Friday, November 11, 2005


I spent a few days at my parents' house last week. My dad showed me an old photograph I'd never seen before of my grandad, taken in April 1917 at Vimy Ridge. The picture must have been taken a few days (perhaps only a few hours - we're not sure) after the end of the extremely nasty battle there. It's a tiny photograph, but incredibly sharp and clear. It shows my grandfather standing with three other men in a kind of semi-circle facing the camera. They're out in the open in the mud and behind them are several tall tree trunks. At first glance it looks like the photo must have been taken in the middle of winter because the tree trunks are skeletal, blackened and with few branches - dead looking. In fact, it's mid April in the picture and the trees look wintry because the land on which they stand has been pounded for a week by the heaviest artillery barage ever seen in history up until that point. My grandfather clearly hasn't shaved for a long while and is casually (sloppily even) turned out in khaki trousers, long sleeved vest unbuttoned at the neck and braces - no jacket, no hat. He has his arm slapped around the shoulder of the man standing next to him and is grinning. My grandfather wasn't a small man, but he's dwarfed by the three men with him - big strapping Canadians. My grandfather was British and we're not sure what he was doing at Vimy Ridge (the battle was fought by fresh Canadian troops, newly arrived at the front), but it's probable that he was sent up to the ridge with other low ranking British officers (he was a Captain by 1917) to help clear up, or perhaps simply to replace the many dead and wounded Canadian officers. The Canadians with him are surprisingly smart looking - freshly shaven, straight backed, clean-ish uniforms. You wouldn't know that they had just been through one of the most intense battles of WW1 in which much of the fighting was done at close quarters - hand to hand bayonet and grenade fighting in the woods (or what was left of the woods).

It's a startling photo in a way that only a sharp focused and well preserved picture of people all (presumably) long dead can be. It's a bit of cliche to say, but it really does look like the picture could have been taken yesterday and the faces of the men all look like the faces of young men you might see in the street on your way to the shops. It's not like the grainy, faded newsreel pictures you see on the TV, the moving pictures shot at a distance (so you can't really see the faces of the men running, firing and falling) - this one looks breathtakingly real. I couldn't help wondering how many of those three Canadians survived the next 19 months of war (my grandfather did of course, or I wouldn't be here). What happened to them? Did they live to have a family like my grandfather? Did they end up face down in a trench? Did they become one of those poppy petals which will fall over Central London in the Remembrance Sunday parade?

I haven't worn a red poppy for the last two years. I'm not wearing one this year either. Every year I wonder whether I should, and the sight of this picture made me think about this question perhaps a bit harder than in previous years. The reason I'm not wearing one is not because I can't be bothered, but because I refuse to. It's right to remember the dead - especially those who died in an awful war like the WW1 and I've got absolutely no time for people who say that we should forget all about it - that it's 'ancient history'. But you can remember the dead without wearing a red poppy and without turning out for a military parade. What I object to about the Poppy thing and about Remembrance Sunday celebration is the way in which the millions of dead are marshalled by the state and by the military for their own purposes. Remembrance Sunday does not so much signal the awfulness of war (the utter injustice, waste and terror of WW1 especially), it's not so much a lament for the dead - their suffering and pain - as it is an exercise in the incorporation of the practice of rembrance of the dead and their suffering into the structures of the political and social status quo. It's a chance for heads of state to look solemn for a bit, for the generals and field marshals to dress up in their most romantic uniforms and for the ordinary people to salute the flag, re-affirm their patriotic commitment to 'the nation' and doff their caps to military power. Thank you Ma'am for being our Queen - we know you feel their pain. Thank you General Sir Marmeduke Sebag-Smythe for protecting us with your million pound armour piercing, ball-baring packed missile warheads. Thank you for being prepared to send more people to kill and die for you, should you find it necessary for the preservation of British rates of profit... I mean our freedom.

This is not the kind of remembrance that I want to take part in. Especially seen as many of those at the front of the national parades are responsible for the ongoing slaughter in Iraq. Wars are terrible things - as long as they were a long time ago. Our wars today aren't like that now. So Tony Blair will look solemn, maybe his lip will tremble slightly as he lays a wreath and bows with a pained look on his face, and then he'll walk slowly back to Whitehall for an update on military operations in Basra.

One of the most affecting things I have heard about the First World War - from veterans interviewed on TV or in the papers, or just in books is that for many soldiers in the trenches there was no feeling of hostility towards the 'enemy' troops in the other trench lines. Time and again you will hear the old men say that they didn't hate the Germans - that in fact they felt a strange kind of common bond or brotherly identification with the enemy. After all, they were men like them, conscripted to fight a war they hadn't made themselves, standing in the same mud, seeing their dead comrades chewed by the same rats, experiencing the same horrors. After a while at least, patriotic feeling ceased to stir many of the men in the trenches - they didn't go over the top for 'King and Country'. After months standing in water logged trench such nationalism must have seemed utterly ridiculous. What kept them going was a sense of identification with their mates. They stayed in the trenches and, when they had to, they went over the top because they simply didn't want to let their friends down. That was the reality. Bollocks to all the flag waving.

If only that sense of a common bond with the 'enemy' conscripts had been allowed to develop a bit further - if that sense of fierce solidarity that soldiers in the trenches had for their mates (the one that kept them in the trenches) had spread a bit wider and had started to bond German and Briton, Frenchman and Austrian. There were glimpses of this of course in the various Christmas truces and on the Eastern front in late 1917. Then they might have done away with the war, and the only corpses left lying in the mud would have been those of Haig, Kitchener, Ludendorff, Hindenburg and Petain - shot by their own men.

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