I was in one of my favourite bookshops on Sunday – Blackwell’s Oxford. It’s a multi-storey bookshop with a breathtaking book cave, and is one of those bookshops (like the LRB Bookshop) where the arrangements and suggestions themselves are intellectually stimulating.
However, the day I visited was Remembrance Sunday (which I have written about before) and I was disappointed by the sign below:
Now, I studied War Poetry in my final year at Trinity College, spanning many of the major figures from 1914 to 1945 and reading extensively about the background of war poetry of the period, and I have only the slightest awareness of Binyon. Strange that they chose to quote him, given that the stand featured the better-known war poets and writers: Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Rupert Graves.
So why choose Binyon? For the same reason people continually choose Rupert Brooke and Rudyard Kipling as the poets of war – their portrayals of war are at best sanitised and at worst romanticised. They represent the kind of remembrance that we crave – a rose-tinted evocation of eternal youth.
Sassoon refuses us that. He rejects any romantic commemoration of the dead of the First World War. He had the following to say about the New Menin Gate memorial:
Here was the world’s worst wound
And here with pride. ‘Their name liveth for ever’, the Gateway claims.
Was ever and immolation so belied?
As these intolerably nameless names?
Well might the Dead who struggled in the slime
Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime.
As for Owen, he didn’t live to see any commemorations of the First World War. He was killed, needlessly and cruelly, one week before the signing of the Armistice. But during the war his poetry deliberately opposed the dishonest portrayals of eternal youth of Binyon or Brookes, portraying instead the reality of doomed youth:
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
This is the reality of how we marked the passing of millions of young men in the First World War. We may choose to “remember” them with moments of silence and beautiful music and paper flowers, but they died to choirs of wailing shells, amid the sounds of agony, death and brutality. They weren’t heroes who died for their countries, they were young men who were thrown to their deaths, in service of the military industrial complex. A painful reality, yes, but a reality we must face for as long as we continue to engage in the brutality of mass armed conflict.
In this article Harry Leslie Smith, a 90-year-old veteran of the Second World War, discusses why he has worn the poppy for the last time, because he cannot tolerate the memory of his friends being exploited to serve the morally vapid ends of the current government:
“I am afraid it will be the last time that I will bear witness to those soldiers, airmen and sailors who are no more, at my local cenotaph. From now on, I will lament their passing in private because my despair is for those who live in this present world. I will no longer allow my obligation as a veteran to remember those who died in the great wars to be co-opted by current or former politicians to justify our folly in Iraq, our morally dubious war on terror and our elimination of one’s right to privacy.
“Next year, I won’t wear the poppy but I will until my last breath remember the past and the struggles my generation made to build this country into a civilised state for the working and middle classes. If we are to survive as a progressive nation we have to start tending to our living because the wounded: our poor, our underemployed youth, our hard-pressed middle class and our struggling seniors shouldn’t be left to die on the battleground of modern life.”