Monday, 4 August 2014

Never such innocence again?

It is the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War and a lot will be said today about sacrifice and nobility and loss of innocence. The 1914-18 War stands as a powerful symbol, it seems, of a better time, when the world wasn't as messed up and confused and people knew what they believed in and were decent and true. Phillip Larkin, that most curmudgeonly and un-nostalgic of poets speaks for us all it seems when he writes, in MCMXIV, of "never such innocence again."

Only that's all bollocks of course, and Larkin knew it. In fact the 1914-18 war, as programmes like Radio 4's 1914: Day by Day have made clear, was the result of tangled, messy diplomacy going horribly and pointlessly wrong. The lead-up to it makes the current international wranglings over Ukraine and even Gaza look purposeful and measured. And not all soldiers signed up in a spirit of selfless nobility. There was xenophobic jingoism too, and a pathetic naivety that saw War as something like a grand rugby game. And then there was the appalling social pressures of the white feather movement and the shameful treatment of conscientious objectors. During the war soldiers were shot for displaying PTSD and on the first day of the Somme officers ignored spotters' revelations that the barbed wire was still undamaged and ordered their soldiers to walk, not run, into the German machine gun fire. Never such innocence again.

And yet. Still some symbols have survived from the 1914-18 War that speak to us of nobility and sacrifice, and have us bow our heads in solemn remembrance of a better time. I would like to look at two of them: the two minute silence at 11 am on the 11th of November, and the battlefield war graves of Northern France and Belgium.

The two minute silence has always moved me. As a head teacher I always insisted on it and was impressed every year by the seriousness with which students took it. Communal silence is always powerful- it is the core strength of Quaker worship- and the connotations of remembrance and loss that come with the 11/11 silence speak to everyone. We forget that of course the silence is not observed in Germany, because it doesn't feel like a celebration of victory. There are no patriotic anthems or waving flags. The visual symbol is the blood-red poppy and we stand with heads bowed.

But every year one of the central thoughts in my mind as I stand in silence is that of how the silence comes to be at 11 am at all. The armistice was actually agreed in the early hours of that Monday morning, the 11th of November 1918, but at some point someone must have noticed the powerful symbolism of the date. So the decision was taken for the ceasefire to take place not immediately, but at the 11th hour. And the morning of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 saw fierce fighting and several thousand casualties. Part of the issue was that newly-arrived reinforcements, who had yet to see any action in the war, wanted to see some "fun" before it was too late. There is an article on the American angle to this here but the principle is a more general one: lives were pointlessly cut short in an unnecessary few hours of fighting that morning, just so that we could experience the powerful symbolism of the sonorous phrase, "The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month."

Pointless loss of life at any time anywhere is shocking and unforgivable. I am as appalled as anyone by the shooting down of MH17 or by the shelling of UN schools in Gaza. Yet there is a particularly vicious pointlessness for me in the loss of life on that morning nearly 100 years ago. There may be a lot of crap going on in the world right now, but for me none of it surpasses the slaughter of young men simply in pursuit of a poignant symbol for the generations to come.

For anyone who has not visited them the first world war cemeteries of the Western Front are deeply moving places, rich in symbolism. The simple Portland stone headstones stand in silent serried ranks, tucked away in the French and Belgian countryside, mute reminders of the countless thousands who lost their lives there. All follow a similar simple pattern, with a cross near the centre and, at the entrance, a large Portland stone block inscribed with the words "Their Name Liveth Forevermore." Most headstones have a name and a regimental badge, and sometimes a short phrase added at the request of friends or relatives. The most popular is "Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." Many are simply inscribed "To a Soldier of the Great War. Known unto God," because of course many corpses remained unidentified, sometimes bundled into shell holes during brief breaks in the fighting.

They are beautiful, serene and noble places and they cannot help but make you think higher thoughts, about sacrifice and heroism and loss. There is little concession to the the large numbers of non-Christian dead, many from Britain's colonies, but Christian or not, even the cross makes for a solemn symbol of suffering and loss, and the quotation from Ecclesiasticus (the whole verse is, "Their bodies are buried in peace; but their name liveth for evermore.") surely resonates with everyone.

Yet there is one cemetery in Northern France that my late wife and I visited that brings these symbols into focus in a new and disturbing way. I cannot now track it down, but it is an appallingly moving place. On the face of it it is a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery like any other. It is placed on a low hill, overlooking the Somme valley and at the rear is one of those long walls inscribed with the names of the missing whose bodies were never found. It has the cross and the Portland stone block at the entrance, and the row upon row of silent headstones.

What marks this cemetery out as different though was not revealed until we noticed, on the wall of names at the rear, a small sign that said that this monument had received damage during fierce fighting in the 1939-45 war. There was a tower at the centre of the wall, and all around the small window near the top were the scars of heavy machine-gun rounds. Suddenly I pictured a sniper crouching at that window, firing at soldiers who fought their way through the cemetery. And indeed on closer inspection we found that many of the headstones were chipped and scarred from sniper or machine-gun rounds. Attacking soldiers in the Second World War had used them for cover of course. Why not?

Yet the most potent symbol was one that I had probably seen before but not noticed. Because some of the damage had been carefully repaired, leaving no more than its ghost in the stone, but once you knew what to look for it was obvious. And there, right in the middle of the word "Evermore" on the Portland stone block was the scar of some substantial explosion. A mortar bomb maybe, fired by troops attacking up the hill, or a shell from a tank.

There is a prevailing sense of doom in the air at the moment, and a sense of lessons unlearned from the past and history repeating itself in the devastation of Gaza. Yet what today's commemoration of the outbreak of World War I reminds me is that, to quote Ecclesiastes this time, "The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun." And maybe even it shows me that as a species we have progressed rather than declined. Because however awful current affairs may be there is nothing happening today that is as appallingly, criminally wasteful of young lives as what lies behind precisely those noble symbols of the First World War that we remember with such reverence.

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