Remembrance is about the common soldier – that’s why it matters so much
The Great War was the first conflict that allowed us to connect with the lives and sacrifice of ordinary men
Each war memorial says “Lest We Forget”, because otherwise we would. We naturally think more of the immediate than the past; we have our own concerns; life goes on. Indeed, there is nowadays almost a doctrine of forgetting. “Time to move on,” people say. It usually shuts down the conversation.
Moving on is good if it means laying aside bitterness and hatred. It is bad if it means forgetting who we are and how we got here. People often complain that the modern world is an engine of oblivion: entertainment technology allows us to exclude all contemplation from our lives and live solely in the trivial moment. There is truth in this, but it is also true that our technological revolution empowers millions to become their own historians. The massive interest in genealogy on the internet is an example. So is the centenary of the Armistice.
Yesterday, President Macron and Mrs May laid wreaths at the Thiepval monument in Picardy. Sir Edwin Lutyens’s majestic, yet totally unvainglorious building is called The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme. It commemorates, by names inscribed upon it, the 73,357 men whose bodies were never found. It can also be taken to stand for all the missing. It is a vast and beautiful attempt to retrieve something which would otherwise be lost.
Ever since mankind first began to develop an idea of history, people have been tormented by this thought of loss. Even in ancient, hierarchical societies, there was great concern that ordinary human beings were not properly commemorated. Our war memorials are often inscribed with the words, “Their name liveth for evermore”. This is a quotation from the book of Ecclesiasticus, written about 200 years before the birth of Jesus. “Let us now praise famous men and our fathers that begat us”, the passage begins. Such men will be all right, it says, because they were “honoured in their generation” and “have left a name behind them”. But it worries about all those not honoured: “And some there be who have no memorial, who are perished as though they had never been…, but their name liveth for evermore”.
In the First World War, for the first time ever, basic records of the common soldier (and sailor and airman) were carefully kept. This meant that almost everyone was commemorated by name. Hence the new idea of memorials for classes never before memorialised. Hence the unprecedented accuracy and completeness of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which cares for the graves of the fallen all over the world. And now the internet allows the records to be much more easily consulted and compared. Every town and village, can name – and, nowadays, research – its dead.
The Great War also coincided with the rise of snap, rather than studio, photography and of motion pictures. The visual record was therefore – including in its representation of horrible things – much better than before, and much likelier to focus on the ordinary soldier. Yet even that technology created some distance. As a boy, I felt rather frustrated by the sense that everyone at the beginning of the 20th century had been black and white and walked fast with jerky movements. Now the 21st century has overcome this problem.
Tomorrow night, the BBC will broadcast Peter Jackson’s film They Shall Not Grow Old. It consists almost entirely of historic film, with no voice-over except of now dead veterans from the sound archives. Jackson has contrived to slow the old film to lifelike speed and, after the most careful research, to colour it, so that each man’s uniform and face, each horse and barn and gun, has the colour of reality. Now you can study the men properly – their terrible teeth and their lovely smiles. Jackson has even, where possible, read the lips of men speaking in the film and voiced them. You can hear a chaplain reading the funeral service, an officer addressing the troops before battle, and men calling out “Hang on”, “Lift him up”, or “Look, we’re in the pictures!”. The effect is moving, because you can see so clearly what we all sort of knew but sometimes found hard to feel – that these men of the past are, in what matters, the same as us. Once we feel like them, we find it easier to feel for them.
In a characteristically clever, but also annoying, piece in this week’s Spectator, the distinguished journalist Simon Jenkins complains of the Armistice centenary’s “nationalisation of personal grief ”. This ignores the Great War’s immense importance as a collective experience. He says: “The fact is that we do not remember the past.” As a statement about things that happened before we were born, this is obviously, literally true. But it is also misleading.
In an online talk introducing the commemoration of her own college’s dead, Clare Hayns, the chaplain of Christ Church, Oxford, points out that the word “remember” means to put together “things that have been wrenched apart”. A member is another word for a limb. Through memory, a shattered soldier can be metaphorically re-limbed. To put together the past is an act of intellectual and emotional value, both for an individual and a civilisation.
Throughout the history of war, the biggest single missing part has been the experience of what the British came to call Tommy Atkins. (The second biggest has been that of the women and children left behind.) It is captured in the humour of the soldiers in Shakespeare’s Henry V, and in numerous poems and stories by Kipling (not least about Indian soldiers who, until recently, were largely denied their place in history by other writers). It survives in old marching or drinking songs and other oral traditions.
But the accumulated millions of combatants in every age before our own have had only a march-on part in the epics of several thousand years which are peopled by gods, kings and commanders. Since the First World War, we have begun to give them their place centre stage, name to face. We have started to know the Unknown Soldier.
Jenkins says that history should be left to proper historians, who can sift the facts, recognise the nuances and puncture the myths. Far be it from me to criticise the work of scholarship, but history is not an academic closed shop. We all have history, just as we all have ancestors. And we are lucky to live in an age when we can at last uncover it. The democratic effect of this process has still barely begun.
Historical remembrance is, so far as we know, a uniquely human capacity. It is one of the chief means by which human beings understand themselves and their societies, and other people and other societies. Such remembrance is never more important than in the face of death, because it helps overcome it. This may be why, every day since churches first formed nearly 2,000 years ago, the death of Jesus has been the central moment commemorated in the main service.
I won’t spoil the Peter Jackson film by giving away the last line. Suffice it to say that one of the worst things about surviving the First World War was to come home and find that no one wanted to know. A hundred years later, it would seem that we do want to know. That feels like some sort of victory for humanity.
READ MORE at telegraph.co.uk/opinion