Remembering

9 Nov

It is hard not to think about Remembrance today. This is Remembrance Sunday in the UK when there are a lot of official ceremonies to mark the war dead (there is picture of the one in my local town below). Even the weather seems to be in sympathy with remembering today – it is uncannily still; almost as though the weather has stopped to reflect.

I have been reading a lot of diaries and memoirs from WWI recently and it is hard not to be moved. Here are two extracts that affected me. The first is from To Fight Alongside Friends by Cpt. Charlie May, a fairly unremarkable middle class member of the British infantry who had been fighting from 1914 (he is pictured below – a fine looking man). He was at first enthusiastic about the war and maintained a terrific sense of anti-‘Boche’ (German) throughout. But he did report back, in letters to his wife, how scared he was of the war and the toll it took on his colleagues. Here is a particularly poignant extract from his diary from March 1916 when he and a military friend were in a rear area in France having a stroll:

“Ram and I strolled by ourselves along the Somme this evening. There was a glorious sunset, all flaming pinks and greys stretching the full extent of the heavens and the broad, smooth waters of the river reflected this till the world seemed alight with a soft, still radiance most peaceful and witching to behold.”

Three months later he was dead. Killed in the first few days of the Battle of the Somme. He left behind a one-year old daughter. Charlie May

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A more remarkable book, and one I would hugely recommend, is Poilu: The WWI notebooks of Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker, 1914-1918. Barthas was a private, and then corporal, in the French Army and an altogether different character than Charlie May. He was disaffected by the war from early on and his notebooks give an excoriating account of the selfishness of the French officer class and how they had little concern for the men who served under them. Barthas survived the war and took part in mutinous activities. One of the themes that comes through in Barthas’ narrative is how much he felt he had in common with his German counterparts in the trenches a few yards away. Indeed, he records a lot of incidences of reciprocal and localised ceasefires and fraternization. Here is one extract from the trenches:

“One day a huge devil of a German stood up on a mound and gave a speech, which only the Germans could understand word for word, but everyone knew what it meant, because he smashed his rifle on a tree stump, breaking it in two in a gesture of anger.

Applause broke out on both sides, and the ‘Internationale” was sung.
Well, if only you had been there, mad kings, bloody generals, fanatical ministers, jingoistic journalists, rear-echelon patriots, to contemplate this sublime spectacle.

Meanwhile our big-shot leaders were in a furor. What in the Lord’s name would happen if soldiers refused to kill each other? Our artillery men received orders to fire on any assemblies of men which were pointed out to them, and to mow down indiscriminately both Frenchmen and Germans, just like when in the ancient circuses they slaughtered wild beasts who were too intelligent to tear each others’ throats out and devour each other.”

Well said, Barthas. It is the best war diary I have read thus far of the unforgiving meat-grinder that was WWI. Yet, in WWI even the elites suffered. Twenty-two members of the British House of Commons were killed in that War, along with twenty members of the House of Lords. Today’s political classes have ensured that they are very safe.

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