Isn’t this the way back to the Great War for all of us in succeeding generations: we enter the labyrinth of time and follow the thread of the memory of someone in the family – son or father, uncle or brother – who died in the trenches or, perhaps, survived – wounded or traumatised by the experience? As Jay Winter observed in The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century:
War is always the destroyer of families, and the Great War was to date the greatest destroyer of them all. Of the 70 million men who served in uniform in all combatant countries, over 9 million died or were killed on active service; 3 million widows and 10 million orphans owed their fate to the war of 1914-18. We will never know what trauma on this scale meant to those who went through it.
Remembering his own grandfather is how Geoff Dyer begins The Missing of the Somme, his lyrical meditation on remembrance and the meaning of World War I, first published in 1994. As we enter a centennial season of commemoration and conflicting interpretation, I’ve been reading Dyer’s characteristically discursive, thoughtful work which he describes as ‘an essay in mediation: research notes for a Great War novel I had no intention of writing, the themes of a novel without its substance…’. And I’ve just embarked upon The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark who begins his book by remembering his great-uncle Jim, badly wounded on the western front in May 1918.
A hundred years on, the First World War still exerts a powerful hold over British minds: you only have to think of the kerfuffle in response to Michael Gove’s assertion that the war was ‘a just war’ in defence of western liberal values, misrepresented in dramas such as Oh! What a Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder as a misbegotten shambles perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite, a myth reinforced by left-wing historians (see Richard Evans’ rebuttal here).
Aside from preening politicians and debating historians, though, it’s the poignancy of countless individual lives wrecked or destroyed that draws us back to 1914-18. As Wilfred Owen wrote, remembering is not ‘about heroes’. Nor, he insisted, is it about ‘deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power’. The subject is simply ‘War, and the pity of War’.
Geoff Dyer’s short book is about remembrance – how the World War I entered the nation’s collective memory through monuments and graves, poetry, fiction and art to become entwined with British identity and memory; and how, remarkably, the war provoked, in Dyer’s words, ‘the anticipation of remembrance: a foreseeing that is also a determining’. Dyer points out how many of the iconic images by which we remember the war were established in advance of its conclusion.
For example, those lines of Laurence Binyon’s, now burned into the nation’s conciousness –
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
– were actually written in September 1914, ‘before the fallen actually fell’, as Dyer laconically remarks.
Similarly, Ernest Brooks iconic photograph of a British soldier (above), silhouetted with head bowed and rifle across his back, was taken on 22 August 1917, during the Third Battle of Ypres, is an image of remembrance – ‘a photograph of the way the war will come to be remembered’:
It is a photograph of the future, of the future’s view of the past. It is a photograph of Binyon’s poem, of a sentiment. We will remember them.
‘Even while the war was raging’, writes Dyer, ‘the characteristic attitude of the war was to look forward to the time when it would be remembered.’ Dyer finds many examples to support this assessment, such as this passage from Le Feu, the novel by Henri Barbusse, published in 1916 and translated into English the following year. Bertrand, one of the soldiers in Barbusse’s novel exclaims:
How will they regard this slaughter, they who’ll live after us … How will they regard these exploits which even we who perform them don’t know whether one should compare them with those of Plutarch’s and Corneille’s heroes or with those of hooligans and Apaches. […] The future! The work of the future will be to wipe out the present, to wipe it out more than we can imagine, to wipe it out like something abominable and shameful. And yet – the present – it had to be, it had to be!
Le Feu was the first major work of prose to give fictional expression to the experience of war and was a big influence on Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. ‘We’re forgetting machines’, exclaims another of Barbusse’s soldiers, and Dyer finds examples from poetry and prose of the period to demonstrate how the fear of forgetting permeated the work of Owen, Sassoon and others – and has marked ‘every generation since the armistice’. The issue, Dyer argues, is not simply the way the war generated memory, but:
The way memory has determined – and continues to determine – the meaning of the war.
This is Dyer’s theme: how our perceptions of the Great War have been shaped by images of the war in literature, art and public memorials – mostly produced while the war was still in progress, or within 15 years of the Armistice. It’s something that struck me while reading Paul Gough’s A Terrible Beauty recently. Gough draws on archives in the Imperial War Museum to reveal how, from as early as 1916, artists such as CRW Nevinson, Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer and William Roberts were commissioned under the official British war art scheme to document the war, resulting in some of the most extraordinary art of the 20th century. Before the war was over the Imperial War Museum had been established, and both the British and Canadian governments had initiated plans for war memorials and halls of Remembrance that would display commissioned war art.
Paul Nash, ‘The Menin Road’, commissioned for the planned Hall of Remembrance in 1918
As Dyer points out, the dominant theme of the resulting cultural works – paintings, statues and war memorials at home and in the cemeteries along the western front – is not victory or glory, but sacrifice and its remembrance. The memory of the war was elaborately constructed in the decade and a half following the cessation of hostilities. So it comes about that the war’s true subject is remembrance. How it should be remembered continues to be fought over retrospectively.
Dyer offers a pertinent example: how official and public attitudes to those who refused to obey and fight, who ‘actively rejected the passivity forced upon by the war, who reasserted their right not to suffer’ has changed over time. Woven into Dyer’s meditations on poems, photographs and sculpture are glimpses of his own pilgrimage to the cemeteries and memorials along the western front where millions of dead have been marked for memory. He tells how he made a special effort to find the village of Bailleulmont where, in the communal cemetery, in an isolated corner away from the civilian graves, is a group of four military headstones.
Unusually they are brown, rather than the usual white, and mark the burials of four of the more than 300 British soldiers shot for desertion or cowardice. One headstone is inscribed:
1st DECEMBER 1916
SHOT AT DAWN
ONE OF THE FIRST TO ENLIST
A WORTHY SON
OF HIS FATHER
A worthy son of his father…
Ingham – and his friend Alfred Longshaw – served together at the Somme, deserted together, were executed together and now lie together. For years Ingham’s family believed he had simply ‘died of wounds’ – as the inscriptions on the headstones of other executed men maintain – but when his father was informed of the truth he insisted on this inscription being added to the headstone. Dyer comments:
The deserter’s grave has become a hero’s grave; pride has come to reside not in the carrying out of duty but in its humane dereliction.
Dyer’s visit to Ingham’s grave is but one stop on his pilgrimage to the war cemeteries along the western front. He finds the size of the cemeteries overwhelming, the numbers are too big to comprehend (I used to take European Studies students to the British and German cemeteries at Tyne Cot and Langemark, and can vouch for the emotional impact of these affecting monuments to brave lives wasted). The French cemetery at Notre Dame de Lorette has 20,000 named graves and an ossuary with 20,000 unknown dead.
The Thiepval Memorial and graves
The Thiepval Memorial (which gives Dyer the title of his book, the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme) bears the names of more than 72,000 officers and men of the United Kingdom and South African forces who died in the Somme sector before 20 March 1918 and have no known grave. Over 90% of those commemorated died in the iconic battle of the Somme between July and November 1916. On the first day alone, 20,000 British soldiers died and another 40,000 were wounded or their bodies never found. The numbers, as Dyer notes, stop standing for anything but numbers.
It is overwhelming. The distance of a century is effaced. You stand aghast while the wind hurtles through your clothes, searing your ears until you find yourself almost vanishing: in the face of this wind, in this expanse of lifelessness, you cannot hold your own: you do not count. There is no room for the living. The wind, the cold, force you away.
Thiepval: The Missing of the Somme
Walking among the endless headstones of the western front, Dyer comes to feel that the war’s commemoration overtook all its other meanings. It’s as if the survivors were trying to convince themselves, through art and ritual, that the sacrifice had been worthwhile. Memorialised even before it was completed, ‘the war was fought in order to be remembered’. Of Thiepval he writes (in 1994):
So much of the meaning of our century is concentrated here. Thiepval is not simply a site of commemoration but of prophecy, of birth as well as of death: a memorial to the future, to what the century had in store for those who were left, whom age would weary.
At the Cenotaph in 1919
Dyer ponders the significance of dates – 4 August 1914, 1 July 1916, 11 November 1918 – and the extent to which the ebbing and flowing of the memory of the Great War are ‘determined by the gravitational pull of the calendar’. The Great War ended at the predetermined eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. If the intention was to bring the future memory of the war into the sharpest possible focus, it could hardly have been better arranged, Dyer remarks, arguing that the various ceremonies of Remembrance could not have worked so powerfully without this precise temporal anchoring. However, since the Second World War, this anchoring has been lost:
Remembrance Day can now drift three days clear of the eleventh of November. Hence the sense noted earlier that at the Cenotaph it is the act of remembering together that is being remembered. Past and present are only imperfectly aligned.
Dyer wrote The Missing of the Somme in 1994, remarking, then, that:
We are drawing gradually closer to the time when the war took place exactly a hundred years ago. In terms of remembrance the years 2014- 2018 will represent the temporal equivalent of a total eclipse.
Interspersed with his meditations on poems, photographs and sculpture are Dyer’s record of his own trip to the cemeteries and memorials along the Belgian and French borderlands. At their best these scenes are painted with a sombre lyricism, but sometimes they are, as you might expect from Dyer, less respectful. Dyer drives through the verdant landscape where the trenches were dug and the battles of 1914-18 were fought with an unruly carload of his friends. They take to calling their car the ‘tank’, their hotel a ‘billet’, and speaking in a parody of the trench demotic:
By now the tank is a slum. It is littered with pate rind, bread crumbs, greaseproof paper, orange peel and banana skins. Tins of beer rattle across the floor every time we turn a corner […] Paul is driving. We are waiting at a junction. He begins pulling out on to the main road.
A truck, overtaking a car on the main road, thunders past, missing us by inches. We’re all stunned. We talk about nothing else for the next hour.
‘Think of the publicity that would have got for your book,’ says Mark. ‘Getting killed before you even wrote it.’
‘This is not a book about Paul’s driving,’ I say. ‘English poetry is not yet fit to speak of it.’
‘Dulce et decorum est in tankus mori,’ says Paul.
Personally, I found these portions of the book a bit tiresome. Overall, though, this is a book worth reading for Dyer’s discussions on remembrance and the poetry, prose and memorials of the war, even if a certain amount of what he has to say seems slightly second-hand if you have read Paul Fussell’s definitive The Great War and Modern Memory or Jay Winter’s The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century.
To return to my opening remarks. Christopher Clark, author of The Sleepwalkers, his recently-published and acclaimed history of the origins of the war, acknowledges how his interest in the war was provoked when he was given the wartime journal kept by his great-uncle, James Joseph O’Brien, an Australian grazier who took part in the battles of the Third Ypres campaign. Clark recalls one particular conversation with Jim when he was nine years old. He asked his great-uncle whether the men who fought in the war were scared, or keen to fight. Some were scared and some were keen, he replied. Did the keen ones fight better than the scared ones? ‘No’, said Jim, ‘It was the keen ones who shat themselves first’. Clark adds:
I was deeply impressed by this reply and puzzled over it – especially the word ‘first’ – for some time.
At the beginning of his book, Dyer recalls leafing through a family album and encountering a photo of his grandfather who survived the war to resume the life he had left. He died aged ninety-one, able still only to write his name. In the photo, he is one of a group of men in hospital, two with patches over their eyes, three with arms in slings. His grandfather, he writes was:
Born (illegitimate) in Worthen in Shropshire, eighteen miles from Oswestry where Wilfred Owen was born. Farm labourer. Able only to read and write his name. Enlisted in 1914. Served on the Somme as a driver (of horses), where, according to family legend, he once went up to the front-line trenches in place of a friend whose courage had suddenly deserted him. Later, back in the reserve trench, he shovelled the remains of his best friend into a sandbag.
Every family, Dyer says, has the same album and a version of the same legend. But, he continues, though ‘everything I have said about my grandfather is true’:
He is not the man second from the left in the photograph. I do not know who that is. It makes no difference. He could be anyone’s grandfather. Like many young men, my grandfather was under age when he turned up to enlist. The recruiting sergeant told him to come back in a couple of days when he was two years older. My grandfather duly returned, added a couple of years to his age and was accepted into the army. Similar episodes are fairly common in the repertoire of recruitment anecdotes, but I never doubted the veracity of this particular version of it, which my mother told several times over the years. It came as a surprise, then, to discover from his death certificate that my grandfather was born in November 1893 (the same year as Owen), and so was twenty when war broke out. One of the commonly circulating stories of the 1914 generation had been so thoroughly absorbed by my family that it had become part of my grandfather’s biography. He is everyone’s grandfather.
Dyer’s grandfather was Geoffrey Tudor, born the same year as Wilfred Owen, in a town not far away.On his ‘Certificate of Employment during the War’, Tudor is listed as a farm labourer. Next to ‘special remarks’, it says: ‘Steady and reliable. A very good groom and driver. Takes great care of his animals’. Dyer remarks that ‘the Major who filled out this certificate might have been describing an animal’; he himself went to Oxford to study with the elite, and no one, he observes, would describe him as ‘steady and reliable’. Yet, he concludes:
My deepest sense of kinship with my family is activated by this form of my grandfather’s – not just my love: my class feeling, my ambition, my loyalty. That form – army certificate Z.18 – is why this book has the shape – the form – it does.
The dedication of the Canadian War Memorial at Vimy Ridge, July 1936
‘Aftermath’, written by Siegfried Sassoon in 1919:
Have you forgotten yet?…
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same – and War’s a bloody game…
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.
Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz –
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench –
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again?’
Do you remember that hour of din before the attack –
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads -those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.