Cenotaph

November 9, 2012 § 3 Comments

2014 is just round the corner – and politicians and the media, still glowing from the Olympics / Paralympics, are fixing on the centenary of the First World War (not just 1914 and ’18, but every flag and bugle call in between).  Cameron is donning the donkey-head to lead ‘us’ into a National Commemoration, whereby we gather by cenotaphs (like cub-scouts, woggles askew, polishing our shoes on the backs of our socks) for a minute’s – no, ten minutes’ – silence, collectively ‘remembering’ the lost, English generation.  The dominant images will be conservative, Protestant, white, Imperial, bucolic.

And poets and poetry will loom very large indeed, not only in how they articulated the horror, but the ways in which they speak to today’s crumbling world.  Owen will ring out clearest, along with Thomas, perhaps.  Sassoon (though as a survivor, he may lack the sheen) will be there, showing how we were all in it together.  Rosenberg – a bit of rough from the East End, and a Jew, to boot – will ‘represent’ minorities; Gurney can cover the mental health angle.

But it was a World War, wasn’t it?  Britain (though it will be Englishness that is celebrated, despite what tartan Davie Cameron might be wearing as he clings on, desperately, to the Union) lost almost a million men; France, almost one and a half million – over twice as many by proportion.  Other nations suffering greater proportional losses included – on the Allied side – Greece, Italy and Romania; over 16% of the entire population of Serbia were killed, largely in the first year or so of the war.  All the Central Powers lost more as a proportion of their populations than Britain – particularly the Ottoman Empire.  And included in the casualty lists are the many hundreds of thousands of conscripts from European colonies, as well as recruited overseas labourers.

So how should contemporary English poets mark the event?  Can we reclaim Edward Thomas?  Should we set him alongside others who fought, in the end, because they couldn’t walk the other way – like my great grandfather, at 37 the same age as Thomas when he died (within a couple of months of him) at the Somme?  Or can we follow Rosenberg’s ‘droll rat’ across the line and consider those poets of the ‘other’ side, equally bereft and shattered, equally concerned to voice the whole world’s loss, like the German Yvan Goll, whose ‘Requiem for the Dead of Europe’ articulates an ‘exodus of so many men from their time’* as an international elegy?

*trans. Patrick Bridgewater, in The Penguin Book of the First World War, ed. Silkin (2nd edn, 1981, Penguin)

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§ 3 Responses to Cenotaph

  • Martin Mooney says:

    Interesting… It’s complicated for the Irish, and here in the north we’ve entered what the cultural managers are calling ‘A decade of centenaries’, from the Titanic to the partition of the island and the founding of the two states.

    Driving to get the papers this morning, there were small knots of people moving around our village’s small war memorial. Cubs and scouts, British Legion veterans, families, churchgoers. There’s a sincerity to the commemoration here that’s probably missing from the Tories’ calculated blowing of the last post. But there’s also an intensity that sets the poppy firmly in the context of Ulster Protestant perspectives on Empire and sacrifice.

    I don’t know what’s on the front page of the Mirror in Sheffield or London; over here it’s the refusal by Sunderland player James McClean to wear a poppy on his shirt – apparently the only Premier League footballer to do so. I suspect it’ll go unnoticed in Britain, but I’ll bet good money it’ll be dragged up here for weeks…

    And Irish poets? Well, those of us who studied under Edna Longley have Owen and Thomas and – especially – Keith Douglas in our DNA. We are all expected to be a kind of war poet, those of us of a certain age. And it’s hard to refuse…

    • Rob Hindle says:

      Indeed it is: I feel compelled by the thing myself – and this emotional connection may have articulated itself a bit too cynically. As it happens, my son was at the cenotaph this morning, and the single WW2 veteran and the high reedy voices of old women singing was moving stuff. What I do find difficult – what I think is complicated for some English people – is the assumptions of the few that everyone ought to share the kind of pride in place which is defined against the foreign field – whether that’s Ireland or Iraq.

  • Maggie Butt says:

    My book “Ally Pally Prison Camp’ tells the story of 300 of the 42,000 ‘enemy aliens’ who were rounded up and put into internment camps during the first world war. A different view of the effect of war.
    Maggie

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