Tuesday, 25 April 2017

ANZAC Day, 25th April 2017

Today is ANZAC day when Australians and New Zealanders commemorate their war dead. ANZAC day focuses heavily on the Great War but not to the exclusion of other conflicts. The war to end all wars was nothing of the sort and set the scene for an even greater war. As one French General prophetically remarked at the end of the Great War: "This is not peace but an armistice for twenty years".

The end of the Great War was the beginning of the modern age and the true end of the Victorian era. Men of a thoughtful temperament became changed. In the summer of 1914, concepts such as honour, King, God and Country actually meant something in the hearts and minds of men- at least to the educated classes. Those who endured the horrors of war no longer thought this way. It is no coincidence that the growth of atheism in Britain can be traced back to this time. Before 1918, atheism was virtually non-existent in England except amongst a few foppish, fey intellectuals. In 1914 people actually believed that 'right could defeat might'. Only a madman or an intellectual dullard could hold this belief in 1918. The big battalions would always prevail in the end. It has always been this way even though French strategists of 1914 thought they could win battles by sheer élan alone. Of course, morale and fighting spirit are important components on the battlefield however, they count for nought when you charge into machine gun fire in conspicuous blue uniforms as if on a Sunday parade. Of all the combatants in 1914, the Germans appreciated the most the importance of major force in war. Although the much vaunted German army couldn't resist the occasional showy flash on the battlefield which cost them, dear.

We can chart the war in poetry. The jingoistic simple patriotism of 1914 slowly gives way to a sombre timbre. The poetry of 1914 is rather mundane and lacks emotional depth while the poetry of 1917/18 is red raw with all the nerves of the poet exposed. Bitter as the cud it captures the horror of modern war and encapsulates the helplessness of men exposed to an indifferent mincing machine. Those who survived not only carried physical scars but bore deep emotional gashes that always wept and never healed. My grandfather went to war as a man full of good humour and jest. On return, he was spent, deeply reflective and spent too much time on his own.

I've chosen a piece from 1919. It is a post-war poem by the English poet, Siegfried Sasson. Please read and weep.         

Have you forgotten yet?...
For the world's events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you're a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same--and War's a bloody game...
Have you forgotten yet?...
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you'll never forget.

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz--
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench--
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, 'Is it all going to happen again?'

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack--
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads--those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Have you forgotten yet?...
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you'll never forget.

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