Saturday, 13 December 2014

Remembering the loss of war

2014 is the start of a four-year period of centenaries, as we mark the hundredth anniversary of each of the main events of the First World War, as it turns up. 

We commemorated the outbreak of war back in August; for the war as a whole, in Britain we had the moatful of poppies at the Tower of London; now we’re on the brink of celebrations for the Christmas truces, with their attendant football games and exchanges of gifts between the front lines, a moment of hope which soon gave way to deeper despair than ever.

Poppies for the British dead at the Tower
As this process unfolds, there will be increasing debate on the war, on what it achieved, on what it cost in lives. 

There was a radical revision in assessments of the war back in the sixties, perhaps best characterised by the musical and then film, Oh What a Lovely War. The tone of the time is summed up by Adrian Henri’s line “Don’t be vague, blame General Haig”. That parody of an advert of the time (“don’t be vague, ask for Haig”) was particularly neat since the General owed his wealth to the Haig whisky business.

Where Haig's wealth came from
Judging by the results, perhaps his inspiration too
Now, though, there are signs of a new mood that would revise the revision. The war wasn’t all bad, the domination of Europe by Germany had to be broken (ironic, given where we live now), the victory was one for democracy and not just for imperialism. 

In the face of that backlash, it was illuminating to learn this week about Käthe Kollwitz (and my thanks are due, for far from the first time recently, to Neil MacGregor’s series Germany: memories of a nation). Kollwitz was an expressionist painter and sculptor and the first woman to be admitted to the Prussian Academy of Arts, though when the Nazis came to power, she was driven out as a creator of “degenerate art”.

Back in 1914, on the outbreak of war, her son decided to enlist in the German Army. Because he was under age, he needed his parents’ authority. His father refused, but Käthe came down on the boy’s side and persuaded her husband to let their son go. Within days of his reaching the front line, he was dead.

Käthe’s grief was made far more bitter by her harrowing sense of guilt. She decided to sculpt a monument to her son. The torrent of emotions she had to contend with made her reject idea after idea, and in the end it took her seventeen years to finish her work. it was unveiled in 1931.

The memorial she produced now stands in a Belgian cemetery, not far from where her son is buried. And what does it show?

Her son doesn’t appear.

There is no reference to war, neither the glory and courage of a warrior, nor the bitterness of injury and death.

All we see is two figures, for which she took herself and her husband as models, both kneeling and mourning.

Käthe Kollwitz. Grieving parents
It’s an image worth calling to  mind, especially each time we’re told that the losses of the war were a cost worth paying.


I’m indebted to the Plough website for quoting from Käthe Kollwitz’s diary, towards the end of her life, days before the end of the Second World War, in April 1945.

One day, a new ideal will arise, and there will be an end to all wars. I die convinced of this. It will need much hard work, but it will be achieved... The important thing, until that happens, is to hold one’s banner high and to struggle... Without struggle there is no life.

Second postscript

Adrian Henri’s Great War Poems from which I quoted above, is worth reading in full. I particularly like “the ghost of Wilfred Owen selling matches outside the Burlington Arcade”. I have a childhood memory of old soldiers selling boxes of matches.

Great War Poems

I. The same old soldiers walking along the same old skyline

2. Dead hand through the sandbags reaching out for the cream­and ­white butterfly

3. Mud/water under duckboards/mud/rats scamper in starshell darkness/mud/smell of shit and rotting bodies/mud/resting your sweaty forehead on the sandbags OVER THE TOP the first men in the lunar landscape.

4. “What did you do to the Great Whore, Daddy?”

5. Poppies slightly out­of­focus and farmcarts bringing in the peaceful dead.

6. The ghost of Wilfred Oven selling matches outside the Burlington Arcade.

7. Seafog. Red flaring lights from the shore batteries. The roar of shells rattle of machineguns. Water running in the bilges. My feet slipping on the damp cobbles of the quayside.


9. Four white feathers clutched in a blood­stained envelope

10. A skull nestling in a bed of wild strawberries/boots mouldering green with fungus/saplings thrusting through rusting helmets/sunken barges drifting full of leaves down autumn rivers.

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