Wednesday, November 23, 2005

An Ecstasy of Fumbling, Pt 6

The Great War, and more particularly experience of the trenches, is gradually slipping away from modern memory. Earlier this week, the last veteran to have played football in the famous Christmas truce of 1914 passed away. Where does this leave our commemoration of the Great War? Is it something that will just be an event, that appears like trees - there, but decorative of our history, not a permanent force in shaping it?

Travelling to the Battlefields of the Great War was an affecting experience. Connecting the landscape, the human memory, and the broader knowledge of the history brought the main issues of war home to me closer than any number of textbooks could ever achieve. Until you've walked from the trenches to the nearest village, and suddenly realise how ordinary people were placed within the range of artillery fire, the humanity of the slaughter doesn't shine through. It can't - the numbers only ever tell you part of the story.

As I wrote in my previous posts on the theme, the point of remembrance is to make that connection between the facts and the effects. The danger, of course, is that they become over-sentimentalised. Thinking after the event, the dangers of our approach to remembrance are evident. For whilst the physical effects of the war may be passing from living memory, some of the mental effects are still with us. Our parents will remember grandparents having to cope with the loss of children, or maybe even had their own grandparents suffering from gas attacks and such like. Focusing on the terror of the war only once a year may well bring about an importance sense of communal identity. But it runs the risk of sentimentalising sacrifice.

Realising that 1914, in the military sense at least, is out of living memory, makes me realise also that it is vital we don't limit our remembrance to a two-minute silence, or the unconscious wearing of a poppy. The implications and effects of the war were more profound than we can consider simply through ritual acts or the remembrance of our family. In many ways, it really has brought us to where we are today - warts and all. It is right that in the two-minute silence that we remember those who gave their lives so valiantly. It is right we remember them in a reverent light, shining boots, shoulders back, happy and smiling. Yet even those who came back were never the same again. If we are really to learn from our past, we have to think beyond those two silent minutes.