A couple of months ago I wrote this blog, about whether it is appropriate to deliberately forget history. I thought that, in the wake of this week’s 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War, it might be appropriate to look at why we conduct such massive memorials, and whether we still need them.
The first thing to address, particularly in the case of WWI, is that we do not do this for those who fought, and died. The last veterans of the conflict have since passed on, and the whole thing is nearly beyond living memory. The dead cannot hear us, and the living would probably rather forget about that time altogether. I have heard at least two veterans over the last week say that it is probably about time we stopped these grandiose memorials, and, against the backdrop of conflict in Syria, Iraq, Gaza and the Ukraine (among others), this doesn’t necessarily seem appropriate. In my earlier blog I implied that ‘the war to end wars’ was a huge misnomer, and that still rings true with tragic irony.
But if we’re not doing this for those who died, then who is it for? Almost every family has lost people in conflict, but in the developed world those wounds are now healing over. All of the ceremonies and memorials that I have seen, from the ice soldiers slowly melting in central Birmingham, to the fields of ceramic poppies outside the Tower of London, to the vigil service that I attended in a local parish church, all seemed to be particularly haunting affairs. The people behind these things worked hard to create a deeply affecting ritual.
Lights Out itself was the centrepiece for this ritual. The idea, conceived by the Royal British Legion referred to the words of the then Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, who said: “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” The RBL asked that, between 10pm and 11pm on 4 August, people turned off all their electric lights, and left a single candle burning. To their credit, most places, including the local pub where I went for my vigil, joined in. I heard about a service at Bath Abbey where the final song was “A long, long way to Tipperary”, but the men of the choir filed out of the Abbey during the song, and their part grew quieter and quieter. The congregation left in silence, in ones and twos.
These memorials allowed people to express their creative side, in ways that we would never try with a funeral for fear of appearing crass, or over-dramatic. We haven’t gone in for ostentatious mourning since the end of the Victorian era, so maybe public ceremonies are a way to channel that side of our spirit. Even so, I don’t think that we conduct public memorials simply to provide an outlet.
One thing that has struck me, is that these ceremonies are all about the past. If they were about remembering so that we do not repeat the same mistakes, then there would be at least some focus on the future. A pledge, perhaps, that we would all work together to prevent such barbarism from ever occurring again. But there isn’t.
The two World Wars are the last time that conscription was used in the UK. The ugly realities of war were common knowledge to almost every household. For those veterans who are still alive, they would probably rather not remember. They had many comrades who died in battle, but most have also had quite a few friends who have died since.
I think that, whatever the memorials started out as, they have become a way for people who were not there to get a sense of what it might have been like. It will not be a complete picture; I’m sure there were moments of laughter in the trenches; times when the traditional picture of war broke down. But those of us who were not there want to understand how it felt for those who were. Rituals such as Lights Out give us that opportunity.