Dishonouring The Dead

As expected, and as was absolutely right, the celebrations yesterday to mark the centenary of the Armistice of 1918 were solemn, sorrowful and deeply moving. They were duplicated all over the old Commonwealth (including India), and, I imagine, in all the Allied countries, and possibly the Axis ones too. Representing the latter, the German President attended the ceremony at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, for the first time in a hundred years, and laid a wreath. Over in Belgium, Merkel and Macron cried on each other’s shoulders. (At least, that’s what it looked like.) There was not a hint of triumphalism or jingoism about any of it. No socialist or even pacifist could possibly object. Jeremy Corbyn was there. Of course the tabloid press criticized him, predictably, for wearing a dark raincoat rather than the usual formal black overcoat; but on the other hand he was the only one to stay behind and talk to veterans.

Following it, BBC2 carried a documentary last night, ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’, which conveyed the horrors of the war on the Western Front, and the attitudes of ordinary soldiers, far more vividly than I’ve ever seen them portrayed before in books or film. (And in the course of lecturing on the subject I’ve read and seen an awful lot of those.) Adding colour to the moving images made an enormous difference; as well as the selection of the images themselves – which included torn, bloody, eviscerated bodies lying in mud. It was my old friend Joanna Bourke who pointed out to us, a few years ago, how all the contemporary images of death in war represented the victims as whole  bodies, even when shot or blown up. This made them easier to be seen as masculine heroes, than lumps of flesh or eyes hanging out of sockets could do. (See her Dismembering the Male, 1996.) Also on British TV last night was Joan Littlewood’s anti-militarist musical ‘Oh What a Lovely War’. (I remember seeing the stage version when it premiered in the East End.) Then tonight they’re showing a programme about the mental after-effects of the First World War on serving soldiers: ‘WW1’s Secret Shame: Shell Shock’. Quite right, too.

Michael Gove, however, must be fuming. Remember his objecting to the ‘Blackadder version’ of the War a couple of years ago:; on the grounds that it was no way to teach children ‘patriotism’. (He was Education minister at the time.) In fact the reality of World War I was far worse than that. You don’t see Baldrick in bits.

In this connection, it was good to hear the French president inveighing against ‘nationalism’ (but not ‘patriotism’) yesterday, in an obvious dig at Trump. That is, at the man who wouldn’t go out and pay tribute to the American dead ‘because it was raining’. Everyone’s saying that this was because he didn’t want to get his beautiful hair wet or his false tan to run. Is he really as vain and shallow as that?

Or maybe it was something else: the solemn, even gloomy character of the celebrations, and their implicitly anti-war message. This is a man who breathes false optimism. Realistic versions of the Great War don’t exactly encourage that. I’d be interested to know how the Americans as a nation celebrated Armistice Day yesterday. My suspicion is that they will have been more upbeat. Can anyone help?

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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5 Responses to Dishonouring The Dead

  1. Thanks, John. I wonder whether the names are significant: ‘Armistice’ celebrating peace, ‘Veterans’ the fighters? And there seems to be more emphasis on ‘the Fallen’ – dead – here (the UK). The two examples you give, however, would go well here.

    Liked by 1 person

    • John Field says:

      Very true on that distinction, Bernard. Agree completely.


    • John Cowan says:

      Definitely yes, the names are significant. The U.S. used to have a perfectly ordinary Armistice Day until 1945, when a certain veteran of WWII (veteran in American English means any ex-serviceperson, whether long-serving or not) named Raymond Weeks convinced General Eisenhower that the holiday should be extended to the living as well as the dead. Eisenhower was agreeable, and veterans began to march in parades on November 11. Congress made the formal change of name in 1954 during Eisenhower’s presidency.

      Armistice Day had always been more of an abstraction in America than a cold reality, a holiday about world peace more than the dead. The American WWI dead were few, only about 100,000 out of an army of 5 million, or 2%; the army itself was a 4% drop in the bucket out of a population of 130 million. (By contrast, the British lost 11% of their army, which was itself some 13% of the population.) The graves were far away and essentially unvisitable, and by 1945 perhaps WWI had come to seem insignificant in American popular consciousness compared to the hemoclysm of war and genocide that had just passed.

      But America did have its own day for remembering its war dead, Decoration Day (May 30), referring to the decoration of soldiers’ graves with flowers. This became a tradition after (and even during) the Civil War, far and away the most bloody of all U.S. wars: it still represents almost half the total war deaths from 1775 to the present. It was also the most bitter of all our wars, sometimes literally brother against brother: the Regular Army’s officer corps was neatly divided. Counting the Union and the Confederacy together, about 10% of the population was under arms, and a staggering 20% of them died. If we include naval actions and militia battles, every state from Maine to California saw the elephant, and war graves were everywhere. The shift to the name “Memorial Day”, made in order to include the dead from all wars, many of whose graves were inaccessible to decoration, was gradual, and not made official until 1967. It is not clear why May 30 was chosen: it does not memorialize any specific battle, and the holiday is now celebrated on the last Monday in May whatever date that may be.

      So perhaps with Armistice Day and Memorial Day competing for the role of a holiday in remembrance of the war dead, it was natural that the less deeply rooted and perhaps less significant day would shift its meaning to celebrating those who survived the wars.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. John Field says:

    My take on American domestic ‘veterans day’ events is, as per usual, that they were pedestrian, superficial and thanks-for-your-service oriented. The bell-tolling at Kansas City’s WWI museum was a fitting exception; it can be found on YouTube. Another interesting note was University of Missouri football team wearing names of graduates killed in WWI (There were 117 in all; some 60 named on players’ jerseys.) for Saturday’s game.

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