It is possible that the remembrance season we entered two days ago will last the four or five years until it will be time to commemorate the tragic peace that followed the unusually tragic war but it is much more likely that there will be a complete exhaustion of commemoration all round and even politicians and media hacks will stop reminding us about the need to remember those who died for us and to draw the necessary lessons.
It seems very unlikely that people will remember the dead of the various wars of the last century on a day to day basis but equally unlikely that they will forget them completely. We are, after all, reminded of them every year at the moving and solemn Remembrance Day events. Is that not enough? In recent years, because of Britain's involvement in two major wars in Iraq (at an end for several years) and Afghanistan (coming to an end) there has been a revival of interest and emotion connected with that solemn moment of the Eleventh Hour on the Eleventh Day of the Eleventh Month, which has become a time when we recall all the other wars as well and their various heroes and victims. It is my great fear that the multiplication of remembrance and the outright gorging on sentimentality of the last few days will take away attention from Remembrance Day. People may well feel quite bloated with remembrance by the time we get to the right day.
And so, on to August 4, 1914, generally seen as the beginning of the First World War, the horror unleashed on Europe and the world that, in its turn, precipitated further horrors. On that day Britain declared war on Germany. While there is evidence that politicians and diplomats felt that they had failed in solving the crisis, the public in both countries was enthusiastic about the war but, as is natural, lost that enthusiasm in years to come.
In Britain, when Asquith addressed a packed House of Commons, he said:No reply came and the Foreign Office released the following statement:
“We have made a request to the German Government that we shall have a satisfactory assurance as to the Belgium neutrality before midnight tonight. The German reply to our request was unsatisfactory.”
Asquith explained that he had received a telegram from the German Ambassador in London who, in turn, had received one from the German Foreign Secretary. Officials in Berlin wanted the point pressed home that German forces went through Belgium to avoid the French doing so in an attack on Germany. Berlin had “absolutely unimpeachable information” that the French planned to attack the German Army via Belgium.
Asquith stated that the government could not “regard this in any sense a satisfactory communication.”
“We have, in reply to it (the telegram), repeated the request we made last week to the German Government that they should give us the same assurance with regard to Belgium neutrality as was given to us and to Belgium by France last week. We have asked that a reply to that request and a satisfactory answer to the telegram of this morning, should be given before midnight.”
Owing to the summary rejection by the German Government of the request made by His Majesty’s Government for assurances that the neutrality of Belgium would be respected, His Majesty’s Ambassador in Berlin has received his passport, and His Majesty’s Government has declared to the German Government that a state of war exists between Great Britain and Germany as from 11pm on August 4th.The nightmare began and has lasted to this day. Two days ago, on August 4, 2014, a great deal of commemoration went on.
We cannot argue with the importance of the date or the fact that the centenary should, in some way, be remembered. But one cannot help thinking that it was all overdone to an almost nauseating extent. Military parades, restrained speeches, the laying of wreaths (will they all be laid again in November?), beautiful services in various cathedrals are all solemn and, up to a point, moving. Photographs and newsreels of the period are enormously interesting and a number of exhibitions around the country have been fascinating.
But did we really need the call for darkness and the lighting of candles? Sir Edward Grey's famous comment about the lamps going out in Europe was not a literal description of what happened. Did we really need all the commentary, the endless sentimentality, the glorification of Britain's decision to go to war? Let me make it quite clear: I am not, in this posting, discussing either that or the various military campaigns, merely the surfeit of remembrance. We must remember! We must learn our lessons! But what must we remember? That war is hellish? Who doesn't know that? Given the fact that most of what was repeated in those endless comments was the old old myths about the war and the trenches, as if there had been no naval war, no air war, no fighting elsewhere in Europe and the world, nothing much seems to have been learnt about the actual events outside the pages of such magazines as History Today.
Those lessons we must learn? What are they exactly? That war is a bad thing? Well, who knew? That war is sometimes unavoidable? I am shocked, I tell you, shocked. The slightest suggestion that perhaps British generals were not quite as stupid as the mythology would have it, that many people came back from the war and got on with their lives, that British casualties were not as high as other countries', that, perhaps, signing those treaties with France and Russia was not such a good idea when we look at what they led to, that maybe it was not simply Germany's fault though they were hardly victims and of other not very controversial matters was greeted with hysterical outbursts about visiting battle fields (I have not done that but have visited at least one military cemetery and it was very moving) and the need to remember. Not to understand, not to keep a stiff upper lip but to remember.
It is one of the curious developments of the last few years that as Britain becomes less and less of a military power for psychological as well as practical reason, so there is a greater proliferation of memorials and remembrance festivities, till they have become a season, whose end is not in sight.
I should like to quote relevant comments from two writers, both, as it happens conservative. Dorothy L. Sayers's novel The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club which starts on Remembrance Day (and raises an interesting question about the wearing of the poppy) has a number of characters who had gone through the war and had been affected by it in a greater and lesser degree. Lord Peter Wimsey who, as readers of Sayers's books know, had suffered from shell-shock but had more or less overcome it meets at the beginning of the novel George Fentiman who seems to have been gassed and shell-shocked. He is in a bad state and seems unable to recover from his experiences. (There is a sort of a happy solution at the end of the novel but it does not ring true. Sayers's own marriage to a man who had never really recovered from the war was not happy.)
Listening to George Fentiman's complaints, Wimsey diagnoses the problem:
Cheer up. All this remembrance-day business gets on your nerves, don't it? It's my belief most of us would only be too pleased to chuck these community hysterics if the beastly newspapers didn't run it for all it's worth. However, it don't do to say so.That was written in 1928.
My other quotation is from John Dickson Carr, a writer who was more than a conservative, positively a Tory, and it refers to the period immediately after the Second World War. Carr was in Britain at the end of the war and was not particularly happy by the regime imposed on the country by the Labour government (a good many people were unhappy about it, feeling justifiably that war-time rationing and regulations should not intensify once the war was over).
In November 1945 he went back to the States and together with Frederick Dannay (one half of Ellery Queen) scoured the second-hand bookshops for the detective fiction of his youth. He emerged with what must have been a remarkable haul, including a complete set of novels by Carolyn Wells, an extremely popular writer in her day but almost forgotten now. Carr wanted to bring the books back to Britain but found it an incredible chore, it being necessary. apparently, to obtain a licence for the process from a government that rather sniffily discouraged, according to what Carr quoted in a letter to Dannay, the importation of fiction. (Who but a socialist government would think of that?)
As Douglas G. Greene quotes in his superlative biography of Carr and as Curtis J. Evans re-quotes in his essay on Carolyn Wells in the recent collection Mysteries Unlocked, Carr wrote to Dannay in May 1946 that the British government has finally (after six months) agreed to grant that licence though he also received "a stern letter saying it is not customary to allow importation of fiction". Carr goes on:
The regulations in this country go more and more damnable. One more war for liberty and we shall all be slaves.Something to mull over in this remembrance season.