Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Remembrance Day

This year's Remembrance Day commemoration has focused on the 100th year anniversary of the advent of World War I -- represented, so poignantly, in the Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red art installation currently seen at the Tower of London.   November 11 marks the day that the last of 888,246 ceramic poppies -- each representing a British or colonial death in the "War to End All Wars" -- is laid to rest.

I have read a number of novels set in World War I, but for me the classic and still indispensable text is All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque.  Published in 1929, it is still surprisingly accessible and readable.  For the British or American reader, there is always that shock of perspective.  Rather than despise the narrator, we sympathise and suffer with him.  We root for him; we hope he can outwit the many forces which want to crush him.  There is no faceless enemy, no German "Hun", but only a young Paul Bäumer -- who was sold a jingoistic bill of goods, just like every other young man of his generation.  Although the novel describes a war dominated by trench warfare, the conditions of war seem applicable to almost any armed conflict.   Rather than excitement and glory, Paul experiences boredom interspersed with intervals of sharp fear.  Scavenging for food and cigarettes is his and every other soldier's main concern, and comradeship their only consolation.  Paul fears that the experience of war has left him fit for no other purpose and the random nature of survival alienates him from even his closest comrades.  In one sense, that is the irony of the novel.  War has often been criticised for being a soulless machine, but in this war story,  the individual's experience is the only important thing.

Although the number of 888,246 is huge and shocking, it seems worth noting that German casualties were more than twice that number.    The total casualties of the war are believed to be larger than 10 million human lives.  We honour those sacrifices even as we acknowledge the pointlessness of so many of them.   As the infographic at poppyfield.org shows, the "Great War" wasn't the war to end all wars . . . not even close.