Sunday, November 11, 2012

Dulce et decorum est

It being the 11th day of the 11th month, it is customary and appropriate to remember those men and women who gave their lives in WWI, or the Great War, as the British call it. It was a war that scarred imaginations and decimated a generation in Europe.

Every town in England it seems, no matter how small, has a memorial to the dead of the Great War. One could also talk about the complicated nature of the British military, and those compelled to fight for the British thanks to colonialism, and more particularly, the Neuve-Chapelle Indian Memorial in France erected to thank the 4742 Indian soldiers who died fighting the Germans in WWI. They died far away from their homes. Very far.

I have posted a picture elsewhere on my blog of my husband's grandfather, Ludwig, as he prepared to fight in the trenches in 1915 on the German side. My maternal agrandfather was in the Navy and we have pictures of him in Paris, meeting his brother, my great-uncle, who served in the Army in the short time the United States was in WWI.

I've always found it interesting that we in the United States call November 11th "Veteran's Day," and not "Remembrance Day." We have "Memorial Day" in May, but there is no deeper sense of connection to WWI on either day. I wonder sometimes if in the United States we are more haunted by WWII and Vietnam than the Great War. It's more Apocalypse Now than Gallipoli for us, although of course Apocalypse Now is a rerendering of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which is about British colonialism in Africa, rather than WWI. Or maybe the Civil War is our Great War, our trauma. But I digress.

Armistice Day was so fraught with meaning in Europe that when Hitler successfully invaded France in 1940, he demanded that the French capitulate on the same railway car that the Germans had surrendered in WWI, at the same spot, in Compiegne. And three days after the French capitulation, Hitler had the stone marking the Armistice blown to bits. It was engraved with remarks not very kind to Germans, so I am sure he wanted do some real and symbolic destruction: "HERE ON THE ELEVENTH OF NOVEMBER 1918 SUCCUMBED THE CRIMINAL PRIDE OF THE GERMAN EMPIRE...VANQUISHED BY THE FREE PEOPLES WHICH IT TRIED TO ENSLAVE."

Niall Ferguson wrote an thought-provoking book, The Pity of War, some years back, suggesting that one of the biggest mistakes of the 20th century was Germany's loss of WWI. I am not a fan of "what if" history, but in this case, I can see some merit to his argument. The conditions of the Armistice involved humiliation of Germany with reparations that ruined the economy; the door was left open for Hitler and his poisons.

WWI was supposed to be the war to end all wars. Pundits have taken to saying that about every war, it seems.

Virigina Woolf wrote in her diary, 11 November 1918 (Vol. 1, ed. Anne Olivier Bell):

Twentyfive minutes ago the guns went off, announcing peace. A siren hooted on the river. They are hooting still. A few people ran to look out of windows. The rooks wheeled round & were for a moment, the symbolic look of creatures performing some ceremony, partly of thanksgiving, partly of valediction over the grave. A very cloudy still day, the smoke toppling over heavily towards the east; & that too wearing for a moment a look of something floating, waving, drooping. We looked out of the window; saw the housepainter give one look at the sky & go on with his job; the old man toddling along the street carrying a bag out [of] which a large loaf protruded, closely followed by his mongrel dog. So far neither bells nor flags, but the wailing of sirens & intermittent guns. 

In less than two years, it will be the hundredth anniversary of the start of WWI. The one uncle I knew, born in 1917, during WWI, has died. The last veterans of WWI are gone. Soon the veterans of WWII will all be gone, including my father-in-law, who is eighty-eight.

Siegfried Sassoon was a war poet; Pat Barker wrote a novel, Regeneration, based on him and his psychiatrist/neurologist, W.H.R. Rivers, that was nominated for the Booker Prize years ago--all about the study of shell shock (now known as post-traumautic stress disorder) and creativity.

I leave you with one of Sassoon's poems about ghosts, as being haunted is something I have in common with him.

Sick Leave

When I'm asleep, dreaming and lulled and warm,--
They come, the homeless ones, the noiseless dead.
While the dim charging breakers of the storm
Bellow and drone and rumble overhead,
Out of the gloom they gather about my bed.
     They whisper to my heart; their thoughts are mine.
     'Why are you here with all your watches ended?
     From Ypres to Frise we sought you in the Line.'
In bitter safety I awake, unfriended;
And while the dawn begins with slashing rain
I think of the Battalion in the mud.
'When are you going out to them again?
Are they not still your brothers through our blood?'

1 comment:

maryanne said...

Thank you for the poem. Here is another from Wifred Owen, another casualty of WWI, from "Strange Meeting":

"...I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now . . ."