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Aftermath: Memorialisation, Memory and Poetry

Hannah Clements discusses remembrance of the first world war through its most significant war poets and authors.

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Image Credit: Hannah Clements

Poppies, parades and a minute of silence, November 11 is a date that I’m sure will be familiar to you all. Memorialising the war is important. Important not just to remember all the individual battles, but to also remember the trauma and devastating emotions soldiers and their families faced. As an English student, I suppose it is natural for me to be drawn to poetry when thinking of emotion, but I do feel war poetry has a certain potency to it that makes it available and effective to everyone. You may have noticed that the poppy sales have begun again, and that plenty of them include poppies with an inscribed ‘2019.’ It may be brought into question what the war means for us now, 101 years after the armistice.

After all, the past few years have been rife with centenaries. In 2014, we mourned over the centenary of the war’s outbreak and in 2015, the centenary of the battle of Gallipoli passed. We marked 100 years since the battle of the Somme in 2016, and in 2017 there were commemorations of events such as the Battle of Passchendaele. Finally, 2018 marked 100 years since the armistice. And now, in 2019, we begin the anniversaries of the empty years that came after. The years of anger and raw grief, when the British public were determined to force Germany to accept blame for the loss of our men, so much so that the foreign secretary wished to “squeeze them until the pips squeak.”

“You are blind like us. Your hurt no man designed, And no man claimed the conquest of your land. But gropers both through fields of thought confined We stumble and we do not understand. You only saw your future bigly planned” - Charles Hamilton Sorley, To Germany.

In 2019, we are mourning the years of shell shock, survivor’s guilt, and all the families who were forced to keep on living without their sons, brothers, husbands and fathers. A heavy weight fell onto our country, and of course, many other communities across the world. A sombre silence followed years of explosions, fear and blood. And it was time to begin remembering the sacrifice hundreds of thousands of men made, and to start the process of memorialising the war.

Equality in Death
The fields of France and Belgium are dotted with white headstones, from tiny yards with a few small graves, to Tyne Cot, the biggest British war cemetery with 11,954 graves. Understandably, the losses of these men were not forgotten in the years following 1918. Over 700,000 British men fell in the war: 700,000 deaths to mourn, respect and recognise. It was time for a nationwide funeral.
It was crucial to pay respects to every single soldier, and to introduce an equality in death. Looking across a field of war graves, a spectator would not know which belonged to private soldiers, which were lieutenants, and which belonged to an unknown body. From a distance, each grave looks exactly the same. All ovaled, white, portland stone, there is no divide between the rich and poor, high rank and low rank, black and white, atheist and theist, each death is treated with equal respect, all buried close to where they fell. After all, they all made the same ultimate sacrifice. Famous war poet Rudyard Kipling coined t h e phrase that is inscribed on the graves of unknown soldiers, ‘known unto God.’ His poetry is rife with grief and guilt on behalf of his son, John Kipling, who fell at the Battle of Loos in 1915. John Kipling was originally rejected by the Royal Navy as a result of poor eyesight, but his father was able to use his connections and influence to help enlist him in the war effort. Following John’s death, Rudyard Kipling’s poetry exudes remorse and regret, and his lines are often used in war memorial services, and on memorials. His short, two-line poem, ‘quality of Sacrifice’, makes reference to the importance of this equality in death, that no soldier’s life was worth more than another.

A. “I was a Have.”
B. “I was a ‘have-not.’”
(Together). “What hast thou given which I gave not?” - Rudyard Kipling, Equality of Sacrifice

Yet, despite the fact that from a distance all the graves seem the same, a lot of thought was put into remembering the individuality of the soldier. When viewing the headstones up close, as much information as possible is engraved on the headstone. Alongside his rank and regiment, the graves contain either a Christian cross, Jewish star of David, and in rare cases, an atheist’s grave is unmarked by any religious symbol.
Most importantly, and sentimentally, each grave of a known soldier is marked with an epitaph, a few words from the family of the deceased. Most of these are based on love, memories, and the idea that their loved one died doing their duty for their King and country. Yet, there are some that are of interest due to their unusual nature. In Tyne Cot cemetery, one bitter epitaph reads ‘sacrifice to the fallacy that is war’, and in another smaller cemetery, one is heartwarmingly ‘Nettie’s Chum.’

“In Flanders fields the poppies blow Between the crosses, row on row, That mark our place; and in the sky The larks, still bravely singing, fly” - John Mccrae, In Flanders Fields

Guilt and Trauma
The end of the war certainly did not mean the end of trauma, and many soldiers were plagued with survivors guilt. The endless questioning of ‘why them?’ and ‘why wasn’t it me?’; victims of survivors guilt went through years of anguish after the war, and these years of suffering must be respected just as much as the torment of the war years. These men believed they had done wrong by surviving the war when their friends did not, and were cursed with self-guilt.

“I met you suddenly down the street, Strangers assume your phantom faces, You grin at me from daylight places, Dead, long dead, I’m ashamed to greet Dead men down the morning street.” - Robert Graves, Haunted

The war didn’t just take away four years of their lives, but the lives of the soldiers were never going to be the same again. ‘Shell Shock,’ or PTSD, tormented men for decades. Years upon years of exhaustion, trembling, nightmares and damaged senses left them permanently isolated from their loved ones, as they were unable to explain their experience. As young as 16, the majority of the country threw their life away to fight, if not for death, for lifelong torment, and long-standing memories of deep mud, numbing cold, explosions, and being surrounded by constant death.

“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?” - Siegfried Sassoon, Aftermath.

We cannot do enough for these men, who sacrificed luxuries, mental stability and even death for their family’s benefit, and for generations to come. In 2019, it is still critical to keep these men in our memories, to show that they did not die in vain. The most prominent memorial service that I have personally experienced is the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium. I have attended this service on more than one occasion, but on one I had the honour of laying a wreath in the service. For those of you that don’t know, the Menin Gate is one of the most well -known memorials in the world, holding the names of 54,389 men who died in the Ypres Salient, and have no known graves. At 8pm every night from July 1928, to the present day (with a hiatus during WW2) a memorial ceremony has been held.

“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning We will remember them.” - Laurence Binyon, For The Fallen.

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