I wrote a piece for the parish magazine of my home town, Sandwich in Kent, about Laurence Binyon’s visit there in 1921 (see http://www.stclementschurchsandwich.org.uk and follow links to ‘The Signal’), and I’ve just received my copy. The issue, for November, is dedicated in a most sensitive and balanced way to Remembrance — mainly of the fallen in the First World War, but in other wars too.
I must confess, though, that when I saw the cover I experienced not so much remembrance as ‘vivid remindment’, or ‘acute revisualisation’, or ‘painful re-enactment’.
The photo shows the beautiful little marble memorial in St Clement’s Church, ‘To the Glory of God and in loving memory of Parishioners and Members of the Congregation of this Church who gave their lives in the Great War 1914-1918.’ I ran my eye down the twenty-seven names and immediately recognised many of the surnames. Of course, I grew up with some of their close relatives. But what made me wince was suddenly recalling being with my grandfather, nearly sixty years ago, when he was talking to a friend he had been with in the First World War and they recalled some of these very men, whom they had known and who had not come back. I remember the silence after they named them, the strange way they looked into the distance, at ‘nothing’. I was too young then to understand, but I now vividly remember that silence and those looks.
I daresay my attitude towards the ‘Great War’ has involuntarily seeped through this blog since I started it in July. Despite David Owen’s fascinating new book, The Hidden Perspective: The Military Conversations 1906-1914, which argues that ‘war in 1914 was far from inevitable, and instead represented eight years of failed [British] diplomacy’, I am with Fritz Fischer, say, or Adrian Gregory, Max Hastings, Jeremy Paxman, Gary Sheffield and others, in believing that the war was unprovoked, planned aggression by the Kaiserreich. If democracy and liberalism were to survive in Europe (that means Britain too), the German army had to be defeated. We owe our freedom now to every single soldier who gave his life in the effort, mismanaged as it sometimes was, to achieve that.
I find their self-sacrifice completely humbling and overwhelming. This is why for me one of the most powerful war poems will always be Owen’s ‘Greater Love’. The ambiguity of the final line — ‘Weep, you may weep, for you may touch them not’ — is almost unbearably beautiful: of course, we cannot touch them physically (they are ‘gone’), but neither can we touch, in the sense of attain to, equal, the greatness of their love for us. The view that this is a ‘homoerotic’ poem is strained. The text behind the title could not be clearer: ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’ (St John 15, v. 13), meaning all ‘others’ whom a person loves. They loved those nearest them, but they also loved their ‘own’, the British people, and by implication, even, the other peoples whose freedom they were fighting for.
I have been away from the blog for a few days, but this reminds me of my post on 31 October (‘Complex, yes’) and Clare Hopkins’ fine comment on it. Remembering now the whole story of George Calderon’s military involvement since 4 August 1914, I see it differently; more objectively, I hope. It was an extraordinary, consciously and brilliantly manoeuvred achievement on George’s part to get from rejection by the Inns of Court Regiment on 3 August to participation as a combatant in the hottest spot on the Western Front on 29 October 1914. That alone deserves admiration. Whether he was an asset there or not, one cannot deny that he put himself directly in the firing line.
Equally, we should recognise that on this occasion ‘someone was looking after him’. He could well have been killed when the fighting began in earnest at Ypres on 20 October, but his medical problem whisked him away in time. Similarly, if he had not been wounded by the sniper on 29 October, but had moved on with the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, he would almost certainly have been killed with the rest of them when their trenches behind Zandvoorde were shelled next day.
Without wishing to preempt anything, I should perhaps also say that the George Calderon who joined another regiment in January 1915 seems almost a different man from the Interpreter of October 1914, and that was partly because of the experience of battle he had gained at Ypres and the experience of recovering from acute stress disorder — a process to which we must now return.
Next entry: ‘He downright cried’