Saturday, November 1, 2008

In Memoriam: The Great War

Youth Mourning by George Clausen (1916)

The 11th of November will be the 90 year anniversary of the armistice of World War I -- a war still remembered, in much of Europe (for its hugeness and its horror), as the Great War.
Whenever the November sky
Quivers with a bugle's hoarse, sweet cry . . .
I remember,
Not the war I fought in
But the one called Great
Which ended in a sepia November
Four years before my birth.
-Vernon Scannell, from The Great War
In September, I went to visit the London Imperial War Museum, where a year-long exhibition, In Memoriam, commemorates this anniversary. It tells (in their own words) the stories of those who lived and died in one of the most gruesome, and costly, conflicts in history:
Lice, rats, barbed wire, fleas, shells, bombs, dug-outs, bodies, alcohol, mice, cats, artillery, FILTH, bullets, death, fire, metal. That's war. It's the Devil's work.
-Otto D., Journal

Day after day the butchery of the unknown by the unseen . . . war has become stupid.
-"Changing Warfare. Some New Developments" (24 Nov. 1914)

From Praematuri:
But we are young, and our friends are dead
Suddenly, and our quick love is torn in two;
So our memories are only hopes that came to nothing.
We are left alone like old men; we should be dead
But there are years and years in which we will still be young.
-Margaret Postgate Cole (1893- 1980)

Aftermath (1919):
Have you forgotten yet?...
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.

But the past is just the same-and War’s a bloody game...
Have you forgotten yet?...
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz-
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench-
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again?’

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack-
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads-those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Have you forgotten yet?...
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.
Siegfried Sassoon
Walking through the permanent World War I galleries, the discrepancies between the propaganda (especially for recruitment) and the reality at the front made me want to simultaneously weep, scream, and be violently, violently, ill. I couldn't stop crying while viewing The Children's War exhibition, and the whole experience left me exhausted and numb.

We need to be reminded. The horrific weight of death. But what does one do with the pain? Is remembering enough?

No comments: