The Final Remembrance

Great Britain

With Remembrance Sunday approaching, the Tower of London has chosen to stage another respectful, spectacular display commemorating the fallen of WWI. Its astonishing installation of handmade poppies, forming a sea of scarlet around the Bloody Tower was named ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’, a public art installation created in the moat between July and November 2014, commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of World War I. It consisted of 888,246 ceramic red poppies, each intended to represent one British or Colonial serviceman.

Now, four years later, we reach the conclusion of that commemoration. This year the Tower is lighting thousands of candles each night to do the same thing, and the effect is equally startling. This time the message is different, bringing closure to the conflict. A century of remembrance is coming to an end as the final participants have now gone. The last living veteran (28 July 1914 – 11 November 1918) was Florence Green, who served in the Allied armed forces, and who died 4 February 2012, aged 110. There were approximately 9,750,103 military deaths during the conflict. The war will be remembered, of course, but more in terms of what it represents.

Understandably, our feelings about the First World War have changed dramatically in the last fifty years. The war, caused by complex factors including an all-but-accidental assassination in Sarajevo and the domino effect of European alliances that required each nation to defend its partner, is now considered to have been entirely avoidable had the parties involved only hammered out their differences in conference prior to the commencement of hostilities. For four years the fighting played out like a series of formal gavottes, propped up on the British side by the idea of attrition, a military strategy consisting of belligerent attempts to win by wearing down the enemy to the point of collapse through continuous losses in personnel and weapons.

Although it started as a radio play in 1961, Joan Littlewood conceived a grand theatre project of restaging the war from officer classes to foot soldiers via the hindsight of history. The production became a landmark that altered the nation’s perception of the war, removing its supposed glories and revealing it to be a series of threadbare diplomatic disasters.

Richard Attenborough rose to the challenge of directing the film version of  ‘Oh! What A Lovely War!’, unfolding it like a surreal tapestry filled with horrors and paradoxes. He was the least likely director to create such an immense, bitter Fellini-esque satire, but the cumulative effect is devastating, and the high point of his film career. A gallery of British stars featured; Olivier, Gielgud, Richardson, Maggie Smith and at least three Redgraves. The ending, shot without special effects, is rightly celebrated but the lead-up to it is equally memorable. After the shelling, a lone soldier seeking answers follows a literal red tape through the maze of the battle…


16 comments on “The Final Remembrance”

  1. Jo W says:

    Thank you,Christopher,for posting the final scene of Oh What a Lovely War. It’s a long time since I saw the film but it still makes the tears trickle,along with the final scene of Blackadder. “Who’d notice another madman around here?” 🙁

  2. Jan says:

    Every single night the last post is sounded at the Menin Gate in Belgium. Perhaps not only to. honour the war dead maybe also because the 1st World War ensured Belgium’s survival .as a free nation.

    If you subscribe to the Marxist theory of history that every war is down to economics (which seems to me to work ) the truth about the causes of this war are explained in a very different way than the assassination in Serbia the arch duke and the activities of the Blackhand gang. Whatever the real cause the consequences are chilling.

    The sheer massive loss of life not equalled before or since staggers you. On tv this morning
    an old colonel was explaining the creation a single crater caused when allied forces tunelled beneath the ground beneath German lines and set off explosives The crater was 20 odd feet deep and 80 foot across. They reckoned 6000 at least were killed or injured here probably far more. There are quite a few craters you understand. A strategy used in a few battles.

    Another strategy used by both sides involved employing troops in trenches specifically tasked with hacking off the feet of he opposing side as they jumped across the trench to advance. At the very least they were to slash close to the ankle to prevent their enemy advancing. The troops tasked with this detail nearly all went mad during a battle – they just went crazy. Wet with blood and mad.

    Of course WW1 is starting to be remembered in a different way. It really is passing into history to be remembered like the Napoleonic wars or the Boer war or the American Civil war. A tragedy on this scale shouldn’t ever be really forgotten though. All those wasted lives. Not only the blokes who died but the lasses who were denied partners, lovers and children through their loss. Lives wasted in all sorts of ways and a good part of generation just not born.

  3. Brooke says:

    What Jan said. Our oldest art museum organized an exhibition “World War I and American Art,” with Sargent’s canvas “Gassed” as the focal point (on loan from Imperial War Museum). The exhibit was arranged to take the viewers through emotional stages of the war, i.e. from Sargent’s classical heroism to Henry Tonks’ raw images—this is what a man with a bayonet wound through his face looks like. The last panel included portrait drawings of African American soldiers who served, a loving tribute by one soldiers’ great grand daughter, an artist. And this panel included excerpts from the war diary of Horace Pippin’s, black WW1 veteran and artist” “I can never forget suffering…”

  4. Helen Martin says:

    I have just discovered that the Globe Theatre did a production of John McLauchlan Gray/Eric Peterson’s Billy Bishop Goes to War but I was hoping to find film of the duo’s own performance.I’m sure it’s out there but I was reminded of the thing by Chris’ use of the word gavotte as it’s part of the title of one of the numbers near the beginning. It’s a very sad thing full of bouncy music and Eric does the most incredible performance as the not very admirable young man who went overseas and suffered the trench warfare until he saw the planes flying over, thought that that looked a lot better and got himself transferred to the air force where he became an air ace and did great damage to the German side. They remounted it a couple of times, the last time staging it with Billy as an old man reliving his memories through his war souvenirs. It’ll get a Canadian every time.
    I lost a great uncle in France. He died in April 1916, leaving behind two little girls aged about 6 and 8, who were brought up by their grandmother as their Mother had died in 1912 (complications in pregnancy). There was enough misery and horror going around to satisfy anyone. I thought the two memorials in London were just about perfect.

  5. Martin Tolley says:

    The loss of those lives is terrible. But what’s perhaps not as widely known is that 4 out of every 5 infantrymen who went to war, came home alive. And many of those (and their families) also paid a heavy price. My grandfather survived the Somme. Before the war he was by all accounts, a gentle, charming, witty and a thoroughly good bloke. Afterward he was too fond of a drink, aggressive, tempestuous, ill-tempered and prone to long periods of depression. He never said much about the experience, he didn’t have the words. He never had much help or understanding. His generation just had to get on with their lives. Those people need remembering too.

  6. Ken Mann says:

    I wonder if anyone can help explain for me a phenomenon that is new to me. Since being old enough to understand I have been one of those who observes the two minutes silence. This year the 11th falls on a Sunday. More than one person in my workplace (which has more than one location) has requested a workplace silence during the week. I could therefore, if the spirit moved me, be silent three times this year. Do people need to be in company to be silent? I thought the silence was an internal thing.

  7. Jan says:

    No you are right Martin a lot of guys did make it home. Some with lost limbs, some with PTSD “shell shock” as it was then known but there were a lot of lucky gents who got home in fair Nick.

    There are three or four villages here in the west country, Langton Herring just along the coast from here being one of them, that are know as the “doubly blessed”villages.
    This double blessing meant that all the men that went off to war returned safely not just in the first war but also in the second. Remarkable really.

    My own grandad (my dad’s dad’s ) was listed as missing at the end of the first war. Friends and relatives visited granny to offer their condolences but my granny was certain that her husband, my Grandad George, was alive as she had dreamed about him sitting on some bins moaning about his feet and smoking a ciggy.

    When he finally returned from his sojourn in the Black Forest -sometime between 1919 and 1922. – it was never quite specified when. Grandad confirmed that one day being marched along they had stopped and having got proper fed up he had sat down for a while and had a good whinge much as Granny had described. He always had pretty bad feet for the rest of life and a bad chest. Lucky man really though lucky as could be.

    Although my Granny could be a hard woman and she seemed to harbour certain suspicions as to why Grandad had taken some time to surface!

    Grandad George seemed more than happy on the German farm where he ended up he said the people were very kind and had never eaten such good grub in his life. Which was probably true.

  8. Jan says:

    Same as with Martin’s Grandad my Grandad George never ever talked about the battles or the trenches. As a kid I wasn’t aware of his having any underlying depression or mental suffering he went through the Somme and at least one other major battle.

    George wasn’t overly educated maybe he just couldn’t express a lot of it or or he just let it fade away.

    He was a happy man really a proper gent.

    When I was young he tried to teach me about the star’s and constellations cos someone (probably in the war maybe in the trenches) had taught him all about them. Trouble was Grandad smoked a pipe and stood next to him on the back door step whilst he was puffing away pointing stars out I could hardly see anything up there through his clouds of smoke. Still he tried his best.

  9. Martin Tolley says:

    Jan, my grandfather lived in Weymouth, and was in the Dorset Regiment, he was a Dorset man maybe your grandfather and mine knew each other?
    I read the other day about some “blessed villages”, and many of them didn’t trumpet the fact, and only started to put up monuments etc a long while after hostilities ceased because in some areas they either didn’t want to show off their luck to neighbours, or in two cases I read about, the locals thought that it was a mark of some sort of shame that nobody had sacrificed themselves…

  10. snowy says:

    It’s an interesting film from the 1960’s, [but as an account of one of the most pivotal events of the 20th Century, it’s complete twaddle.]

    Which reminds me I need to shine some shoes for Sunday!

    [PS. H look in the holdings of the VPL]

  11. Helen Martin says:

    Oh, yes, Snowy. There would be some there. I never think of local sources when I want to provide a link. Lots there to borrow, but not a clip to show you guys. I’ll try some more later.

  12. snowy says:

    Try this [under my allonym].

  13. Jan says:

    Sorry Martin I am just a blow in here in Dorset. My grandad would have been part of a Souh Lancs or Salford regiment. Lancashire probably don’t think it was a Pals regiment

  14. Helen Martin says:

    Ah, Snowy – that’s it.I was just on the point of going looking. Try this, people:

  15. Ian Luck says:

    Sadly, I know nothing about my great grandparents, on either side of the family. Both my grandfathers were in ‘Reserved Occupations’ during the last war – my maternal grandfather being a precision instrument maker for a company called ‘Negretti & Zambra’, and my paternal grandfather was a bus driving instructor for London Transport. He was in the Home Guard, and mum’s dad was a fire-watcher in the City.

  16. Helen Martin says:

    My Dad, a shade over five feet, was rejected and continued working for the bakery as a delivery man. My father in law, after correspondence with recruiting (from his up-coast store management position) was also rejected. It’s a wonder I don’t have an inferiority complex.

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