Monday, 4 November 2013

A week before Armistice Day: another day to remember

In a week, we’ll be awash with First World War commemorabilia. 

Armistice Day. Poppies on every lapel. Politicians laying wreaths at war memorials. Two minutes of silence throughout Britain but a day off in France, less parsimonious with its commemorations.

To avoid being swamped, I’ve decided to get my commemoration in first, to indulge in a little of what Tom Lehrer called ‘pre-nostalgia’.

Not that the choice of date was coincidental. The fourth of November is one of the bleaker dates of a war that had plenty of bleakness. At ten to six in the morning on that day in 1918, British soldiers assembled on the banks of the Sambre et Oise canal in Northern France. They had pontoon bridges and rafts to help them cross the canal and form a bridgehead on the other side.

Scene of the fighting: near of lock on the Sambre et Oise canal
In the event, the Germans put up such withering fire, most of the pontoons and bridges were destroyed. If the day was eventually marked down as a British victory, it’s because one group forced their way across a lock. But the slaughter amongst the men who were trying to wade, paddle or swim across was terrible, and entirely futile.

It was particularly futile because, just as today is a week before Armistice day, so 4 November 1918 was a week before the actual armistice, the end of the fighting. Nothing that happened on that day was ultimately going to make the slightest difference to the outcome of the war.

Ceremonies in remembrance of war dead always make the point that those who fell did not die in vain. It’s a falsehood so widely believed that it’s become more of a delusion than a deceit. It’s part of a greater lie, that it’s somehow commendable to die for your country. Or to put it in other, better words, ‘the old lie, dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori.’

That denunciation of the lie comes at the end of a powerfully moving poem, by a man last seen on a raft in the canal, struggling to get across under terrible and ultimately lethal fire. He was 25. He had until the late summer been in England recovering from earlier wounds; it had been made clear to him that he was not expected to go back to the front, but he went anyway, convinced it was his duty, if only to to keep exposing the sadness of the war: ‘my subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.’

The poet of the pity of war was Wilfred Owen.

To mark next year’s centenary of the outbreak the First World War, Carol Ann Duffy, the present British Poet Laureate, is overseeing the publication of a collection of new poems echoing those of the time. She’ll be picking up the themes of Owen’s The Sendoff, and says of its author:

For me, the loss of Owen as a poet during the first world war is a continuing poetic bereavement each time I read him. He is a presiding spirit of our poetry.

Every one of those needless deaths at the Sambre et Oise, as all the other millions of deaths in that needless war, is an individual tragedy. Perhaps we can, however, sum them up most poignantly by that one death, of a 25-year old who had so much more he might have said, in those icy waters in Northern France.

One bereavement can stand for all the rest. Particularly as the loss still reverberates down the century to today.

All of which adds up to an excellent reason to mark the fourth of November with at least as much solemnity as the eleventh.


Aries Cottrell said...

Oh David I agree with you. The deaths in that case and many others were needless. I will remember those souls today, as you have so eloquently helped me understand the need to in this post. I will also honor those who fought for freedom, my Grandfather, my husbands Grandfather and all the rest. This is a sensitive subject and I will hope that we learn from this... still. Maybe a pipe dream but I will always hope for no more war!

David Beeson said...

As they did (hoping for no more war): it was 'the war to end all wars'. So sad that it didn't turn out that way.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for providing me with a reason to go back to the 2 best known poems of W.O. that my incredible English teacher (he was Norwegian actually) introduced us to at 16.


Awoogamuffin said...

It's a sobering thought that at my age, Wilfred Owen would have been dead for five years