Illustration: John Holcroft

Remember them more honestly

We should change the way we commemorate our war dead

How long would it have taken for the 886,000 British men killed in the Great War to pass in procession down Whitehall? I think we should find out. The necessary volunteers should be sought, asked to dress in suitably sombre clothing, and then be invited to march at a respectful pace past a stand near the Cenotaph, perhaps containing all the modern politicians who have ever started a war.

While we all watch this procession on television, we might pause to wonder how many doorsteps that means on which a newly-made young widow clutched a yellow telegram form and slumped against the wall with no idea of how she should or could live the rest of her life.

Bands should be available to play sad tunes, and choirs to sing melancholy hymns and unhappy songs of old, forgotten far-off things. The whole affair should be reverent and orderly. But it should mark a change in the way in which we mark Remembrance Day. The current ceremonies do not meet the needs of the past or the future. They perpetuate myths in which we no longer need to believe, myths we should discard or at least revise. The rituals of today seem to me to be heavily influenced by the effect of the Falklands War. In 1982, a surprised nation found that we could still fight and that there was something moving and good about valour and sacrifice, and that war could be just. As a result, a ceremony which was fading in importance and prominence was revived.

But these rituals have not really been touched by the very different effect of the Iraq War, in which we discovered what was almost the opposite of what we had learned in the Falklands. There we saw that it was also true that patriotism, loyalty, idealism, nobility and sacrifice could be abused in a bad cause by liars.

Do not mistake me. I do not wish to modernise the event or streamline it, let alone to abolish it, or arrange parades of pacifists wearing white poppies. I am the most patriotic person I know. Close relatives of mine have held the Queen’s or King’s Commission and gone without hesitation into danger for their country and mine, and I admire them for it. Part of me will always wish I had done the same.

In many ways I would wish to make the November commemoration even more old-fashioned. I still remember standing in the freezing rain at a particular West Country monument more than half a century ago, simultaneously thrilled at my heritage and apprehensive about whether I might one day be called on to drown in a cold northern sea for the freedom of my country. What I believed then I believe now, after a long life in which I doubted these things for some years and then returned to them with renewed fervour.

This year sees the centenary of the Versailles peace conference and the eightieth anniversary of the outbreak of the second war. Surely both are now so long ago that we are more free to think about them. What would that freedom mean? Perhaps the best way to explain it is through the poetry which is such a part of remembrance of war in this country. It should mean a little less Laurence Binyon and a little less Cecil Spring-Rice, for a start. And no Rupert Brooke at all and a bit more A.E. Housman and a bit more Siegfried Sassoon too. And a little more of the hard truth.

The world wars were complicated, not simple contests between virtue and evil. They cost us a great deal morally and materially and probably damaged our civilisation irretrievably. They invigorated all the nastier varieties of modernity and they absolutely did not resolve the problems of the world. The men of strife are still at it.

Is it really true any more when we say ritually “We will remember them” of the dead of the Great War? Will we? Do we? I earnestly try to during those two minutes of silence. I hear the shouts of sergeants and the clang of gun-breeches and the whistles blowing for the charge. Then I see them in an endless procession going off into the dark, the best of their generation from all classes, mostly lost before they could be fathers, husbands, scientists, inventors, priests, explorers, painters, composers, union leaders, statesmen, poets or just honest men living well.

I think of them as immeasurably better people than we are, and appalled — if they can know — by what we have become in their absence. If they could speak to us, would we understand what they said? But who now cares, really? I attempt to. I try never to go by a war memorial without spending at least a minute examining the names inscribed upon it, a habit which often earns me baffled looks. I have taken part in optimistic efforts to respect the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month on a busy London weekday street and have been compelled to smile sadly at the way that life continues heedlessly around us.

Surely these silent legions of 1914 have now marched far beyond memory, as far off as the dead of the Napoleonic and Crimean Wars, who we don’t in truth pretend to remember. Do we even know what they died for? Do we really still believe what Binyon wrote in the full version of his September 1914 poem, that the lost were “fallen in the cause of the free”? Binyon’s sweet melancholy music is still bearable, unlike Brooke’s absurd rubbish about “swimmers into cleanness leaping”. But shouldn’t some bitterness also be allowed its say: perhaps Sassoon’s furious denunciation of the Menin Gate at Ypres, with its “intolerably nameless names” and its “dead, who struggled in the slime”?

Wasn’t ‘the love that asks no questions’ the love that got us into Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and almost into Syria?

Sassoon, unlike us, fought furiously in the war he came to condemn and had the right to say these things, as we have the duty to recall them. Edward Thomas’s unbearable “In Memoriam, Easter 1915” which begins so innocently with “The flowers left thick at nightfall in the woods . . .” should be read and followed by a silence long enough for its terrible meaning to become clear. Housman’s “Here dead we lie because we did not choose to live and shame the land from which we sprung” might remind listeners of the volunteers’ mixture of bravado and idealism which can never be repeated because nobody will ever be so trusting again. Philip Larkin’s “never such innocence again” should remind us of how those men truly believed in hopes which nobody in the civilised world can possibly tolerate now.

The more I learn about the outbreak of that war, the less I can believe in any idealistic motive for it, or that this country should have taken part in it at all. The warnings of the cabinet members who opposed war, such as John Burns, read far better now than the bombast of those who wanted to fight. And the secret manoeuvres of the war party, conducted without the knowledge of parliament or people, were shabby and mistaken. They did not even know what they were doing. They thought we would be marginally involved, at sea. Nobody really considered that we would have to send hundreds of thousands of men to be blown to shreds or eaten by rats in continental mudholes. As in the Second War, one of our most important allies in that conflict was a Russian despotism, a fact nowhere mentioned when Sir Edward Grey had stampeded parliament into acceptance of war in August 1914. As for Spring-Rice’s “I vow to thee, my country”, I have for years refused to sing the line recommending “the love that asks no questions”. Wasn’t that the love that got us into Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo and Libya, and almost into Syria? Isn’t it the love that might yet get us into conflict with Russia? I know that many who attend or watch these ceremonies will take another view, and I respect them absolutely. But in future I would like them to respect those of us who are more doubtful and more melancholy.

Long ago I read what I still think is one of the most powerful fictional accounts of the Great War, Covenant With Death by John Harris. Harris talked to many survivors of the Somme in the late 1950s. I have no doubt that this passage, describing the morning after the great failure, is drawn from the life:

As we left the trenches, I noticed a loud wailing sound like huge wet fingers being dragged across an enormous glass pane. It rose and fell, interminable, unbearable, and as we turned an angle of the trench I saw where it came from. All along a muddy sunken roadway they lay, hundreds of wounded, brown blanket shapes, some shouting, some moaning, some singing in delirium … The sound of their cries had a uniform level of muted anguish and despair. During the night they’d become little boys again and were crying in the heat for their mothers, for help, for water, for death, for God, in a vast and terrible monotone, while an elderly staff officer moved about them, trying to tell them it was worth it as we’d won.

Harris noted that after that day, the spirit of the soldiers was never the same, and recorded the disturbing fact that many of the dead of the Somme lay horribly unburied where they fell, for long months afterwards. None of this could be said at the time, and once Douglas Haig’s great folly had had become “The Great War for Civilisation” and “The War to End All War” it seemed indecent to dwell on it. But those who had been there knew. We should now acknowledge it. A few years ago, there was embarrassment and quiet coughing when Harry Patch, the last surviving soldier from the Great War,was given the celebrity treatment. He could have said anything he liked. The interesting thing was what he did say. Asked how he viewed war, he replied with shocking clarity, “To me, it’s a licence to go out and murder. Why should the British government call me up and take me out to a battlefield to shoot a man I never knew, whose language I couldn’t speak? All those lives lost for a war finished over a table. Now what is the sense in that?”

But those of us who have talked to the survivors of wars are familiar with this sort of thing. They did what they were supposed to. They usually accept — what else can they do? — the arguments for its necessity. Once such things begin, what is there to do but finish them? Their views are well summed up in Philip Zec’s great 1945 cartoon of a bandaged soldier retrieving peace from the ruins of Europe and saying to those who sent him there, “Here you are. Don’t lose it again.” But they do not glory in them. Most of us think and hope that we would have done roughly the same if events had fallen that way. But most of those who experienced actual combat dislike talking about it, and in many cases feel guilty about what they did and saw.

We must remember more honestly. As the deep shadow of the lost and inaccessible past spreads slowly over the early 1940s, we are going to need to find more honesty still. I expected The Phoney Victory, my book about the false claims made for the Second World War, would see me slandered as a Nazi sympathiser or supporter of a negotiated peace with Hitler or as showing disloyalty to those who fought and died. There was some of that. People may similarly try to misrepresent this.

But by pretending the 1939-45 war was more virtuous than it was, we gave ourselves an appetite for more wars of choice. Many people have grown tired of modern politicians who imagine themselves to be reincarnations of Churchill, who claim that their proposed enemy is a new Hitler, who denounce their sceptics as being cowardly, tyrant-appeasing heirs of Chamberlain. By misusing and oversimplifying history in this way, they have not just made themselves look foolish, they have made people ask if the whole war scripture from Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain to D-Day is quite as it seemed.

Yet who now can believe what the men of 1914 believed as they hurried to join up? Who can even believe what I believed in my 1950s childhood as I sat, rapt and wide-eyed, reading books with titles such as Men of Glory and The Happy Warrior and dreaming of being a destroyer captain in the next war, barking to my first lieutenant in my dying moments the final order, “Continue to engage the enemy!” War may sometimes be necessary. It is never, ever good.

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