Selective memory is a phrase that is used pejoratively for remembering the things we want to remember and forgetting the things we’d rather forget. But do we really select what we remember? Do we have a choice? Looking at a photo album of his grandmother’s from WWI, Geoff Dyer in his book The Missing of the Somme, quotes John Updike:
Memory has a spottiness as if the film was sprinkled with developer instead of immersed in it.
Old photographs very much mirror our memories. They grow spotty, they fade, they eventually disappear forever unless we somehow ‘preserve’ them. How do we preserve memories? Ironically, many times through photographs. A record of the event becomes a symbol of the event, once removed.
Our understanding of history is also filtered by the events that we live through. When we live through cataclysmic events, our perception of the period prior to those events is changed. We may remember a period as bucolic, as a time of peace and tranquility, that was anything but that. Our memory selects and compares, evaluates and assesses: we come away with an altered view of the past (now distant), because of the impact of the recent. It seems to me then, that the primary instinct of the historian is to resist the reinterpretation of the historical record based on current understandings and perceptions.
Like the best works if Sebald, Dyer’s book is filled with photographs. Like the best works if Sebald, Dyer’s book is a travelogue into memory. The first photograph is an iconic one which he calls the “anticipation of memory”. The actual name is “Silhouette: seeking a comrade’s grave”, taken by Ernest Brooks on 22 August 1917, near Ypres. “Anticipation” of memory because a soldier remembers a comrade even as the battle still rages. This is immediate, a tranquil picture removed from the present, that presents a ‘look back’ to the present.
Follows is a discussion on cemetery design, and the changing attitudes towards death that evolved after The Great War. Cemeteries began to move from the cities to the countryside in order to engender a feeling of eternal “rest”. The Grim Reaper of old was replaced by an image of death as “eternal sleep”. I favor Ferlinghetti’s phrase The Smiling Mortician.
Dyer broaches the subject of “sacrifice” as slaughter. And I’ve always been suspicious of – and uncomfortable with – those who blithely talk of sacrifice while marching off to war is occurring. Seems to me that those who “sacrifice” the least are the same ones who hollowly eulogize the sacrificers. And the monuments? Aren’t they really there for fear that we will forget? Aren’t they there to jog our memories? To remind us? Without the monuments, would we forget?
Two minutes of silence were introduced in 1919 and observed on Armistice Day. Yes two minutes, not a minute or even a moment. But after the Second World War when the observance for both wars was combined, the observance day was changed to the Sunday that was closest to 11 November. Dyer observes that the effect of the silence was now muted since Sunday was a quiet day anyway. The description of this silence is dramatic. Everything stopped, even the trains.
The following year, a ceremony for the Unknown Warrior (Soldier) was introduced. An interesting story. Eight unmarked graves were disinterred from various important battle sites. A senior officer, blindfolded, selected one of the coffins at random. This became the Unknown Soldier. With mass remembrances came the realization that the pain of loss, when spread out over so many, could become bearable.
Here’s a fact that has never occurred to me: there were 375,000 horses killed in the war. I find that equally astonishing and disturbing. Coincidentally, Spielberg has recently made the film War Horse, which, although I have not seen it, probably turns out just fine for man and horse. This is a disconnect from the overall sweep and reality of the facts.
Dyer discusses the increasing distancing of men as actual active combatants in the war. From the artillery that indiscriminately killed anonymous combatants to the gases developed – men were becoming lambs available for slaughter. It continues apace in this modern (?) age of warfare with drone strikes that all too often annihilate women and children. I can even go back to the Illiad where the archers were looked on as less noble combatants than were the swordsmen.
The pattern for the century had been set: the warrior of tradition becomes little more than a guinea pig in the warring experiments of factories and laboratories. Cowering becomes heroism in passive mode….Men no longer waged war, it has often been said; war was waged on men.
Still, as Dyer points out, the men marching off to war had signed up to kill for their country. I think of the recently viewed documentary Hell and Back Again which followed 27-year old US Marine Sergeant Nathan Harris in Afghanistan – and back home – who without reserve tells the camera that he had become a marine because he wanted to kill men.
And yet, compassion was not stamped out by brutality. In fact Dyer asserts, it “flowered”. As always, those not in the fight itself – civilians – had the strongest blood-lust, the largest capacity for hatred. It is always thus. Meanwhile, the combatants themselves
had become passive instruments of their nations’ will….only in the battle-line itself was there no…hatred:…only…suffering…and endurance, death and infinite waste.
So that by extension, the Armistice Day celebrations brought solemn praise and remembrance for those “sacrificed”, but those still living – the survivors – felt forgotten. Interesting that the dead are easily remembered, memorialized for our triumphs, while the living are an inconvenient reminder of our failures. Out of this came the resistance movements, which according to D.H. Lawrence, has its roots in the Great War. Dyer posits that
perhaps the real heroes of 1914-18…are those who refused to obey and to fight, who actively rejected the passivity forced upon them by the war, who reasserted their right not to suffer, not to have things done to them.
This memorial – there are memorials to peace as well as to war, some combining the two – was erected in London’s Tavistock Square in May of 1994.
Dyer watches an endless loop of war footage, he comments on the very heavyness of things. He realizes how heavy everything used to be – from boots to coats to the “things they carried”.
This is one of the lessons of history: things get lighter over time. The future may not be better than the past but it will certainly be lighter. Hence the burden, the weight of the past.
This heaviness is actually emphasized in the work of some sculptors, like Charles Sargeant Jagger. Below is his massive monument at Hyde Park Corner in London to the Royal Artillery. The memorial was unveiled in October of 1925.
It was not merely that the memorial’s were many times more massive, or at least had a feeling of gravity, of weight, or heaviness. The sheer volume of memorial building is striking. In France alone, there were 30,000 memorials unveiled between 1920 and 1925. Interestingly, Dyer notes, the memorials built-in England tended toward the traditional, the winning side – the side of preservation. The more modern, experimental monuments were put up in Germany, the losing side – the side that was hostile to the “old” values.
Dyer sees the most common and prolific sculptures as symbolizing the very act of remembrance itself: A sculpture of a single soldier who, head bowed, weapon at rest, is remembering his fallen comrades. Then a fascinating change takes place. Especially in the decade after the Great War, there was an attempt to merge War with Peace, to make our remembrance of War and new committment to Peace. But with a new war (with Germany) looming on the horizon the sentiment for peace receded into the background and a sentiment for “preparedness” seems to have won out. The triumvirate (War, Peace, and Preparedness) jockeys for position even today.
When we think of The Great War, the First World War as it was designated only after another one came along, we think of the gas attacks. Below is John Singer Sargent’s rendering.
In the painting (if you were looking at it in person) you could see, just to the right of the man turned away and vomiting from the gas, a football game going on way in the background. Football was a huge recruiting tool for volunteers, offering as it did the chance to play in the “greatest game of all” – whether this referred to football or the war is open to interpretation. One of the great myths of the Great WAr was the Christmas Day 1914 football game between the Germans and the English. It’s doubtful this ever really occurred, but it makes a great story.
For the Romantics, ruins were “enduring monuments to transience”. But the Great War ‘ruined’ all that. Shelley’s ‘Ozmandias’ was obliterated with one artillery shell. The little cottages and quaint villages of Shelley and Wordsworth didn’t merely “crumble and decay”, they were (in the words of John Masefield) “smashed to powder”.
Geoff Dyer ends his journey (this is a travelogue after all, a travelogue of remembrance) at the foot of the memorial at Thiepval with its inscription The Missing of the Somme.
I remember the names of only a few butterflies but I know that the Greek word psyche means both ‘soul’ and ‘butterfly’. And as I sit and watch, I know also that what I am seeing are the souls of the nameless dead who lie there fluttering through the perfect air.
Selected ideas for future readings based upon Dyers The Missing of the Somme:
- Thomas Berger’s Photocopies
- Pat Barker: The Regeneration Trilogy (Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, The Ghost Road
- Timothy Findley’s The Wars