I was surprised and delighted to see a number of pupils from my former school, Tynecastle High, on prime time U.K. news this week. The bulletin was about the commemorations of the centenary today of the end of the First World War.
The pupils recited lines of poetry written by the War Poet and Soldier, Wilfred Owen, who taught at the school, briefly, while receiving treatment at Craiglockhart for “shell shock” sustained during fierce fighting at the front.
After his brief time in Edinburgh, Owen returned to the front and was killed one week before the Armistice, aged 25.
It was while at Craiglockhart that Owen wrote “Dulce et Decorum est”, in which he describes “The old Lie…” that…. “It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country.”
This line brought to my mind recent commentary regarding what those fighting in a war believe they are fighting for, and how they should most appropriately be remembered.
I think, first of all, we should not presume to know the minds of those that served and we should certainly not assume they were all of the same mind.
This is true of the cause for which people ‘fight’. It was worth recalling that while many sought to enlist for the 1st world war, many more were conscripted, so the idea that they are choosing to fight for something, like the King or Queen or this or that country is more problematic.
We should not presume to know the minds of those that served and we should certainly not assume they were all of the same mind.
The veterans I have met over the years tell me there are any number of motivating factors that drive them during combat, including the imperative of self preservation and the burning desire to help and not let down comrades who are also close friends.
Similarly, with regard to the wearing of poppies and even attendance at remembrance events. There are many WW1 veterans who decided never to wear a poppy, so strong were their feelings about the causes and conduct of the war.
Within the general population there are a variety of strongly held views. Some wish to remember but do not wish to wear a red poppy. While others prefer to remember and display a white poppy in support of peace. Others, myself included, wear a red poppy. In my case both to remember and because proceeds for poppies and wreaths go to Poppyscotland, and through them to veterans themselves.
For me, I have no desire to attack someone who chooses to wear a white poppy, as one MP did this week, nor to excoriate those who do not wish to wear a poppy for whatever reason.
In taking this approach I wonder how the prospect of discord, about poppies and remembrance events, would be viewed by people who actually served and suffered during the war, like the young Wilfred Owen.
We find it hard to imagine the true horror of that war. The mechanised killing, the gas attacks, the cold, the wet, the rats, lying next to the body of your deceased comrade for days, as Owen had to. It is perhaps not so hard to imagine what the young men who endured all that and worse, would have thought of the arguments about poppies today.
It must be about remembrance. Having visited the Somme and other battlefields in northern France a number of times, I personally try to ensure that I visit as many graves as possible, often at the furthest point in the graveyards, of those with no name on the gravestone.
As they faced their end, having been swept from domestic peace to a world of agony and death, were their last thoughts not likely to have been, “remember me. I lived. I served and now I die, but do not forget me.” We cannot know of course. But that is why I remember them.
I was last at the Somme last year. Having participated in the the commemoration of the men of McCrae’s Battalion, we later dined in the square at Arras. A music concert was going on nearby. The bars and restaurants were filled with people of all ages from all over Europe. They laughed, sang, debated and discussed as they ate and drank. I remember thinking that however defined, peace must look a lot like that.
Nothing demonstrates the necessity, the beauty, the sheer potential of peace, than its absence.
While Rousseau was right to say that “peace is found also in dungeons”, we should also heed Plato’s warning that only the dead know the end of war. Nothing demonstrates the necessity, the beauty, the sheer potential of peace, than its absence. If we remember those that fought and died, we are surely less likely to be tempted by a big lie, like “a sweet and proper death.”