Posted by: michaeldaybath | November 6, 2014

The Long Shadow of Remembrance

David Reynolds, “Names: The Long Shadow of War and Remembrance, 1914-2014,” CWGC and LSE Remembrance Lecture, LSE, London, 29 October 2014.

The dead were and are not. Their place knows them no more and is ours today. […] The poetry of history lies in the quasi-miraculous fact that once, on this earth, once, on this familiar spot of ground, walked other men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions, but now all gone, one generation vanishing into another, gone as utterly as we ourselves shall shortly be gone, like ghosts at cockcrow” — G. M. Trevelyan, “Autobiography of an Historian”, In: An Autobiography and Other Essays (1949).

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red

“Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” at the Tower of London, October 2014

Last week, I attended the annual CWGC and LSE Remembrance Lecture, which was hosted by the London School of Economics and Political Science. This year’s lecturer was Professor David Reynolds, Professor of International History at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge. The title of his talk was “Names: The Long Shadow of War and Remembrance, 1914-2014,” reflecting the titles of his recent book [1] and BBC television series. Both have been broadly well-received. For example, Professor Gary Sheffield has suggested that Reynolds’s TV documentary should have been the BBC’s flagship series for the First World War Centenary in 2014, being “something of a model in conveying deep scholarship in an accessible fashion” [2].

The event started with a welcome from Glyn Prysor, Principal Historian at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), the co-sponsor of the lecture. Professor Reynolds was then formally introduced by the event chair, Sönke Neitzel, Professor of International History at LSE.

Reynolds divided the core of his lecture into three main sections, which broadly related to different phases of First World War remembrance in Britain. The first (Naming) covered the war years themselves and the period up to the start of the Second World War. Reynolds started with some familiar and “distinctly British” images of remembrance, e.g. the Cenotaph and the poppy. In terms of remembrance, the large numbers of dead represented both a logistical and ethical challenge during the war itself. In previous conflicts – the example given being the Battle of Waterloo – the solution had been to bury the vast majority of the dead in mass-graves, while the bodies of a very select few might be repatriated for burial at home. By the time of the First World War, this pragmatic approach was no longer acceptable, so – as David Crane has also outlined in a recent book [3] – the principles of the emerging Imperial War Graves Commission were based on: the non-repatriation of bodies, the provision of uniform gravestones, and the principle of ALL of the dead being named on some gravestone or memorial. Reynolds considered it significant that three of the key people that were involved in the early years of the Commission – its founder Fabian Ware, the architect Edwin Lutyens and the writer Rudyard Kipling – were all men with firm links to the British Empire, were all born in the 1860s (and thus too old to fight), and were all increasingly haunted by a growing horror about the fate of the younger generations that were sent to fight. This was, perhaps, especially true for Kipling, whose son John died at Loos in 1915. One of his Epitaphs of War, “Common Form,” is to the point [4]:

If any question why we died
Tell them, because our fathers lied.

Reynolds said that the names help to keep alive the humanity of those who died, illustrating that with images of Lutyens’ s Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval and Maya Lin’s striking Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. (itself influenced by Lutyens). Kipling also chose many of the standard inscriptions used in Commission cemeteries and monuments, including the phrase “A soldier of the Great War, known unto God,” which was placed on the gravestones of unidentified soldiers (Reynolds considered this superior to the simple French “Inconnu”). Reynolds concluded this first section of his lecture with two observations on this phase of British remembrance. The first was the IWGC’s aim for permanence, e.g. as referred to by Winston Churchill in a House of Commons debate on the Commission in May 1920 [5]:

The cemeteries which are going to be erected to the British dead on all the battlefields in all the theatres of war, will be entirely different from the ordinary cemeteries which mark the resting place of those who pass out in the common flow of human fate from year to year. They will be supported and sustained by the wealth of this great nation and Empire, as long as we remain a nation and an Empire, and there is no reason at all why, in periods as remote from our own as we ourselves are from the Tudors, the graveyards in France of this Great War, shall not remain an abiding and supreme memorial to the efforts and the glory of the British Army, and the sacrifices made in that great cause. […] We know the mutability of human arrangements, but even if our language, our institutions, and our Empire all have faded from the memory of man, these great stones will still preserve the memory of a common purpose pursued by a great nation in the remote past, and will undoubtedly excite the wonder and the reverence of a future age.

The second observation was that the Commission’s principles of naming all of the dead reflected a growing democratic mood, the sense that sacrifice in war would lead to the gain of political rights for all.

Cambridge War Memorial

Cambridge War Memorial

The second part of the lecture (Renaming) looked at what happened to this culture of remembrance after the advent of a new world war. Reynolds started with a striking image of conscripts uneasily marching past the Cambridge war memorial in October 1939. This second war was conducted directly in the shadow of the first one, but was one that was experienced differently in Britain. The nature of the conflict, with Britain itself enduring significant bombing, and the existence of a ‘bestial’ enemy with a ruthless policy of genocide meant that the second war could be more easily infused with a moral and heroic narrative, e.g. “Our Finest Hour.” A revised understanding of the earlier conflict was also reflected in language, with what had been referred to fairly widely in Britain as the Great War now becoming the “First World War,” and the 1920s and 1930s becoming an “inter-war period.” Reynolds commented that the project of remembrance carried on, broadly-speaking enfolded within the general framework established for the earlier war, but with a number of small changes (e.g. the movement of the two-minute silence from Armistice Day to the nearest Sunday).

Reynolds’s third part (Personalising) started with the re-emergence of the First World War out of the shadow of the second in the 1960s. The triggers for this he considered the 50th anniversary of the war and the death of Sir Winston Churchill in January 1965. For a society brought up on the British war movies of the 1950s, the 50th anniversary of the war gave an opportunity to re-assess the British experience of the earlier war, and in particular to bring to life the experiences of the ordinary soldier. Central to this was the BBC series “The Great War,” which included interviews with the generation of people that had actually been there (and who were now beginning to fade away). Related to this, Reynolds also noted a resurgence of popular interest in the soldier poets in the 1960s, especially through published anthologies like Up the line to death (ed. Brian Reynolds, 1964) and Men who march away (ed. I. M. Parsons, 1965), their titles derived respectively from poems by Siegfried Sassoon and Thomas Hardy. The anthologies helped to frame a narrative of the war – which Reynolds ultimately attributes to Edmund Blunden – that moves over time from naive patriotism (e.g. Rupert Brooke), through sarcasm (Robert Graves, Sassoon), to the sublime representation of the ‘pity of war,’ as expressed in Wilfred Owen’s poetry. Reynolds further commented that the cult of Owen dates from the 1960s, his poems fitting very well with the spirit of the age. Other markers of continued interest in the soldier’s perspective of the First World War included Joan Littlewood’s stage musical Oh, what a lovely war! (1963) and its corresponding film (1969), Martin Middlebrook’s exhaustive, bottom-up studies of particular battles (e.g., The first day on the Somme, 1 July 1916, 1971), and novelistic approaches by Sebastian Faulks (Birdsong, 1993) and Pat Barker (The Regeneration trilogy).

Reynolds concluded his lecture by asking where we were a century on from the war. He first noted that we were as far away from the First World War as the Napoleonic Wars would have been to those who were fighting a century ago. With the death of all remaining combatants, the First World War had now passed into history, a place where remembrance could be supported by more interpretation. In particular, Reynolds argued that we needed to “get out of the trenches and poets corner” and give some serious attention to under-researched topics like the home front (e.g. the role of women and children, changes in social attitudes) and the effects of the war in other parts of the world (e.g. the Middle East, India, China, Japan and Africa). Above all, it was important to move beyond national borders, and to consider the war from the perspective of other peoples and nations. In this regard, Reynolds paid tribute to a recent publication, Jay Winter’s edited Cambridge History of the First World War (2014), which had deliberately taken a trans-national approach to the war (unfortunately, at the price of £270.00 for three volumes, it is unlikely to be within the budget of those of us who are not Cambridge professors).

The lecture was thought-provoking and provided me above all with a new perspective on Reynolds’s book, the broad sweep of which I found quite frustrating on a first reading. The lecture focused primarily on the British experience and on remembrance, while the book has (slightly) more room to consider other important topics, including economics, politics, and art (although, sometimes quite superficially). I personally would have liked to have heard more in the lecture about the immediate post-war period, e.g. a discussion of literary and musical responses to the war and remembrance, or an assessment of the treatment of the war in film (e.g. the Hollywood film version of Erich Maria Remarque’s Im Westen nicht Neues), but I suppose that these topics take us far beyond remembrance (they are, however, topics that are covered (briefly) in Reynolds’s book.

Slightly more concerning to me was the apparent attempt to play down the significance of the war poets. Reynolds observed that the vast majority (around 80%) of 1914-18 poets would have been civilian (around 25% being female) [6], while the relatively few solder poets privileged by Blunden were mostly junior officers that had been educated at public schools. While it would be absurd to claim that the soldier poets’ experience of war was representative of all participants, the very fact that their work has endured says something about society’s need to try to understand the war through the prism of poetry (for those who would prefer a more modernist literary perspective, there is also David Jones’s In Parenthesis). I was also intrigued by the suggestion that Owen’s current popularity might largely be a product of the 1960s, so I conducted a simple, completely non-scientific experiment using the Google Ngram Viewer, which compares the relative frequency of phrases published in the Google Books corpus.

Google Ngram Viewer

Google Books Ngram Viewer

Taken at face-value, the results do suggest that there was indeed a surge of interest in all of the war poets in the 1960s and 1970s. Owen did indeed seem to gain in popularity in the 1960s, but he was on a upward curve long before then. By contrast, it seems that interest in Brooke has been going in the opposite direction, although he still stands up well when compared with the other solder poets. I think that it would be interesting to see more serious study of this topic.

In any case, in the week that the “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” installation at the Tower of London finally began to provoke some debate in the newspapers [7], Reynolds’s lecture was a welcome reminder that remembrance tends to reflect the needs of the present, rather than those of the past.

Notes and References:

[1] David Reynolds, The Long Shadow: the Great War and the twentieth century. London: Simon & Schuster, 2013.

[2] Gary Sheffield, “A Once in a Century Opportunity? Some Personal Reflections on the Centenary of the First World War.” British Journal for Military History, Vol. 1, No. 1, 2014, pp. 1-11 (here p.10.):

[3] David Crane, Empires of the Dead: how one man’s vision led to the creation of WWI’s war graves. London: William Collins, 2013.

[4] Rudyard Kipling, Epitaphs of the War. First published in: The Years Between (1919).

[5] Hansard, HC Deb 04 May 1920 vol 128 cc1929-72 (here columns 1970-71):

[6] The figures are repeated in Reynolds, op cit., p. 344, but I am not sure where the figures have come from.

[7] e.g., Simon Jenkins, “The Tower of London poppies are glorious but let’s learn their lesson.” Evening Standard, 4 November 2014.


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