The fact that a hundred years have passed since 1918’s armistice gave added emphasis to this year’s commemorations. The parades were a little bit grander, as were the peace conferences; there were special art installations this year, museum exhibitions, spectacles of light and sound. There were, as there annually are, pipes and drums and bugles playing martial music; there were bells that tolled, and solemn speeches spoken. And there was, as there always is, a silence at the centre of it all.
Will some of that start to fade from this point on? Now that the centenary has come and gone, I wonder whether some kind of threshold has been passed, just as it was in 2012 when the last living veteran of the war died. Is it inevitable now that efforts to remember the events and the suffering of the First World War will shift somehow, diminish?
I think that’s up to us. For me, I haven’t registered any reduction in our obligation to surround the silence with which we honour the war’s dead with the facts of what happened. After my week amid the commemorations, the only conclusion I can say I’ve come up with is that, a century after the guns ceased to fire here, the stories of the First World War retain their vitality and power.
The only conclusion I can say I’ve come up with is that, a century after the guns ceased to fire here, the stories of the First World War retain their vitality and power.
This year on November 11 I attended a ceremony in the little French village of Preux-au-Bois that my grandfather’s British Army battalion liberated a hundred years ago. Re-enactors were on hand to present arms; a bugler played the Last Post on a bugle that had served the battalion in this very place in 1918. There were maybe two hundred of us there in front of the church of Saint Martin, young and old. An Englishman costumed as a captain spoke the Exhortation, which comes from a 1914 poem by the English poet Laurence Binyon:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
In the stillness of the hush that followed these words, before the bells struck the hour, I thought of a photograph of my grandfather standing, muddied, smiling, in a trench in 1915, when he was 24. Nothing else: just that.
You don’t have to travel to European battlefields to concentrate on the pity of the First World War, on all those it killed, or displaced, on all the survivors whose lives were shattered by what they went through. If you get a chance to go — to visit Vimy, and continue on to Monchy, to Mons — my advice would be to do it, if you can.
But more than an itinerary, remembrance is an act of imagination. The politics that ruined this place and a generation of lives a century ago may be beyond understanding, and maybe even forgiveness. For me, the continuing focus belongs on what the First World War teaches us about the human spirit, the kinship and kindness that soldiers and civilians alike summoned up in that terrible time, the bravery, the endurance, the resolve. There’s no other glory in war than that, so far as I can tell.