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.