‘If I should die, think only this of me;
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.’ From ‘The Soldier’, Rupert Brooke 1914
It was Remembrance Day in Britain today and, this year, it is also the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War.
I watched the Queen, other members of the Royal Family and Members of Parliament lay wreaths at the Cenotaph in London. Thousands watched and, for two minutes as the bell tolled, there was unbroken silence.
How can one not be overwhelmed by the reality of this War that changed everything? The number of casualties is unfathomable: an estimated 47,466,904 in total. A war that took from us a generation – those who died, and those who returned as the walking dead – who had seen too much, done too much, suffered too much. And then no one wanted to know.* No wonder the men longed to return to the hell of the trenches with their brothers-in-arms until a bullet took them.
My paternal grandfather fought at the Battle of the Somme, where it looked like “half of England” rose from the trenches only to be mown down by German guns. Of the 110,000 Tommies who attacked enemy lines, 60,000 were killed in a day. They fell in rows and the next line climbed over them to be killed in turn.
Injured by mustard gas, my grandfather never regained his sense of smell or taste before his death in his nineties. His brother had died in the mud of Passchendaele.
I always found my grandfather a particularly difficult man. He had no sense of humor. I once asked my father if he thought his father had had a sense of humor before the war. He replied, “It’s impossible to tell.”
My grandfather never spoke of the War. The only thing he ever said in reference to it was – just once – to my father: “The thing was, you see, we were all so young.” How many 18 year olds do you know? That was them.
I read ‘Birdsong’ by Sebastian Faulks when I was pregnant with my own son. I finished it and immediately started reading it again. I kept thinking of my grandfather, seeing him in a new light, and I dreaded giving birth to a son myself. In my hormonal state, I sobbed to my husband, “I don’t think I can be the mother of a son! Girls are so much tougher! So much more prepared. I don’t think I can bear the absolute vulnerability of a boy. Do you know the last word spoken by many of the young soldiers who died at the front? “Mother.”’ (My children’s father wisely chose to say nothing and hugged me.)
I read Vera Britten’s memoir, ‘Testament of Youth’ about the impact of the war on her generation – both men and women. And then last year I read, ‘Into the Silence’ about George Mallory and the first expeditions to conquer Everest. It is written in the context of the aftermath of World War One. Young men who had lost everything yet were still alive. Who longed with a passion to conquer something, to make sense of something.
Why do I think about World War One so much? The reality of what it turned out to be sobered the nation and the world. ( in ‘Downton Abbey’ last week, Maggie Smith’s Lady Grantham intoned, “Before the war, nobody thought about anything.”)
The sacrifice rings loudly in Britain still. You can rarely visit a village without a memorial to those who gave their lives in the Great War. When I mention it here in America, most kindly stare at me a little blankly as if to say, “Now why on earth would you be talking about that?”
I talk about it, think about it, read about it because I have become (largely through the education of my father) keenly aware of how the sacrifice of those who fought and the war’s aftermath changed everything for all of us who arrived later on. Sociologically, psychologically, culturally. I want to remember the unimaginable bravery and suffering they endured for a cause they all – so young and from so many different countries – wanted to believe in. A cause that was (with the hindsight of history) so tragically mismanaged, and the end of which provided fertile ground for the rise of Hitler.
For the centenary, Britain has come up with a breathtakingly beautiful memorial to the 888, 246 fallen from Britain and the Commonwealth. Entitled ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’, 888,246 ceramic poppies have been handmade and individually planted in the moat of the Tower of London since July 17.
[Chelsea Pensioner, Yeoman Warder and Grenadier Guard: three generations of military service, honoring their predecessors.]
On Armistice Day itself (Nov 11) there will have been one poppy planted for each British/Commonwealth fatality in the First World War. 16,000 volunteers have come to plant them from all over the world – from as far away as Singapore and New Zealand – to honor those who fell.
The installation at the Tower of London has drawn approximately 4 million people to see it. So many in fact, my sister tells me that over the intercom on the London Tube last week they warned passengers not to get out at Tower Hill because there were simply too many people to accommodate any more.**
The poppy installation is the vision of an artist named Richard Cummins and one pottery in Derby has produced them all. I watched the video of how they make them and saw how moved the artists were at making each one a unique creation to represent each individual human life lost.
Seeing it for the first time, what immediately brought tears to my throat were the poppies “still” cascading out of the ‘Weeping Window’ in the Tower.
How does art do that? I look at it and am reminded of the willingness of all those young men to go to war for King and Country. They poured across the channel believing it would be “jolly good fun” and would “all be over by Christmas”. That they would “beat the Hun” and tell the Kaiser where to go. No one envisioned the war of attrition that was to come.
Earlier this year, the BBC aired a drama called ’37 days’ about the thirty-seven days leading up to the outbreak of the First World War. Watching it was almost unbearable. The inexorable bearing down of a war between prideful nations. The horrendously conflicted position of Sir Edward Grey, the then Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs who, after the die was cast, uttered the famous words, “The lights are going out all over Europe. They shall not be lit again in our lifetime.”
This year, Britain honored the centenary by turning all the lights out in Britain 100 years to the hour when Britain declared war on Germany.
Today again, watching the Queen lay a wreath for the 61st time at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, I challenge myself to answer that question by the way I live my own life and teach my children – the great grandchildren of those who volunteered and died/survived and endured. That I would live in such a way as to honor the sacrifice of so many.
‘They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.’
* for an outstanding depiction of the effects of World War One, read Pat Barker’s trilogy ‘Regeneration’.