Most of us have walked at some time through a war cemetery. We read a few of the inscriptions, and see how young they were.
A gardener is perhaps at work. We admire how well the Commonwealth War Graves Commission looks after things, and how fitting everything looks, the stones and the greenery, and how peaceful.
Without making any particular attempt to do so, we find the graves not only of English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish soldiers, but of Indians, Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans, Poles, and wonder how a member of the Royal Hellenic Air Force came to be buried here.
This week I went for the first time to the Field of Remembrance outside Westminster Abbey, which I had glimpsed each year from the road, but never entered. One of my brothers had suggested that on the hundredth anniversary of our great-grandfather’s death, we should place a cross for him.
What a density of small crosses is found on the grass, each with a small hand-written inscription, standing in lines as neat as one of the cemeteries.
Here is an equality of remembrance, as of sacrifice. Each of the fallen gets the same headstone, the same cross.
It was recognised from the first that there were some who would have no named grave, because their remains would never be identified. On their tombstones are found the words “Known unto God”.
And in Westminster Abbey, the “Unknown Warrior” was buried on 11th November 1920, to represent the hundreds of thousands who have no known grave.
Over a million men lost their lives in the service of the British Empire during the First World War. In earlier wars, almost no attempt was made to mark such graves. Thomas Hardy described what happened in the Boer War:
They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest
Uncoffined – just as found:
His landmark is a kopje-crest
That breaks the veldt around:
And foreign constellations west
Each night above his mound.
From 1914, it was felt such informal arrangements would no longer do. The story of how the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission was amid angry argument formed is told in David Crane’s book Empires of the Dead: How One Man’s Vision led to the Creation of WWI’s War Graves, and more briefly in this piece in Prospect by Joshua Neicho and Kath Temple.
The result was what Rudyard Kipling called “work greater than that of the Pharaohs”, a vast expression of atonement, remembrance, reconciliation, gratitude, guilt and grief.
And yet to us, a century later, it seems quite natural, and done with a modesty that seems just right. We would be appalled if it had not been done. The numbers were so great, the grief so deep and wide, that something had to be done, to show that these sons and brothers, friends and lovers were not forgotten or taken for granted; not left unmourned or unthanked.
Nor, in a democratic age, was it any longer tolerable to raise general memorials, or monuments only to commanders. So far as possible, every individual soldier had to be remembered by name.
The success with which this was done is attested by the internet. How astonishing it is to be able, with a few clicks, to find the record of an uncle or cousin whose name one may not even remember quite accurately, and discover in which cemetery or on what monument his name is inscribed. Here is a rejuvenation of memory which could not have been expected.
We are fortunate to be able to remember like this. In Germany, it was too difficult, after the Nazi period, to try to remember the sacrifice of individual Germans. The term Opfer – victim – was used instead, to cover everyone who had suffered from war, or from fascism.
Only in recent years, as the war generation dies out, has a more individual approach become possible. The Stolpesteine, or stumbling blocks, which so far commemorate about 70,000 people who perished in the Holocaust, were devised by a German artist in 1992, and are set into the pavement as small brass plaques outside an individual’s last freely chosen place of residence.
Perhaps another century will have to elapse before we can begin to see in a true perspective how the two world wars have marked our country. From 1834, when the Duke of Wellington’s last brief prime ministership occurred, to 1940, when Winston Churchill took over, not a single British Prime Minister had served in the armed forces.
British politics was a civilian affair. We were intensely proud of the Royal Navy, but the ancient prejudice against standing armies took a long time to die out, and our leaders had the sense to realise that large-scale fighting on land was better avoided – a view which the Crimean War served to reinforce, while at the same time bringing the sufferings of the ordinary soldier to wider attention.
From 1940 to 1979, every Prime Minister, with the exceptions of Harold Wilson (a wartime civil servant) and Sir Alec Douglas-Home (debarred by illness), had served in the armed forces, and so had hundreds of MPs. Clement Attlee and Harold Macmillan were wounded in the First World War. The nation was bound together by a shared experience of suffering.
Those who had lost beloved brothers in the First War feared the same was going to happen to their sons in the Second. Children mourned and still mourn parents who fell, and savage if less total wars have caused many deaths since 1945.
Common acts of remembrance, such as we engage in today, may in some slight measure salve grief, and enable those of us who have not had to endure such things to give thanks for those who do.