Thursday, November 01, 2007

Memory Hold the Door

The last speaker at the historical conference on the Great War was Dan Todman, author of the Great War: Myth and Memory, who was especially good at explaining how images and finally the very memory of the conflict was appropriated in turn by politicians seeking to retain their reputations, ideological movements hoping to advance their agendas and finally entertainers looking to make a buck. One example of how the Great War is remembered today is through the influence of popular music. Iron Maiden, for instance, released a hard rock track called Paschendale, loosely based on the battle, but so loosely, as Todman wryly notes, as to use the wrong spelling in addition to the wrong facts. What was arguably the most important event of the 20th century has become parody. And maybe it can't be helped. As one member of the audience observed, fiction sufficiently repeated becomes fact. Finally Passchendaele becomes Paschendale.


But what were the facts? Todman doesn't claim to know what the Great War was. Only that it was diversely perceived by the men who fought and survived it. So great was the sacrifice that "if there was any way to give events meaning at all, the survivors would find a way." But the pride, unlike the politics, was private. Todman believed that whatever was positive about the Great War was largely kept alive at veteran's reunions. "There was an acknowledgement of its horror, but among veterans the sense that they did well for each other." And when the last veteran of the Great War was gone, the pride had passed and only the images and the politics remained.

Todman's last slide, which he left on the screen as he left the podium was of William Longstaff's 1927 painting of Menin Gate at Midnight. The Menin Gate Memorial itself was erected to commemorate the 90,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers who died at the Ypres salient and whose bodies were never recovered. It was a number so vast that the great Hall of Memory was belatedly found to be too small to contain the engraved names of them all. Nevertheless, 54,896 names line the 121 foot long hall. The Memorial was opened amidst throngs of the bereaved who had made their way across the Channel. Remarkably, the proceedings were carried live by the then novel medium of radio. Longstaff was so moved it inspired him to begin his painting, which was to become an Australian icon. It was purchased by the Australian government and exhibited around the country, where it became an object of pilgrimage.

The scene is painted almost entirely in hues of blue, which helps to suggest a midnight scene. It is constructed on a simple, traditional, land-sky format: the pale memorial is placed boldly on the horizon, and before it marches a host of ghostly soldiers. In the immediate foreground, the cornfield is strewn with blood-red poppies. In the far distance, a small, silhouetted building with windows ablaze adds dramatic contrast to the still monument of Menin Gate.

A higher resolution image can be found here. It is still widely visited. People come, though they are no longer the grieving parents of the 1920s, nor the grandchildren of the 1960s wondering at an event which was already beginning to assume the aspect of legend. The notes of the Last Post and the British version of Reveille are still sounded by Belgians at Menin in fulfillment of a promise never to forget the Anglo-Saxons who had defended them from the Boche, though "never" is a long time. But each sunset they are put to bed by the bugles then wakened to their duties, as if they were still there. Perhaps they are.

"What are you guarding, Man-at-Arms?
Why do you watch and wait?"
"I guard the graves," said the Man-at-Arms,
"I guard the graves by Flanders Farms,
Where the dead will rise at my call to arms,
And march to the Menin Gate."

"When do they march then, Man-at-Arms?
Cold is the hour and late."
"They march tonight," said the Man-at-Arms,
"With the moon on the Menin Gate.
They march when the midnight bids them go,
With their rifles slung and their pipes aglow,
Along the roads - the roads they know,
The road to the Menin Gate."

"What are they singing, Man-at-Arms
As they march to the Menin Gate?"
"The marching songs," said the Man-at-Arms,
"That let them laugh at Fate;
No more will the night be cold for them,
For the last tattoo has rolled for them;
And their souls will sing as of old for them,

As they march to the Menin Gate."

The conference topic for next year is Media, War and Information Warfare.


Blogger Teresita said...

There are only 22 veterans of the War to End all War left alive today, so few that they can be listed in detail within a single Wikipedia article.

Twenty years from now the veterans of World War II will dwindle to a precious few just like this. So get their stories now.

11/02/2007 07:36:00 AM  
Blogger Buckley said...

A reminder to any visiting Kansas City to make time for the newly-opened, excellent National World War I Museum.

11/02/2007 07:52:00 AM  
Blogger PeterBoston said...

I doubt 20% of today's college seniors could name 4 combatants in WW2 and say whether Allied or Axis.

If our military history is to be preserved it will not be in academia.

11/02/2007 09:44:00 AM  
Blogger Charles said...

What is forgotten about the 19th century is just how proud those men were. Calvinist theology-- on which the US constitution & government was based-- died out in Europe & was severly eclipsed in the USA. Idealism was born in the 19th century in the service of which millions would die in the 20th. Why idealism? People believed that science & technology would send them to some sort of promised land.

WWI put a stop to that in the west. But idealism lived on in communism in Russia and China where idealism animated discussions about how "the end justifies the means" as the government went to the killing fields.

Idealism--as a political calling-- is not dead however. Consider this article. Or just run down to the last line.

Fulfillment Elusive for Young Altruists In the Crowded Field of Public Interest

By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 2, 2007; A01

Armed with a Georgetown University diploma, Beth Hanley embarked in her 20s on a path hoping to become a professional world-saver. First she worked at nonprofit Bread for the World. Then she taught middle school English in central Africa with the Peace Corps. Finally, to certify her idealism, she graduated last spring with a master's degree in international relations from Johns Hopkins University.

But now the 29-year-old faces a predicament shared by many young strivers in Washington's public interest field. After years of amassing so many achievements, they struggle to find full-time employment with decent pay and realize they might not get exactly what they set out for. Hanley, a think tank temp who dreams of aiding the impoverished and reducing gender discrimination in developing countries, is stuck.

"I knew this would be difficult," said Hanley, an Illinois native who lives in Adams Morgan. "A lot of people say, 'At some point, you're going to have to decide to explore other options,' and I guess I would start applying for jobs in other fields I don't care so much about. But I haven't gotten at all to that point."

Numerous young Washingtonians bemoan the improvisational and protracted career track of the area's public interest profession. They say the high competition for comparatively low-paying jobs saps their sense of adulthood,

11/02/2007 10:12:00 AM  
Blogger Neo Conservative said...

After the Great War, Canada was never the same. More than 600,000 of a population of barely eight million served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

You can search these two online databases to find the Attestment Papers, or the War Graves of Canadians who fought in World War I.


11/02/2007 10:50:00 AM  
Blogger Charles said...

I found some great quotes from DH Lawrence, Abe Lincoln & Thomas Jefferson under wretchard'sfour score & 10 years agothat track the theme of "waking up from history".

11/02/2007 11:37:00 AM  
Blogger RWE said...

I recall a review of the film “Darling Lilly”, a rather absurd little comedy featuring WWI air combats and made in the late 60’s – the Life magazine reviewer complained that nothing was said about the men dying in the trenches. Okay, nothing was said about that aspect – but the film was not about the fight in the trenches, either.

Likewise, the National Air and Space Museum opened a new WWII exhibit in the early 90’s. Outside the entrance it featured 1960’s plastic model kits of WWII airplanes and other such popular images. Turn the corner into the interior and you were confronted by a ghastly photo of a human skeleton in full German uniform lying in a mud-filled shell hole. Once again, that had nothing to do with the theme of the exhibit.

Perhaps the reason we do not know what WWI was like is because for some time it has been politically correct to ram the “right” view down our throats.

The real pilot of the Enola Gay, Col. Paul Tibbets, died earlier this week. Back in the mid-70’s he flew the Confederate Air Force B-29 to drop a simulated nuclear bomb – complete with mushroom cloud – as a part of an airshow. The US State Department asked that the re-enactment be cancelled in the interest of international relations. The CAF response to State was excellent: “It is you who wish us to forget what war is like that get us into new ones.”

And this week Col Tibbets was buried in a grave without a headstone, and without a funeral, so to reduce the chance of his being laid to his final rest being made into a politically correct spectacle.

11/02/2007 03:32:00 PM  
Blogger Louise said...

The Battle of Passchendaele

11/02/2007 04:40:00 PM  
Blogger El Jefe Maximo said...

I think on your observation about how popular culture alters truth every time I watch the film Patton. According to one of the General's biographers, even the Patton family thought that George C. Scott did a splendid job playing the public general. That said, even in the public imagination -- when the word "Patton" is said, and the general is meant, everyone thinks of George C. Scott, standing there in costume at the start of the movie, with his Ivory-handled pistols -- as the real Patton. Now there was a real Patton -- who posed for photographs, wrote diaries and documents, and was victorious in war. But in the public imagination, the real Patton does not exist -- George C. Scott as "Patton" does.

11/02/2007 04:51:00 PM  
Blogger Harry said...


A great post. I have visited the Menin Gate for the daily ceremony of the Last Post. It remains moving.

Near there is a Canadian Park called the Newfoundland Memorial Park which commemorates the Newfoundland Regiment troops who fought there in the battle of the Somme. The trenches are well preserved there.

The park is staffed by Canadians. The day I visited I was the last to leave, and there was a very sad air to be in this spot where such horror had taken place. Dusk and night really brought out the sense of loss. I asked the guides how they felt about being here, and they said the late hours of the day could get very sad.

It was 10+ years ago that I visited. Imagine the power of that painting to move people who had just lived through the Great War.

Thanks, Wretchard.

11/02/2007 07:55:00 PM  
Blogger PutnamJct said...

The lyrics of the song:

In a foreign field he lay
lonely soldier unknown grave
on his dying words he prays
tell the world of Paschendale

Relive all that he's been through
last communion of his soul
rust your bullets with his tears
let me tell you 'bout his years

Laying low in a blood filled trench
killing time 'til my very own death
on my face I can feel the falling rain
never see my friends again
in the smoke, in the mud and lead
smell of fear and feeling of dread
soon be time to go over the wall
rapid fire and the end of us all

Whistles, shouts and more gun fire
lifeless bodies hang on barbed wire
battlefield nothing but a bloody tomb
be reunited with my dead friends soon
many soldiers eighteen years
drown in mud, no more tears
surely a war no one can win
killing time about to begin

Home, far away. From the war, a chance to live again
Home, far away. But the war, no chance to live again

The bodies of ours and our foes
the sea of death it overflows
in no man's land God only knows
into jaws of death we go...

Crucified as if on a cross

allied troops, they mourn their loss
German war propaganda machine
such before has never been seen
swear I heard the angels cry
pray to God no more may die
so that people know the truth
tell the tale of Paschendale

Cruelty has a human heart
everyman does play his part
terror of the men we kill
the human heart is hungry still

I stand my ground for the very last time
gun is ready as I stand in line
nervous wait for the whistle to blow
rush of blood and over we go...

Blood is falling like the rain
its crimson cloak unveils again
the sound of guns can't hide their shame
and so we die in Paschendale

Dodging shrapnel and barbed wire
running straight at cannon fire
running blind as I hold my breath
say a prayer symphony of death
as we charge the enemy lines
a burst of fire and we go down
I choke a cry but no one hears
feel the blood go down my throat

Home, far away. From the war, a chance to live again
Home, far away. But the war, no chance to live again
Home, far away. From the war, a chance to live again
Home, far away. But the war, no chance to live again

See my spirit on the wind
across the lines beyond the hill
friend and foe will meet again
those who died at Paschendale

Many of Iron Maiden's songs are based on war and/or particular battles. There is no disrespect ever intended, rather a hope that the listener may actually learn something.
Whilst there are many things that are commercialized and trivialized, I don't think this is one of them.

11/04/2007 03:23:00 PM  
Blogger Jonathan Levy said...

I witnessed the ceremony at the Menin Gate a few weeks ago, as part of a tour of Verdun/Ypres/The Somme. It was a very moving ceremony; A flag was lowered and raised, a choir sang, a wreath was laid, and the Last Post was played. Some dignitaries recited some ritual words to the crowd, and the crowd answered 'We Remember'. I did a bit of counting and estimated there were 800-1000 people there, and the response showed that they were not all tourists.

It's incredible to think that this has been going on every day for how long? Some 90 years? 800 people every day for 90 years? In Israel the siren sounds once a year, and we have one minute of silence to remember the Holocaust.

Perhaps we should be doing more.

11/05/2007 03:30:00 AM  
Blogger Primus said...

Longstaff did a similar painting in 1929, "The Ghosts of Vimy Ridge", subsequently purchased and donated to the Canadian Parliament.


11/06/2007 10:37:00 AM  

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