People matter, not the nation or sacrifice
Since I was a boy, the way we remember the soldiers of the First World War has changed. When I was 14, it was only 50 years since the Armistice, and Remembrance Sunday was solemn and martial: all bugles, rifles, salutes and Her Majesty. The word “sacrifice” was constantly used and while the occasion and the wearing of poppies was not a celebration of war, it was a recognition of the necessity to fight wars. It was in that sense a patriotic moment. It was about the country, not about the people.
That’s how it had been since 1918. In the aftermath of the war, memorials began to replace maypoles as the central feature of village greens. If you travel the country looking at these monuments, you’ll see they are mostly impersonal. Where figures are carved, they tend to be idealised soldiers: young and expressionless. The jolt comes when you read multiple inscribed names from what appears to be a single family.
Until recently, the “act of remembrance” was essentially a piety, like school prayers or the moment when, last week, fans observed a minute’s silence at football grounds for a Thai billionaire most of them had never heard of before his death.
In the years immediately after the Great War, people did not dwell on it. Returning soldiers complained that those at home did not want to hear about the conflict; those at home said soldiers did not want to describe the horrors they had seen and committed. Both had suffered, and their first response was not so much denial as aversion. Like a patient recovering from a debilitating illness, they didn’t want to recall the misery, they just wanted to get well again.
Later, the apparent futility of the conflict took hold in the national consciousness. War poets such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon became the essential voices of a generation and, from the 1960s, Oh! What a Lovely War and Beyond the Fringe satirised the whole concept of “sacrifice”. The war had been a colossal waste; the infantry were “lions led by donkeys”, a perception popularised in Alan Clark’s scathing account of British generalship, The Donkeys.
This view reached its apotheosis in the 1980s with Blackadder Goes Forth. “Not even our generals are mad enough to shell their own men,” Captain Blackadder tells his officers, who think a lull in shelling means the war is over. “They think it’s far more sporting to let the Germans do it.”
But nearly 30 years since that series was first shown (almost as long a gap as between the outbreak of the First World War and the end of the Second), we’ve changed the reason for remembrance again. Today, Peter Jackson’s documentary They Shall Not Grow Old arrives in cinemas. In terms of information, it doesn’t tell you much you didn’t already know about rats, latrines, shells, gas, and comradeship.
It’s what Jackson has done with the pictures that is revolutionary and in tune with how we think and feel about remembrance today. Twenty minutes into the film, the black and white newsreel footage turns colour. Suddenly, you are not looking at ancient, almost engraved, figures but at real men who
Where even countries appeared to have no choice, the individual seemed not to matter at all
separate from their backgrounds and come to life.
This goes to the heart of our view of the centenary and why we are making such a big deal of it. The First World War was a meatgrinder, into which choices by distant figures — kaisers, tsars and emperors — set in train an unstoppable momentum towards an orgy of violence that few had sought.
This inexorable process was succeeded by the inexorability of the war itself. The war occurred despite no one wanting it and was then conducted in a way that no one could escape. In this process, where even countries appeared to have no choice, the individual seemed not to matter at all.
But this year, we are reclaiming the human being in the face of the machine. Jackson’s film and countless school and community projects are making clear that it’s the person — not the nation or the sacrifice — that matters.
It may seem odd, then, to say that maybe we should stop now and that 100 years on seems a good moment to do it. There are other times and people and events that require our attention. To take one example — also 100 years ago — the world was experiencing a flu pandemic that killed as many as 50 million people. These were real people too, our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ generations, and there is as pressing a need to remember what can happen if a virus mutates beyond our capacity to control it, as there is to learn the lessons of unwanted wars.