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

The Daily Telegraph - - Comment - CHARLES MOORE

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.

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