The British know how to lay on ritual celebrations especially of their war dead. No expense of money or emotion is spared. Last Rememberance Sunday, when the royals and elderly combat survivors approach the Cenotaph, can’t be beaten for solemnity. And how can you not be impressed by the 888,246 ceramic poppies infilling the Tower of London and how elaborately the government has Disneyfied Big Ben by turning it into a giant poppy billboard for…for what, exactly?
Don’t quibble over numbers. The 888,246 is actually a fraction of the 16 million dead and 20 million wounded as a result of the Great War. Accountability is the elusive ghost – who made the war happen that created the road to Hitler and Bergen-Belsen. Every time we salute the honored war dead, in these grisly theatrics, do we make the conditions for future corpses?
If I had the powers of the anarchist freedom fighter, V for Vendetta, I’d honor the dead by digging up the leading criminals for a war tribunal like Nuremberg – the French “war tiger” Clemenceau, Prussian general staff’s von Schlieffen, Britain’s Lloyd George, Woodrow Wilson and the entire top leadership of the Second International socialist movement, German and British and American, who on Monday swore on their copy of Das Kapital never to fight their brothers in a capitalist war and on Tuesday held bayonets to their brothers’ throats.
On this Armistice Day – when the guns finally went silent at 11am on 11 Nov 1918 – I remember different shades of heroism. Not only the slaughtered soldiers who, led by incredibly brave cricket-playing lieutenants under command of safe-in-rear echelon generals, marched upright file abreast into sheets of Maschinengewehr bullets…but the “Shot At Dawn” shellshocked young deserters, and wounded Flanders veterans like Siegfried Sassoon who got stuck in a mental hospital because he turned against the bloodletting, and the “Richmond 16”, part of an alternative army of “conchies” who the General Staff like Lord Kitchener wanted executed.
On my way to work at the BBC I often passed in Whitehall the horsey statue to the mass murdering general, Earl Haig, and fantasized blowing it up in memory of the two generations of young British men he was responsible for killing. I suppose one day we’ll even have statues to generals Westmoreland and, why not?, My Lai’s Lt. Calley.
I was lucky enough to emigrate to England in time to talk to Great War survivors. Here’s brief paragraph for Vol. 2 of the memoir I’m working on:
“In each and every town I wander through there’s always a First World War monument in the square, listing name, rank and unit, and then smaller lists from the 1939-45 war. Standing in the rain, gazing at the honor rolls of the Accrington Lads, Leeds Chums and Grimsby Pals – a Great War generation, many still rotting in Flanders shellholes – I imagine blood rather than water dripping off the granite rifles and helmets and winged angels of the obelisks.
“Hitchiking back to London, one day I’m picked up by an elderly miner in his Berkeley three-wheeled motor, just outside Eastwood, Notts, birthplace of D.H. Lawrence. He chats about his 45th Foot-Sherwood Foresters regiment in 1916. “Oh aye, hardly anyone from my lot got back. I was gassed. The mustard. After, went back down to pit. Imagine, with my lungs. You know, they killed us all, even ones like me made it out felt dead. Don’t let anyone tell you different. My wife knew. Daft kid I was. For a long time, I couldn’t stop shitting myself like I did before a Heinie attack. Not a bit ashamed to say it. It’s what I remember most. The bloody embarrassment.”
Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Hemingway Lives.