On an occasional theme of recurring Richard van Emden appearances, I watched him being interviewed by the BBC as part of their coverage of the Remembrance Day service last month. Asked if he thought interest in the Great War could be sustained after 11 November, his answer was ambivalent, but he did say it was inevitable that the Great War would recede in our memories until it felt as far away as the Napoleonic Wars. He reckoned there would be a gradual fading away rather than an instant end. The title of his new book, '1918 A Decisive Year' could be adapted for all those of us worrying about our employment prospects after the centenary.
Armistice Day this year marked a particular tidemark. For four years, remembrance of the Great War has flooded the media; depending on how interested you were, it was a feast or a glut. As the sun went down on the eleventh of November 2018, and the great and the good filed out of Westminster Abbey, it was easy to wonder if that was that, and how soon it would be before the war would be pushed aside in favour of something more topical.
I suppose I've been in a bit of a Great War bubble for the last five years as most people I've talked to about Lionel Morris have had a keen interest in the centenary. The intensity of the interest will die down and for some people it will have real economic consequences - I've read about many battlefield guides losing their jobs as the demand for WW1 based tours declines. But I'm not convinced it will be terminal. The key to keeping people engaged is to encourage them to find out about their own family histories, and with so many readily available resources, it's never been easier. There's also so many of us for whom the centenary has been a galvanising, life-changing event, and it's brought history to life in a massively popular way
Sebastian Faulkes (who got in there before most, with his 1993 Western Front novel Birdsong) wrote a piece for the Times that included a summary of the sheer numbers of us who have been engaged in remembrance: 14-18 Now, the organisation whose events included the Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red poppies installation, have reported audiences and participants of 30 million, and according to the head of BBC events, 82% of adult Britons listened or watched at least one programme on the centenary.
The war wasn’t legally over until the Treaty of Versailles was signed on 28 June 1919, which is why many local memorials have that year inscribed on them, rather than 1918. Servicemen dying up until 31 August 1921 are still recognised by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission as casualties of the 1914-18 conflict. In Saint-Symphorien cemetery in Belgium, it’s traditionally believed that the first and last Commonwealth soldiers of the war are buried not far from each other. Their tragedy is as simple to grasp as those killed on the eve of Armistice; and yet the deaths went on, from unhealed wounds both mental and physical, for decades to come.
There is a critical consensus now among historians that will not allow the colossal grief, the most easily understood legacy of the First World War, to overshadow the very good reasons why the generals took the decisions they did. But the territorial nature of that grief can’t be erased by academic studies. As Sebastian Faulkes wrote, ‘it is the nature of warfare and the human animal itself with which we have had to grapple.’ It’s this timeless dilemma that will always keep the poet’s war close to us, and the reason why I’ve found telling Lionel Morris’s story to be so irresistible. I needed to understand why he went to his death so willingly. I’m not sure I have understood it fully still, but I do have a better idea - and who on earth am I to judge when I wasn’t there.
Not so much a journey of discovery, more of a commute of compulsion
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