Saturday, November 15, 2014

Thoughts on coping with a four year anniversary of "that bloody mess"

Like millions of others, I have been moved by many of the events taking place on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, such as the poppies surrounding the Tower of London, but I am a bit apprehensive that this centenary of the "War to End All Wars" is going to last another four years until the 11th hour of the 11th month in 2018.

In every week of every month until then there will be some anniversary somewhere - of battles on land and sea, other war-related events or disasters. They already loom large. The Gallipoli Campaign, the sinking of the Lusitania, the major Battles of the Somme – all lie ahead. And then there are the other world-shattering events that took place in those troubled years such as the Russian Revolution and the murder of the Tsar and his family. There are already rather too many books being published on these topics, fiction and non-fiction, not to mention television dramas, films and documentaries - plus every village, town and city in all the countries affected by that War are seemingly being compelled to remember their men who marched away in some way via a display or event of some kind.

But how much can all of us take? At what point will we feel the need to switch off because we are suffering "centenary fatigue"? 
Private John Atkins

My Uncle John was a teenage recruit to the first Tank Corps and was lucky to survive as the Corps had a high casualty rate. He was hardly one for navel-gazing, being a practical no-nonsense sort of fellow with a wicked sense of humour about the stupidity of politicians. He also had an aversion to memorials or any notions of sentimentality about "that bloody mess", as he called the First World War, and he would no doubt be baffled by all the attention and introspection being awarded to the centenary.

There is much comment in the British media and on Facebook (around 5,000 likes and heading for 2,000 comments as of writing this) about this article from The Guardian  regarding this Christmas advertisement produced by Sainsbury supermarket chain currently doing the rounds on UK television. There is quite a war of its own going on among the comments. There are those cynics who think it is crass commercialism and disrespectful, those who find it beautiful or moving but have no compunction in telling the others they ought to think the same as they do. I can almost hear Uncle John chuckling at the pomposity and self-righteousness being flung about.

There is no doubt that the commercial is a fine production but ultimately it is a simplified and sentimental rendering of a well-known, if somewhat apocryphal, episode from that War that may have more to do with distorted memories and wishful thinking, even a bit of ancient propaganda. (Google for more articles and studies as to how much hard truth is behind the Christmas Truce story.)

Christmas 1914 was when this War was supposed to be over. There was probably still some optimism that the European powers would see sense and let those young men return home – many of whom were naive and had signed on as a lark, an adventure, rather than having any real awareness of what they were fighting for. None of the participants could have foreseen what lay ahead – almost another four years of slaughter such as the world had never seen.  

In all likelihood, most of  the young men who played football at Christmas were eventually killed, wounded or scarred in some way, psychologically if not physically, and it is this that went through my mind when I watched the commercial. If there was a moment when those on both sides genuinely believed in the spirit of Christmas and the ultimate goodness of mankind, then we should never denigrate that faith, even if a supermarket chain used it to give itself a plug in the process. If one researches old newspaper and magazine advertisements during World War I it will be seen that there were no scruples back then about using images of men who were likely to die in order to sell products. 

There are thousands of interpretations of World War I – photographs, films, paintings - many of them capable of creating intense emotions, but for me personally one of the finest is Midnight at the Menin Gate by Will Longstaff to be seen at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. Its spiritual tone might be unfashionable now in our more irreligious age, with its representations of ghostly souls drifting through the cornfield and its poppies, but it gave consolation to many bereaved families in the years following the War. Its message on the "bloody mess" is that we might learn and not let it happen again. A faint hope since there were, of course, many other terrible conflicts to follow, but in many ways the world is a better place due to that waste and sacrifice of a century ago and if we need to keep being reminded about it for the next four years perhaps that isn't such a bad thing.

Copyright Australian War Memorial