Recently, I've catalogued a number of books printed between 1910-1920, which have brought home what World War I meant to those who lived through it. Prefaces that spoke of the book being printed posthumously because the author, a chaplain, had died in the field. Books that were delayed. Professors talking about how in some ways, their subjects and classes seemed trivial, yet how important it was that they carried on amidst the horror around them. What is most striking is the easy self-confidence of 1912 versus the numb, traumatised tone of 1919.
It is only in my time here in England that the impact of the World Wars has really hit home - particularly World War I, since our American history classes spent ages on World War II. We barely glossed over World War I, when we joined the fray in 1917, demanded immediate payment of loans from the English, and crowed about how *we* won the war. To us, Armistice Day is simply "Veteran's Day" - a three day weekend with great sales.
Here, there are cenotaphs with the names of the war dead in every town I've visited. Oxford colleges have panel after panel of names of their war dead. From mid to late October, there are poppies on nearly every coat, reminding us of those who lost their lives defending their countries. The ceremonies begin with a national 2 minute silence at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, when the guns of World War I fell silent. On the second Sunday in November, known as Remembrance Sunday, poppy wreaths are laid at every cenotaph and most masses or Christian services are requiems for the war dead.
Tonight, the Royal British Legion holds its Festival of Remembrance with singing, music, tributes. We've seen a war widow who lost her 20 year old husband, after barely a month of marriage. We've heard Nimrod, that evocative, melancholy, noble tune from Elgar's Enigma Variations. Soon we'll hear the "Last Post" and watch poppies flutter to the ground in silent tribute to those who sacrificed themselves for us.
I would love to step sideways into a world where World War I never happened - a world where women married - or had long, happy marriages with - the men they loved, rather than lose them to the new, terrible machine guns and the green fields of France. Where being a student at Oxford or Cambridge from 1914-1918 meant the same peaceful life as being a student between 1907-1911. Where children in the early part of the last century grew up free of fear and loss, and the men (boys, really) we lost in this world were allowed to grow to maturity and fulfill their vocations. Where would we be now? There is a Jewish proverb that goes "If you kill a man, you kill a whole universe. If you save a man, you save a whole universe." By that reckoning, we lost 20,000 universes in one day at the Battle of the Somme.
Heaven forgive us.
Tomorrow is Remembrance Sunday, but as today is actually the 11th day of the 11th month, I would like to pay tribute to all those who have fought and died on the fields of war. One of my favourite poems is by Lt. Col. John McCrae, a Canadian surgeon who died in the field of meningitis and pneumonia in 1918. Inspired by the death of his friend and former student, Lt. Alexis Helmer, in 1915 during the Battle of St Julien (Second Battle of Ypres), this poem has become a staple of Remembrance Day ceremonies in the UK and beyond:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
We will bear that torch, I promise. I'm so sorry that it wasn't the war to end wars, like we promised...it's happened again and again. We have broken faith with you. We are only human, not perfect...but we have taken up the quarrel with the foe - war, poverty, disease, genocide. And one day, though probably not soon, we *will* win. Your spirit and the spirit of all those like you promise us that.
Thank you. All of you - from the first war to the most recent.
“They shall grow not old as we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.”
We will remember them.