11 Nov





A proposal of “non-forgettance”  for the forthcoming centenary of the First World War

        In the black and white whirl of news reels and historical film footage the First World War – the war to end all wars – or as it’s known in the popular vernacular the Great War, wends through our collective memory. Happy smiling Tommies bidding fond-fare-wells to loved ones and parents, to the strains of brass bands and the vocal largess of “It’s a long way to Tipperary” and “Roll out the Barrel,” before being bundled into France-bound trains. From the flinty promontory of hindsight we observe and safely muse, that in point of view of our own unstable society, a war to end all wars seems a little presumptuous. The war which devastated world population and in particular our own in Britain during the first quarter of the twentieth century is about to celebrate its 100th anniversary. That’s the cause of my concern; is it a celebration or an act of remembrance? The British Prime Minister David Cameron has already stated that it will run along the lines of the diamond Jubilee, in a speech he gave in October 2012 at the Imperial War Museum in London; a speech he used to announce that more than £50 million had been allocated for next year’s commemoration of the outbreak of the war. (Monday 11 November 2013; THE INDEPENDENT)

In every town and village throughout the length and breadth of the United Kingdom stands a memorial, a cenotaph of granite that lists and names the glorious dead. Men who gave their lives for King and country, who died so that we might repeat the same mistakes just forty short years later. Gulled into the mud and filth by patriotic fervor and misunderstood political maneuvering, men who’d lived the peace of the pre-war years where suddenly hurled into oblivion. The horror stories are rank, even though we’ve not necessarily heard them first hand from our grandfathers who refused to talk about the war due to the horror they witnessed. We do however remember the looks in their eyes as we climbed upon their knees as children or played with the medals that were so carelessly thrown into biscuit tins and ash trays. All they wanted to do was forget, so why should we remember?

Is it a celebration of valor and national sacrifice or is it simply stoking the fires of militarism? Not that the embers need tending given the current state of world peace. Marching bands and uniforms, the attraction of straight limbed youth parading through our high streets with their flags unfurled, patriotism dripping from their blood soaked colors. What would the doomed youth of the 1914- 1918 conflict say of a remembrance of centennial carnage, historical idiocy and incalculable loss?

On the first day of the Somme in 1916 Tommies, British soldiers, waited in the mire of water filled trenches for whistles to blow; the signal to go over the top. A barrage that’d lasted for over a week with the expense of millions of shells had finally come to an end. The great push Eastwards was about to take place and in a moment of utter madness the British were about to climb from their trenches and walk across no-man’s land, as they had been ordered, towards the German trenches. They’d been reassured that not a rat would be left alive after the horrendous hammering the enemy had received. Whistles undoubtedly blew and men would have cheered and clambered up wooden ladders into the expanse of land that separated the two protagonists. We know, as a matter of record, that the soldiers kicked footballs as they went. With complete confidence that theirs would be a total victory, they walked line-abreast towards the enemy.

The Germans who’d hidden in their deep underground shell-proof dugouts also heard the whistles and urged on by corporals and sergeants, rushed from their places of safety back into the world of mud and death. One can only imagine their horror as they set up their Maxim machine guns to repel the attackers and defend themselves at the sight of thousands of British soldiers coming towards them. The mechanical chatter of the guns must have come as a huge shock when first heard, and as their comrades fell around them the British must have felt deceived and betrayed. Twenty thousand men died on the first day of the Somme, the greatest loss of life ever incurred by the British Army in a single engagement. In total, a staggering 420,000 casualties would be sustained throughout the continuance of the campaign that would last four months. Eventually those in charge reversed their decision and the Army went back to the war of attrition. One has to wonder what it was that finally changed their minds? Was it the last soldier who died, the last hundred or the last thousand?

Now Flanders fields are ploughed under, the only reminder that men once brutalized one another upon the acreage is the annual iron harvest. The continued excavation of weapons and munitions by the ploughs that are carefully collected and stacked by the roadside for the bomb teams to dispose of. The bones of the unidentified are stacked likewise to be interred elsewhere or placed into an ossuary at some field of remembrance populated by marble headstones. The names of the fallen are inscribed for all to read, a tourist attraction for visitors for whom the war is just a story, another Kodak moment. But perhaps I’m being a little too cynical and perhaps those who visit are there to remember because they can’t forget?

So how should one commemorate? How will the sensitive souls in Whitehall decide to mark the moment, the lives and actions of the men who fell in a war that although it was fought never should’ve been? A culmination of peace pacts, promises of assistance and of failed short sighted policy that did nothing except tear Europe apart. I can already guess. It will be the massed ranks and bands of the British armed forces with all the gaudiness of military tattoo; flags and drums, emblems and uniforms, badges and medals. A display of pomp and circumstance that we haven’t seen since the last time. Twenty four gun salutes, R.A.F. fly-overs and the most malephluous of all, the moment of silence, where we, the British public, are given a moment to reflect, rather than the early death that those who fell were given, and thank them for the peace in our time.

 Is it really necessary to have soldiers carrying weapons to commemorate those who died by them?

Instead of soldiers marching through the streets I propose to have a single family. A mum and dad with a couple of kids walking through empty streets of London without the unnecessary hindrance of patriotic fervor. Instead of crowd lined streets, let’s have empty pavements and nothing but the whistle of the wind, the sound of their footsteps and the occasional peel of some far off church bells. How much would that say, how much would that exemplify loss of life, how much would that mean to a forgetful nation? Nothing fancy just a simple walk down Whitehall or the Mall, not because of any royal significance but because it’s an easily recognizable location, with a camera crew to follow them to witness the empty vista. One can imagine the public crowded around TV sets with their volume controls turned up as they watch in silence. The thoughts that such a walk would invoke and the ensuing collective energy that would emanate from such a simple protest of remembrance would be felt the world round. How they would turn to each other and remember, wipe their tears and shake their heads.

It may take a good twenty minutes for the family to cover the distance, twenty minutes of unmitigated silence and pure thought. No stomp of British boots but instead the soft tread of Britains.

Perhaps, a remembrance parade to end all remembrance parades?




  1. Robyn November 11, 2013 at 6:32 pm #

    Lovely words! I agree, peacefully recalling the cause vs the result would truly hono(u)r those who’ve sacrificed

  2. Jennifer Fawcett June 21, 2014 at 8:12 pm #

    Throughout the towns and villages of the American Midwest you will come across similar memorials to the lost of the American Civil War. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

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