This Sunday, as every year, is Remembrance Day in the UK. But this year, above all years, it’s a big deal, because this is the hundredth anniversary of the moment – at the eleventh hour, on the eleventh day, of the eleventh month – when the guns fell silent and the First World War ended.
When I was a wee fledgling, my grandfather was on the committee of the local Royal British Legion club, so I got an inkling of what that War involved from a young age. As a Brownie, I joined the processions each November, and stood in the freezing cold by our seafront war memorial as the Last Post was played. Back then, the emphasis was on the noble sacrifice of those who gave their lives in war. Patriotism tended to overshadow the reality of those muddy fields in France.
But the Great War, as it was called at the time, was, as I found later on, awful. The sheer loss of life numbs the mind. On July 1, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, over nineteen thousand British troops lost their lives. On the first day. And that particular battle went on for another five months. And it wasn’t the only total disaster of the war. ‘Lions led by donkeys’, was the judgement of many on the generals who sent courageous young men (many younger than they admitted) into situations they knew would end in massacres.
Red paper poppies, worn in the lapel, are the traditional token of remembrance, drawn originally from the famous poem by John McCrae. The scarlet poppy, Papaver rhoeas, has the habit of seeding itself where the ground has been disturbed, which is why it grows in the furrows of wheat fields. The churned-up mud of No Man’s Land was fertile ground for these fragile flowers, an age-old symbol of sleep and death.
Every year there seems to be some kind of kerfuffle over whether or not some ‘PC gone mad’ person or group has ‘banned’ poppies for being ‘racist’ – an urban legend spread around by certain groups, to try and induce outrage against (probably) Muslims. In reality, virtually everyone agrees that wearing poppies – which are sold, as they always were, to benefit veterans – is a Good Thing. And these past four years there have been even more of them: in paper and leather and Swarovski crystals, crocheted and knitted, and in ceramic form, as in the stunning artwork that adorned the moat of the Tower of London. There have been similar displays in many places.
The mud of the trenches stirred up something other than poppy seeds. Times of high emotion are fertile ground for the creative impulse. Much of the so-called ‘trench art’, the crucifixes and vases made from bullet and shell casings, were made behind the lines or by convalescing soldiers, and many were commercially produced. But even devoid of the time and materials to make objects like this, the soldiers still had words. The poetry of that war is justly famous; we’ve all heard names like Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke. But there were a great many lesser-known poets.
T. P. Cameron Wilson was a schoolteacher from Devon, who served with the Sherwood Foresters and was killed in the assault on Hermies in March 1918. He wrote a couple of novels and a number of poems. The best known, ‘Magpies in Picardy’, is a favourite of mine, for…obvious reasons. These are the first two stanzas:
The magpies of Picardy
Are more than I can tell.
They flash along the dusty roads
And cast a magic spell
On the men who march through Picardy,
Through Picardy to hell.
(The blackbird flies with panic,
The swallow goes with light,
The finches move like ladies,
The owl floats by at night;
But the great and flashing magpie,
He flies as artists might.)
You can read the whole thing here.
Another literary reflection on the brutality of this war, and war in general, was written by Dalton Trumbo, the Hollywood scriptwriter who penned, among other movies, Spartacus. His novel, Johnny Got His Gun, tells the story of a young man, Joe Bonham, who wakes up in a hospital bed and finds himself horribly injured and unable to speak, see or hear. Between his attempts to make sense of his situation and communicate with the outside world, his mind ranges back over his early life growing up in the mid-western US, his parents, his sweetheart Kareen, his army buddies, and the landmine that left him in this condition. He also makes a passionate, savage attack on the whole notion of sending young men out to fight wars. (Naturally, Trumbo fell foul of the McCarthy era witch-hunts. Telling people that war is horrible just ain’t American.)
I recommend you read this book. I also recommend you don’t do what I did, which is read it on a bus and end up ugly crying in front of everyone. It’s that kind of a book. One of the most heartbreaking things about it is the scenes where Joe is thinking about everyday, ordinary experiences – the scents and tastes of his mother’s well-stocked larder, the sights and sounds of the county fair, his exploits with his co-workers at the pie factory, his first and last night with his girlfriend – things he’ll never know again.
If the book sounds faintly familiar to rock fans, it’s because it inspired one hell of a song – ‘One’, by Metallica. You can hear the machine guns rattling in the guitar riffs later in the song – but before the vocals start, there’s an acoustic phrase that evokes, poignantly, a golden Edwardian summer that would never return. A movie was made of the book in the 1960s, and Metallica actually bought the rights to it so they could use parts of it in the video. It’s pretty powerful.
There have been many, many movie and TV re-tellings of the horrors of the Great War. But for me, one of the most moving moments was in…a comedy.
Comedy? Yes. I mean, there was laughter in the camaraderie of the real-life trenches; you’d have to find some comic relief in the midst of the horror. But this is the absurd fictional world of that historical scheming bastard, Edmund Blackadder. In Blackadder Goes Forth, he and his less-than-trusty batman Private Baldrick are stuck on the front and trying every possible trick to avoid going ‘over the top’, including becoming official War Artist, shooting a carrier pigeon, and feigning insanity by sticking pencils up his nose.
But all their attempts fail. And at the end of the last episode, after Blackadder mulls on his failures – ‘Who’d notice another madman round here?’ – they advance. And credit to Richard Curtis and Ben Elton, the writers, for creating the most heartbreaking end to any comedy series ever – and one of the best visual commentaries on this most stupid of wars.
It was supposed to be the ‘war to end all wars’, but of course it wasn’t. But maybe, just maybe, in putting it into a form we can understand, artists – then and now – have made it a little more possible that we’ll stop and think before we go over the top again. Maybe.