Tuesday, November 01, 2005

An Ecstasy of Fumbling, Pt 2

With the advent of Remembrance Day, my mind always swings back to a visit I made to the Battlefields of WW1 when I was about 14. It was a fantastic trip, and something I would highly recommend to anyone with a passing interest in the subject. Part of the trip focused, naturally, on visiting graveyards. It was a macabre experience, and yet the visits to so many different cemeteries brought home a strong point about remembrance.

Going to British, French and German cemeteries across the Western Front, one is instantly presented with the different ways in which the countries view the war, and how they wish to commemorate their dead. The German cemetery at Langemarck, in Belgium, for example, is tiny in comparison to the vast plots of land taken over at Tyne Cot, say, or the ossuary at Douaumont Ridge near Verdun. The reason for this, of course, is fairly simple - the Belgians were reluctant to give any of their land to the Germans following the hardships of invasion and occupation.

Langemarck is, I believe, one of only four sites in the whole of the country where German dead are buried; about 45,000 soldiers are buried there (half of those in a pit in the middle). Those who are identified tend to be buried in plots shared by up to eight bodies. This contrasts heavily with Douaumont, where about 15,000 soldiers are given individual plots in a colossal graveyard (described by Richard Holmes as the "saddest place I know" - I agree). Admittedly, over 100,000 bodies are housed in the ossuary there. What is instantly striking in a comparison of the two cemeteries, however, is their design and their feel.

Langemarck is tremendously sombre. Heavily surrounded by trees, so that it is perpetually in the dark, the centre is taken up with an ossuary of unknown bodies; at the back, appearing as shadows, is the sculpture of the "Grieving Parents" - four mourning figures with their heads bowed. It is a manifestation both of the human suffering of the war, and the national shame of defeat.

It seems difficult to use such a word to describe such a sad place, but the spirit of Douaumont is far more celebratory. This is achieved in part by the flying of a gigantic tricolore, but the ossuary itself is a defiant building. The ridge and cemetery may be a place of reflection, but it symbolises also the defiant sacrifice that was made to save Verdun, and ultimately France itself. This also comes through in the French gravestones - a stone cross, with the name of the interred, and the inscription "mort pour la France" written on it. In the spirit of egalite, no grave is to be embellished more than any others. This is a fact which led a friend and I to believe that, would it have been politically possible, the government would have liked every gravestone only to contain the inscription "mort pour la France". The sacrifice made to defend France was a communal one.

British cemeteries, by contrast, have a far more individual nature - containing details of date of birth, date of death, the emblem of the regiment, and allowing space for the family of the deceased to write a personal message. This embodies, to me at least, the more personal nature of the appeals made to Britons when asking for service. The story of the "pals battalions" may be well known, and to a certain extent they show that a sense of community was important. The abiding image of the war for many, though, is Lord Kitchener's "Your Country Needs YOU" poster - making a direct and personal appeal. The culture in Britain is one of remembering the individual sacrifice, as well as the larger actions of an army. Maybe that is needed when it is difficult to praise the actions of commanders like Haig. In any case, it marks again a totally different side to the remembrance of the war and the war dead than in both France and Germany.

Culturally, then, even when remembering a shared experience, there are sharp differences. This is something that should be remembered when considering war, as well as remembrance. The US was no doubt far more shaken by the attack on the Twin Towers because it had no living memory of war scarring its landscape. In turn, I think the fact that Britain was fighting a war abroad (no matter what is said about the "Home Front") leads it to evaluate the Great War in a totally different manner to France, despite the two nations being allies.

Remembrance, therefore, may be a shared experience in one respect - we all remember the same things at the same time. The significance of that act of remembrance, however, is certainly different in different countries, and it is no less true to say it means different things from person to person, even as we stand shoulder to shoulder in observing a silence. The debate over white poppies, as I wrote about yesterday, is testament to that fact. These may seem gross generalisations in themselves. What I think they do throw light on, however, is that making trite generalisations about what remembrance does mean; what lessons we should draw from remembrance; or the hijacking of the solemnity for making political points do not help us understand either the past or the future. Remembrance, at its most basic level, is a personal thing, as much as it takes on communally and societally significant forms. That there is a shared language and symbolism on this issue, however, should not preclude a proper debate, and a nuanced understanding of what lessons we can draw from a consideration of the past.