Now more than ever – remember the fallen
11 November 2018 08:00
One hundred years ago today, at 5am in the railway carriage of the Supreme Allied Commander, Marshal Ferdinand Foch, in the Forest of Compiègne outside Paris, the German delegate, Matthias Erzberger, agreed to a cessation of hostilities. At 11am, this became the official Armistice that ended the First World War: the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month.
At least 16 million people had died in this terrible conflict: in the trenches, the Armenian genocide, from malnutrition, from disease. The world had never witnessed such compressed suffering and loss – though much worse was to come in the century of totalitarianism, the Holocaust, nuclear weapons and the insane ideologies that animated groups like the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the murderous Serbs in former Yugsolavia. The conflict that was meant to be ‘the war to end all wars’ turned out to be humanity merely clearing its throat.
Every year, there is a phony argument about the ethics and symbolism of poppy-wearing. There is always a handful of willful antagonists – now freshly-mobilised by social media – who insist that the flower (which DRUGSTORE CULTURE proudly features on its masthead) is somehow an emblem of militarism, imperialism and xenophobia.
Of course, it is no such thing (in which spirit, we urge you to give generously to the Royal British Legion, which provides lifelong support for the Armed Forces community in a myriad of ways). For a start, there is no compulsion to wear the red flower. And those that choose to do so are not animated by a longing for a new Western front, or the loss of another generation, or further suffering of any sort. All suggestions to the contrary are a grotesque misrepresentation.
The poppy commemorates the sacrifice of those who gave their lives in the First World War and subsequent conflicts. It urges humility and gratitude in an age obsessed by the present moment and structurally forgetful of what went before. It reminds us that every civilisation, at whatever stage in its evolution, is only the latest stratum in the great geological formation of human history. At our peril do we forget the achievements, errors and wisdom of our forebears.
Indeed, to remember the First World War is to confront the horrors that faced hundreds and thousands of young men, almost all of whom had been born in the Victorian era, as they experienced the brutal reality of the first industrialised, mechanised conflict.
In the poem, Peace, Rupert Brooke expresses the expectation that so many of them had – that the war would be a noble and cleansing struggle, an opportunity ‘To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,/ Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary;/ Leave the sick hearts that honor could not move…’
Those hopes were quickly dashed. How easy it is to forget that chemical weapons – now categorised, rightly, as WMD – were used liberally in the 1914-18 war.
In this regard, Wilfred Owen, in his mesmerizing poem, Dulce et Decorum Est, bequeathed to future generations the most unforgettable image of what death by poison gas actually entailed (and still entails): ‘you too could pace/ Behind the wagon that we flung him in,/ And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,/ His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;/If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood/ Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,/ Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud…’
In his memoir, Goodbye To All That, Robert Graves recalled similar horrors in prose, such as the hordes of rats with which the soldiers had to deal: ‘They came up from the canal, fed on the plentiful corpses, and multiplied exceedingly. While I stayed here with the Welsh, a new officer joined the company… When he turned in that night, he heard a scuffling, shone his torch on the bed, and found two rats on his blanket tussling for the possession of a severed hand.’
To remember such moments and honour those who experienced them is not to romanticise warfare, but the precise opposite. It is to acknowledge the extraordinary human cost of conflict, the tragedy of its intermittent necessity and the collective duty of individual nations and supranational organisations to prevent it wherever possible. The poppy is an expression of gratitude. But it is also a symbol of vigilance.
How much more necessary such symbols are today than they were only a few decades ago. We live in an era of digital bombardment, in which the split-second and its intensive curation on social media have become a global obsession. Technology presents us with unprecedented opportunities and advances in the fields of communication, medicine, automated work, transport and creativity. But it has also weakened our connection with the past.
Why should this matter? Because the present should never be a safe space, sealed off and insulated from history. It is when we forget the lessons of the past that populism, prejudice and autocracy flourish.
As David Andress writes in his book Cultural Dementia, we are most vulnerable to injustice and bigoted emotions when we lose our ‘anchorage in the past… Anger, bitterness and horror coexist with fond illusion and placid self-absorption.’ It is no accident that our frayed sense of history has coincided with the surge of the populist Right and poisonous nativist ideology around the world.
Today, at 11am, the National Service of Remembrance at the Cenotaph will commemorate the service of British and Commonwealth military and civilian servicemen and women involved in the two World Wars and later conflicts; church bells across the land will ring out at the same time; Danny Boyle, whose 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony was such a masterpiece of patriotic pluralism, is overseeing great drawings of the fallen on beaches across Britain; from 5pm to 9pm the Tower of London’s moat will be ablaze with thousands of individual flames; millions are expected to pay homage to the dead at tens of thousands of war memorials in every part of the UK; 70,000 crosses have been planted around Westminster Abbey in preparation for a national service to mark the centenary at 6pm; an hour later, 1,000 beacons throughout the UK, Channel Islands, the Isle of Man and UK overseas territories will mark ‘the light of hope’ that emerges from the darkness of remembered grief.
At a time of deep national division and directionless anomie, this should be a day of collective inspiration and remembrance: a chance to remember who we are, how we got here, and at what cost. This is what T.S. Eliot meant by ‘the use of memory’.
As a future-facing magazine, DRUGSTORE CULTURE unambiguously acknowledges the value of recollection, and the duty to recall the past in all its beauty and horror. Wear your poppy today with pride, love and understanding.