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: https://bernardjporter.com/2016/07/04/spectres-of-the-somme/; 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?