Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Remembrance of wars past.

The public commemoration of the centenary of First World War began a couple of weeks ago in my area with the launching of Project Bugle.  This is being organised by the local history society.  They will publish month by month short biographies of the combatants who died on the 100th anniversary of the months of their deaths.  If the soldier is buried in a local cemetery (some died before they left for the war zones, others after they'd returned, but of wounds or the effects of gassing) there will be a short ceremony and a wreath will be placed on the grave.  Attempts will be made to involve schools, youth groups and local organisations.  A regular bulletin will be issued with extracts from our local paper of contemporary reports of the events of the war and local reaction.

This seems to me an imaginative, though demanding, scheme, with the potential to be very effective.

 The launch was held in our town hall. For me an inappropriate mood was introduced when we were issued with Union Jacks which we were invited to wave as the event was opened  with half an hours' singing of music-hall songs popular at the time.  I suppose the excuse was that these were songs the soldiers would have known, but to me it seemed an excuse for cheap jingoism and nostalgic sentiment, the very antithesis for what is required.

I have similar reservations about the national and international events held last Monday, 4th August.  The speeches about reconciliation and now being allies, the reading of poems and poignant soldiers' letters, the  symbolic recreation  of the "lamps going out" by the snuffing of candles, are moving and appropriate. But the good they do is erased from my mind the moment somebody blows a bugle, a band plays a jaunty tune and soldiers go marching off in step.  This   injection of military "Shalloo humps and Shalloo hoops" as WS Gilbert aptly phrased it, has the effect of sanitising war,  removing the horror and asserting  that dulce et decorum est . . not an "old lie" but what the powers that be would like us to believe.

As my walking companion, who is German, put it when I asked for his view: I don't like the creepy Remembrance Show, it's brought by the same people who  are gung ho for war.

There is much talk of "lessons to be learned."  The chief lesson to be learned is that war is a failure of politics, and politics, as we know, continues to fail.

The instigator  of Project Bugle has calculated that, based on the names on our war memorials, within a radius of a 20 minute walk in any direction from our market place, at least 202 young men died in the war.  He's  pointed out that, when remembering this tragedy, we usually concentrate on the lives lost, but we should also recall the  grief of  the families and friends left behind.

At the time Birstall was little more than a rural village with a few mills down the valley.  Nearly everyone must have been affected.

So here's one of the lesson to be learned.  How many of the two out of every three eligible adults who failed to vote, or the one out of three who voted to come out,  in the recent European elections, realise that the major purpose of the European Union is to ensure that the names of their children and grandchildren won't appear en masse on future war memorials?

 In the essential task of revitalising our politics drums, bugles, medals and and jaunty tunes are a distraction.  We need a form of remembrance which inspires us to want to create a saner world in which problems are solved through selfless patience rather than military pretensions.


  1. Our memorial and remembrance can do nothing for those who died. In the immediate post war years it was an essential part of grieving and a vital part of 'social reconstruction'. It was hoped that it would bring cohesion to a fractured society. Sadly it failed then and it looks like failing now if it becomes pompously jingoistic rather than an exercise in education. Tout comprendre c'est tout pardoner.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Stuart. If as you rightly say, grieving is not longer relevant, what is the point of all this "remembrance"? Surely to refine our politics so that such errors do not occur again. To this end the glorification of militarism by the wearing of medals, marching to bands etc is counter-productive and should be abandoned.

  2. With regard to the songs of the First World War, I think it was those like "I don't want to join the army, I don't go to war" that were more popular with the troops than the traditional ones that were churned out. In fact, I heard a recording on the radio earlier this week where a veteran sang this song - apparently one of his few fond memories of the war - and a much cleaner version than the one I was more familiar with.