Alan Bennett famously wrote: “History? It’s just one fuckin thing after another!”. He was right, of course, but the older I get, the more I come to realize that its weight lies far more on individuals than on nations.
On October 12th 1917, 95 years ago today, my granddad, Tom Duckett, was a Gunner on the first day of the Battle of Paschendaele. At home, my mum was 5 weeks old; my grandma had spent the previous two years traveling round England, with a baby girl and latterly pregnant, so she could spend some brief times with her husband – Portsmouth, Shoeburyness – they don’t put gunnery schools in easily accessible locations.
Tom was lucky, he survived the war and had the great ‘good fortune’ to go through it all again, as an ARP Warden in Liverpool during the May Blitz in 1941. In the fifties, when visiting us in Edinburgh, the boom of the One O’Clock gun would still make him dive for cover in doorways.
Five months later, my Uncle Joe, on my dad’s side, was fighting in France during the Mars Offensive. Though my family supported Sinn Fein, he had joined the Post Office Rifles, believing, as many did, that this was the war in defence of small nations and the war to end all wars. After the wholescale slaughter on the first day of the Somme, Joe was transferred to the London Rifle Brigade and became a Sergeant.
On March 28th 1918 he was in a forward position, Bird Post, on the road between Gavrelle and Oppy in the Pas de Calais. These posts were overrun and he was wounded, gassed and taken prisoner. Until receiving a postcard from him in the Friedrichsheim POW camp 6 months later, which I still have, the family believed he was dead. He never recovered from his wounds and died on May 25th 1923.
My dad, who worshipped his big brother, never quite got over his loss, nor the weight of becoming the oldest in the family. In one of those eerie coincidences of fate, when he died young in 1957, it was on the same date as Joe, May 25th.
For 37 years as a teacher, my speciality was ‘War Poetry’. I tried to use the words of Owen, Sassoon, Blunden, Rosenberg and Thomas to help pupils understand what Owen called ‘The Pity’ of war. I handed round cups filled with balls of shrapnel taken from the battlefields,I showed pictures, played recordings, described the mud in which men drowned; I talked of my granddad and my uncle, of family history, of the cousins I never had, of the places in France and Belgium where I still go, because I feel a connection. I pointed out that there were empty desks in their classrooms because the men who would have been their classmates’ great grandfathers never survived to have children.
As an English teacher, I wanted them to understand the power of poetry and imagery; as a human being I wanted them to understand that war was not glorious.
At the start of my career, in the seventies, I believed that “The old lie ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ had run its time; people would not be fooled again in that manner.
Sadly, through the Falklands, the Gulf War, Iraq, and Afghanistan I was proved mistaken. Even more effectively than in 14-18, the lie was sold, criticism was to be unpatriotic, and young men with little economic alternative paid the price. ‘For Freedom’.
There is, of course, a fine and emotional line between honouring those who give their lives – whatever your view of the motive, and using them as poster boys and girls for patriotism of a dubious nature. In Sassoon’s poem at the end of this blog, written nearly a century ago, the point is made far more eloquently than I can manage. Plus ca change.
So David Cameron’s announcement, shortly after the end of the Conservative Party Conference, that ‘the country’ would start to commemorate the centenary of The Great War in 2014 and his linking it to the Queen’s Jubilee and the Olympic Games, as a celebration of ‘how great Britain can be’ set all sorts of alarm bells ringing.
It would be a strange state indeed that failed to commemorate the sacrifice made by hundreds and thousands of young men, and that 1914 should be remembered and acknowledged is beyond question. However, commemorating the start of the war rather than the Armistice is a strange approach, and the linking of a conflict in which millions died with the nature of a state’s ‘greatness’ is just bizarre.
As Churchill admitted, history is written by the winners, and the UK has long had an airbrushed view of the cause and effect of World War 1. It didn’t defend the rights of small nations, it wasn’t the war to end all wars, its prosecution was flawed by all manner of military and political errors, and in all sorts of ways the government was dishonest with the people at home, and the relatives of those who fell. There was nothing glorious about it and it certainly doesn’t demonstrate the ‘greatness’ of Britain – then or now.
It should have been the start of a learning experience for politicians, but it wasn’t, and, even today, we have those who suggest Britain having ‘influence in the world’, maintaining a nuclear arsenal at almighty cost, and clinging on to America’s coat tails on the world stage, is more important than tackling child poverty or the grotesque inequalities in British society.
This is not particularly an attack on David Cameron, or indeed on the Tories. All British governments have been adept at wrapping the flag around themselves when they thought it could detract from failing policies or calm down civilian unrest.
It’s not about politicians at all, in fact. It’s about all those young men who went across the channel and never returned, and all those families who lost a loved one or whose lives were changed utterly. It is interesting that this determination to use the war as a rallying point for Britishness has been announced after the deaths of the last combatants. The men who were at the front, who lived the experience, seldom referred to it at all, and when they eventually did, few of them spoke of glory or patriotism or pride – except in their friends and comrades.
There are still many in Britain who do not need government organized events to remember the men who fell in 1914-18 and who are rightly suspicious when a politician links the sacrifice of their forebears to proof of how great this country is. The UK state is the fourth most unequal society in terms of wealth and London is the most unequal city in the world. There is child poverty, pensioners in penury and mounting debt while a minority continue to get rich – Cameron is certainly representing ‘those who want to be better off’ as he claimed at his party conference.
Would the soldiers who fought in 1914 feel this was something they would want to link to their sacrifice?
Some claim the announcement of this commemoration is an attempt to detract from the Scottish Referendum, to remind everyone on these islands that they are ‘British’. I’m not sure it’s that targeted. I think it is lazy politics from a man whose party have no alternative to their stock approach to government. Andrew Mitchell let the cat out of the bag: they view most of us as ‘plebs’ and if they fling us a British event at regular intervals – a Royal Wedding, a Jubilee, the Olympics – we’ll be so happy, and so limited in our understanding, that we’ll forget about unemployment and poverty and the injustices of the real Britain. So they hope.
No point is too banal for this PR man. He mocks the Scottish First Minister and tells conference he’ll come to Scotland to ‘sort out’ this referendum thing; he chortles that Scots athletes draped themselves in the Union Flag at the Olympics, trusting us to forget they did that because all other flags were banned.
In this approach to Scotland he epitomizes the dregs of 1970s advertising speak: Let’s run the flag up the pole and see who salutes. The future of a nation’s governance is not about flags and sports events. As a nationalist, I look to the day when our flag is merely a symbol of the country, not a ‘Wha’s like us!’ statement to claim our ‘difference’. Independence is about people’s lives and a country taking responsibility for its own affairs; acquiring the power to make a difference to its citizens in a positive way. Why would we want a country which, a hundred years after the Great War, measured itself by its military prowess – what an insult to all those soldiers who died to end that sort of 19th century nonsense. Perhaps in Scotland, where along with Serbia, we lost more per head of population than any other country, we have more of an understanding of the nature of war, or perhaps Mr Cameron just doesn’t care. Maybe Boris Johnston will dress up as a British Bulldog to mark the event, if he thinks it will promote his ambitions – and oh how we’ll laugh.
So here’s my remembrance of the Great War – and I don’t have to wait till 2014 to launch it – it’s just about a daily occurrence, nor do I have to wrap it in a union flag – or a saltire.
Whenever I see a canal, I think about the last moments of Lt Wilfred Owen at Ors in northern France in the cold early dawn of November 4th 1918; when I pass Napier University’s Craiglockhart Campus, I remember how Sassoon and Owen met there, and I think of all the young shell shocked officers who stood on its lawn, looked out over the city, and wondered about their futures; I remember, too, the nurses who held them through their nightmares, gaining their own broken dreams for years to come.
When I catch sight of a single Commonwealth Grave in a cemetery, stark white against the grey stone of the civilian ranks, I remember the parents who must have brought their lad home, and think of them wondering what he would have become. When I see public figures ordered to wear poppies by their managers, I think of those who died ‘for freedom’ and wonder if that’s what they would have wanted.
The thought is there whenever I drive through a Highland village crossroads and see the list of names below the cross on the war memorial, a list that is bigger in number than the houses around.
Visiting the graves of my dad and Joe, I see in my mind the formal picture of them, my teenage dad a Cadet, Joe in his London Rifle Brigade uniform, their eyes signaling a mixture of pride and fear. Whenever I hear a gruff Lancashire accent, I remember my Grandad, still ramrod straight in his 70s, and his unhelpful Gunner’s ‘comfort’ to his wife in the 1941 air raid shelter: “It’s alright, Rose, you won’t hear the one that’ll get you.”
On the shelf I see the film case filled with balls of shrapnel from Ypres, heavier than the space they take up, even when not spewing out of an exploding shell, and I think of the wide eyes of my pupils as they weighed them in their hands, unable to comprehend the reality of the trenches. I think too of those I taught who have gone to their own wars, whose parents became linked to those folk of the last century in worry and pride.
I’m moved always by the last line of Eric Bogle’s ‘The Green Fields of France’: when he tells ‘Young Willie McBride’ that it ‘happened again and again and again’. And even when I think of my career as an English teacher, I know it was the words written by the War Poets that launched me on that trajectory, speaking across the pages and the years.
The word ‘stationmaster’ reminds me of the station house in Shrewsbury, where Owen’s father had that job, and the one in Ors, metres away from the gate of the village cemetery where Owen lies buried.
When I catch an old film starring John Mills, I remember him as Douglas Haig in ‘Oh what a lovely war!’, and the memory is fired up again.
When I clean mud off my boots after a hill walk, I thank God it was accumulated in the pursuit of pleasure not survival.
I have no doubt that over the next five or six years, more than once you will find me standing by the hedgerow of a country road in France or in a muddy field in Belgium, using geography and landscape to remember.
There’s a good chance there will be tears in my eyes and even running down my cheeks. I’ll be crying for Uncle Joe and Grandad, for all the fear they felt and the friends they lost; I’ll be crying for the millions I didn’t know who, one way or another, left their young lives in the trenches of northern Europe.
And I’ll be crying for the men who, a century later, are still using them as political cannon fodder.
by Siegfried Sassoon (1918)
Squire nagged and bullied till I went to fight,
(Under Lord Derby’s scheme). I died in hell –
(They called it Passchendaele). My wound was slight,
And I was hobbling back; and then a shell
Burst slick upon the duckboards: so I fell
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light
At sermon-time, while Squire is in his pew,
He gives my gilded name a thoughtful stare;
For, though low down upon the list, I’m there;
“In proud and glorious memory” … that’s my due.
Two bleeding years I fought in France, for Squire:
I suffered anguish that he’s never guessed.
I came home on leave: and then went west…
What greater glory could a man desire?