Text Messages | 100 years of amnesia

A century after the end of the Great War, populist demagogues are leading radical reactionaries towards something that the world

It was meant to be the war to end all wars, another of those grandiose and foolish human notions. World War I, often dubbed the Great War, formally ended at 11am on 11 November 1918, though fighting on the far eastern front, in Russia, dragged on.

If there was greatness in the slaughter of 20 million soldiers and civilians, it lay in the sheer magnitude of the dead, and in countless acts of nobility, sacrifice and bravery, most unrecorded, if not unremembered. “Never again” was the cry that rang through Europe and the world after the guns grew silent, the troops returned home, and peace began scrabbling its way up from the bloodied earth of Europe.

Yet, here we are again, a scant 100 years later, faced with many of the same preconditions for continental and global conflict that saw the war of 1914 begin. Populist demagogues hold the reins of government in powerful nations with key strategic interests in Europe and the Middle East, from Erdogan in Ankara to Putin in Moscow. The United States is even more isolationist than it was in 1914, but with a vital difference: its leader is very keen to be numbered among those US presidents who have waged war and won. 

Spoiling for a fight with new bogeyman China, Donald Trump embarks on a mutually destructive trade war, which is like the real thing without the shooting. Meanwhile, a series of skirmishes and little wars are waged by his administration against people who aren’t white Anglo-Saxon Protestants: migrants, non-capitalists, intellectuals, pacifists, conservationists, indeed anyone who lacks the radical reactionary beliefs of those enraptured by the so-called Rapture and the coming great war that will see Us (the Trumpites) beat Them (everyone else).

Bugles calling them from sad shires

“Was it for this the clay grew tall?” asks Wilfred Owen in Futility, one of the greatest of the poems written by the war poets, that small group who fought, and mostly died, between 1914 and 1918. Owen was killed in action on 4 November 1918, exactly a week before the war ended. He was 25. 

In a ceremony this month to mark the centenary of Owen’s death, some of his poems were read at his graveside and the bugle that he had sent home, taken from a fallen enemy soldier, was played. It called to mind a line from his Anthem for Doomed Youth: “And bugles calling for them from sad shires” –  “them” being the doomed and fallen youth.

That poem begins, viscerally:

What passing bells for those who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.

(Orisons being an archaic and literary word for “prayers”.) 

Bugles are summoned again in 1914, Rupert Brooke’s set of five short poems.

Blow out, you bugles, over the rich Dead!
There’s none of these so lonely and poor of old,
But, dying, has made us rarer gifts than gold.
These laid the world away; poured out the red
Sweet wine of youth; gave up the years to be 
Of work and joy, and that unhoped serene, 
That men call age; and those who would have been,
Their sons, they gave, their immortality.

(The first stanza from III. The Dead.)

Is it all going to happen again?

Brooke died at 28 in 1915, a sub-lieutenant in the Royal Navy, during the campaign against Istanbul. He is buried on the Greek island of Skyros. In my first edition of his 1914 & Other Poems there is a poignant inscription, in pencil, by a previous owner of the book. It reads: “RBA / August 1915 / Ypres”. Ypres was one of the bloodiest chapters of the war, and one can reasonably surmise that RBA died there and was remembered by a loved one or a friend in that pencilled memoriam.

It was a survivor of the carnage, Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967), who most conveyed the horror. In Aftermath, he writes:

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?’

Three sections of the poem, italicised in the original, remind the hearer of what they dare not forget:

Have you forgotten yet? …

But the past is just the same, – and War’s a bloody game …
Have you forgotten yet? … 
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.

Have you forgotten yet? … 
Look up, and swear by the green of the Spring that you’ll never forget.

And yet, we have forgotten, doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.

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