got to collapse now, in violence and injustice and destruction, nothing will stop it” (7 February 1916).

By the end of the war, as Norman Davies noted in Europe: A History (1996), “Over 10 million soldiers were dead – overwhelmingly, young married men or bachelors. Casualty rates were specially high among junior officers. They were called the ‘lost generation’, les sacrifiés. The burden of their war service, of their loss, and of their injuries had to be borne by their families, especially by the womenfolk.”

The incompetence of politicians and military leaders – and the lethal unpreparedness of the ordinary soldiers who were the victims of that incompetence – were later exposed by historians and sociologists. However, it was not until the 1960s that the voices of ordinary men and women began to be heard in books based on the first-hand accounts of veterans, and recorded for posterity in audio and video archives and web-based memory projects.

And then there were the much lauded “war poets” who, writing in English, included Charles Sorley (killed in 1915), Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg (both killed in 1918), and Siegfried Sassoon (who survived). Much less well-known were the women poets. Of 2,225 individuals who wrote verses about the Great War – identified by Catherine W. Reilly in her book Scars Upon My Heart: Women’s Poetry and Verse of the First World War (1981) – 532 were women.

GriefOne of them was May Wedderburn Cannan (1893–1973), who in 1915 spent four weeks in France running a railway canteen for soldiers and later worked for the intelligence services in Paris. “Since They Have Died” comes from her first volume of poems In War Time (1917). It was followed by The Splendid Days (1919), The House of Hope (1923) and the semi-autobiographical novel The Lonely Generation (1934).

The poem’s tone of resignation belies its appeal to commonsense: that the world – that world fought over for almost five bitter years – and the world that followed, and the world we find ourselves in today, is, ironically, “in our keeping”. When we commemorate the First World War, the politics of memory should not be allowed to obliterate what it is, exactly, that we are remembering.

“Since they have died to give us gentleness,
And hearts kind with contentment and quiet mirth,
Let us who live also give happiness
And love, that’s born of pity, to the earth.

For, I have thought, some day they may lie sleeping
Forgetting all the weariness and pain,
And smile to think their world is in our keeping,
And laughter comes back to the earth again.”


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