Do today's public rituals hinder our understanding of war?

On the 80th anniversary of the Armistice, three very different views on how we should commemorate the victims of war
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
HAS REMEMBRANCE become an empty ritual? On this 80th anniversary of the Armistice of 11 November 1918, the question needs to be addressed by anyone who is contributing to (and profiting from) the immense public interest in the First World War.

There are a lot of us at it. At least five new history books have been published in the past few weeks to coincide with the anniversary. And in many ways we historians are bringing up the rear. Novelists such as Pat Barker and Sebastian Faulks were quicker to tap into the public's surprisingly long-lived interest in the subject; surprising because so few people are still alive who actually remember the war.

I would be lying if I denied that I set out to publish a book about the First World War to coincide with today's anniversary. Quite apart from book sales, it seemed a good time to get people to think again about the war, as the media would be likely to give it more space than usual. As they have. But nothing quite prepared me for the scale of the coverage. Nor was I quite prepared for the rather eerie homogeneity of it all. A poppy on nearly every newspaper masthead (as well as on my own book jacket). Umpteen at the Cenotaph. The Queen Mother, red-eyed. Relatives of the men who were shot for cowardice. Frail old men in wheelchairs, sporting belatedly conferred medals from the French.

Interested historians (in both senses) such as myself and John Keegan have done our best to debate what the war was all about: why it started, why it dragged on, why it stopped. But I have the strange feeling that, for many people, our arguments are neither here nor there.

Remembrance, I have belatedly come to see, is not the same as understanding. Let me say right away that I do not for one second begrudge the British Legion the money they make from the sale of poppies. And I raise a glass to all those old men who are still going strong, having survived not only the trenches but everything else the 20th century has had to throw at them.

The most impressive thing about the survivors, it should be said, is their honesty about the experience. The most recent interviews I have heard or read testify once again to the strange ambivalence of the men who fought the war - the odd mixture of understatement about its nastiness and nostalgia for the comradeship and even black comedy of Army life. As the veterans' most faithful recorder Lyn Macdonald recently remarked, the old soldiers very rarely use the word "horror".

The troubling thing for me is the difference between their remembering and our remembrance. What exactly are we, who are too young to have been involved in any way in the fighting or to have experienced the loss of close friends and relatives, really doing at Remembrance services?

A visit to the Imperial War Museum's current excellent exhibition on the history of remembrance sheds light on these questions. It is a very moving exhibition - there were certainly tears in my eyes as I read the letter one soldier wrote to his wife on the eve of a battle he did not expect to survive. But what makes it moving is principally the thought of others' private grief, and not the public paraphernalia of remembrance.

From the moment the war began, a huge number of people lost fathers, sons, brothers, husbands, boyfriends and friends. All told, the war claimed more than 9 million lives, more than one in every eight of the 65.8 million men who fought in it.

Such casualties naturally generated a huge quantity of private agony. The memoirs of those famous men who lost sons - one thinks of Rudyard Kipling - confirm the universal truth that no pain equals the pain of losing a child.

To give a less famous example: Pte David Sutherland was killed during a raid on 16 May 1916, an ordinary Scottish squaddie. Faced with the doleful task of breaking the news to his parents, his platoon commander, Lt Ewart Mackintosh - who had vainly carried him back across no man's land - wrote a poem. It is a very ordinary poem, to which no student of English literature would give a second thought. It has none of the linguistic shock tactics of the war poets we revere today. Yet it is almost impossible to read it unmoved:

So you were David's father,

And he was your only son,

And the new-cut peats are rotting

And the work is left undone,

Because of an old man weeping,

Just an old man in pain,

For David, his son David,

That will not come again.

I find those lines almost unbearable. Yet it is worth recalling that David and his father were in a minority. "Only" around 12 per cent of British servicemen died in the war, leaving a good 88 per cent who (like my grandfather) came back alive, of whom only a minority were permanently incapacitated.

Moreover, because many men spent the war working on the home front, "only" 6 per cent of males between the ages of 15 and 49 were killed. Far from being intended to console the likes of David's father - what could? - the public rituals of remembrance devised after 1918 were primarily intended to communicate this grief to those who had not lost relatives: for the lucky majority.

That was the point of Lutyens's Cenotaph, and of the thousands of local memorials erected around the country in the Twenties. That, too, was the point of the South African Sir Percy Fitzpatrick's suggestion that all Britain observe two minutes' silence on the 11th hour of the 11th day each November.

It was right, of course, to make the lucky majority mindful of the unlucky few. Yet from the outset there was (as there had been throughout the war) a simultaneous effort to justify what had happened, often using the "high diction" so loathed by Owen and Sassoon. Thus "the fallen" had "sacrificed themselves". Or, to quote from the tomb of the unknown soldier buried in Westminster Abbey, they had died and given "the most that man can give life itself for God for King and Country, for loved ones Home and Empire for the sacred cause of Justice and the Freedom of the World."

We can still hear similar sentiments expressed at Remembrance services today. And perhaps that is why I have become suspicious of them.

Eighty years on, I would like to think we have come far enough to question the reassuring assumption that the men who were killed in the First World War died for a good reason. I strongly doubt it.

The author is a fellow of Jesus College, Oxford. His book, `The Pity of War' is published by Penguin Books