Remembering the Dead

A few months ago, late on Sunday evenings, I lay in my hot bath listening to BBC Radio 4’s weekly omnibus editions of a series of programmes about the events that led to the start of the Great War in 1914. It was a remarkable series which illuminated how the pride, stupidity and greed of a few rich and powerful men can lead to catastrophe for millions, and made evident the strength of anti-war feelings prevalent in Britain in the months leading up to the war, something which seems to have been largely overlooked in our national myth.

It was a war both my parents lived through, though my mother was only just finishing her school years when it finished. My father worked in a munitions factory, then joined up and went to both France and after the war ended to Germany, but was rather more at danger from the British authorities than the Germans, not being good at keeping his mouth shut and obeying obviously nonsensical orders.

By 1918 there were many Germans who were also getting fed up with nonsensical orders, and the Great War ended not because of a military victory,but because German sailors mutinied, setting out from Kiel and Wilhelmshaven to Germany’s industrial centres where they gained the support of the workers and then on to the capital, with the Kaiser being forced to abdicate on 9th November 1918 when the streets of Berlin were taken over.

Like many workers in the UK, German workers had actually been opposed to the war at its start, with hundreds of thousands of socialists going out on the streets in August 1914 against it. As Paul Mason writes in his Channel4 blog post, How did the first world war actually end?

‘We know now, thanks to the publication of records and memoirs, that it was entirely possible to have stopped the first world war. Key members of the British cabinet were against it; large parts of the social elite in most countries, including Germany, were stunned and appalled by the unstoppable process of mobilisation.’

The ‘War to end all wars‘ sadly didn’t, despite the experiences of those who survived and the work of war artists and poets which vividly depicted its horrors. Perhaps nothing in history is inevitable, but the settlement at the end of that war certainly created the conditions for the next great war twenty years later.

So while we remember and celebrate the bravery of those who fought and the sacrifice of those who were killed, perhaps we should do so with a sense of mourning and of the futility and horror and one that includes those on both sides.

I’ve already published some pictures and thoughts about the field of poppies around the Tower of London, a spectacle that has caught the public imagination and dominates the front pages of many papers. I didn’t file my own pictures,  as I did not want my work to be used to glorify war. On my own sites I have control over how my work is used.

On Friday, another memorial sculpture was unveiled in Trafalgar Square, Mark Humphrey‘s brass ‘Every Man Remembered‘, a brass figure of an ‘unknown soldier’ standing on a block of Somme limestone, caged in a perspex enclosure and cradling a huge agglomeration of poppies in his arms, with hands resting on his rifle butt, another pile of poppies fixed around his feet. As I watched it and the tourists photographing it for around half and hour, every five minutes I saw a cloud of poppies being blown into the air around the figure.

There are I think far better figures of men who fought on war memorials around the country – at which many as I write (on Sunday morning on the 9th Nov) will be marking the occasion with services and military parades. The perspex canopy looks cheap and temporary (which I assume it is, but that isn’t a reason why it should so obviously look so), while the plinth lacks character. I rather like the poppies ‘blowing in the wind’, if only for the possibly unintended reference to Bob Dylan.

Almost all of those present around these memorials will be wearing red poppies, though a few may also wear a white poppy. In the past I’ve bought a red poppy and worn it, the ‘Poppy Fund’ providing income to support injured ex-services personnel, a good cause – if one that should perhaps be met by government rather than charity. There is a red poppy, with its rather strange green leaf, on our living room table as I write, where it will stay so far as I am concerned until recycled after November 11th.



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My London Diary : Buildings of London : River Lea/Lee Valley : London’s Industrial Heritage

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