julesjones: remembrance poppy (poppy)
We observed the Armistice silence at work today. We heard the crack of the signal mortar from the town hall, and then there was no sound at all inside the building. Just the occasional car outside, and the sound of the town hall clock striking eleven. One hundred years ago the deaths had already started, and would go on for another four years.

I am not a pacifist. I know too many survivors of the Nazi death camps to think that war is always the worst option. But it is never a good option, only sometimes the least bad option, and the Great War was nothing more or less than a butcher's shop for no good purpose. In this year of all years, that the British Legion should choose to create a butchered version of Eric Bogle's haunting song "No Man's Land"/"The Green Fields of France" to promote the Poppy Appeal, that they twisted it by censoring the final two verses to scrub away the song's anti-war message -- they show themselves as being more concerned with a jingoistic message about Our Glorious Dead than with truly remembering what the dead died for, and that sometimes it was for nothing at all.


He fell in October 1918, on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front, that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: All quiet on the Western Front.

He had fallen forward and lay on the earth as though sleeping. Turning him over one saw that he could not have suffered long; his face had an expression of calm, as though almost glad the end had come.
julesjones: remembrance poppy (armistice day)
I didn't make it to the Sunday service at the village cenotaph this year, for a variety of reasons. My place of work does observe the two minutes silence on the eleventh, as far as it is able. Unfortunately this year the phone started ringing in my particular office just as the signal mortar was fired on the roof of the town hall to mark the start of the silence, and kept on ringing almost until the second signal mortar. I rather wish the nearest person had just picked it up and told whoever it was to phone back at 11:02, but we didn't actually expect someone to persist for two minutes before hanging up.

It was surprisingly disturbing to not be able to observe the silence properly in contemplation. I think I would have been less perturbed if I'd made it to the cenotaph service, but even if I had, it would have felt odd. I've become used to being able to observe the silence on the right day in company.
julesjones: remembrance poppy (poppy)
This year Armistice Day falls on Remembrance Sunday. It must have been a good 400 of us at least who remembered them this morning at the village war memorial. The village has long since been swallowed by the conurbation, but when the memorial was built it would have been truly a village cenotaph. It's still a focal point for community remembrance in a suburb that retains much of its village character.

There is a full multi-denomination Christian service starting about half an hour beforehand, but like many people, I arrived at about 10:55, in time for the silence. People of a variety of races and creeds, coming together to remember the dead, and those who came home but not whole. We had a beautiful day for it -- mild, sunny, and perfectly still. The sun fell on the memorial, lighting up the stone obelisk. The railway station is long gone, but the old station clock tower still stands across the main road from the memorial. Its stone too was lit by the autumn morning sun, as the minute hand inched towards the hour.

Then the lone trumpet, followed by that peculiar not-quite-silence made by several hundred people standing still and saying nothing. The silence where you can hear feet scraping and clothes rustling as people ease position, even above the background noise of traffic on nearby streets.

The trumpet played again, and we continued with the service, before the various children's organisations paraded away. As the crowd dispersed, I was able to make my way to the base of the memorial and lay one of the British Legion's little wooden memorial markers, inscribed with the names of my great-uncles who never came home from the Second World War. Mine was a cross, as were the others already laid, but the Legion also make Muslim, Jewish, Sikh and secular versions.

I didn't have any rosemary from my own garden, but once the crowd had dispersed I met up with [personal profile] kalypso who had brought along some spare from hers. Much muttering ensued as I wrestled with the pin holding my poppy in place, trying to get it to hold the rosemary as well.

I can still smell rosemary on my hands.

Lest we forget.
julesjones: remembrance poppy (poppy)
Mostly I listen to the Whitehall remembrance service on radio or tv. This year I betook myself to the village war memorial for our local service, "village" in this case being a suburb that retains much of the village character it had before it was swallowed by the conurbation.

It was, not surprisingly, a very traditional service, politely but explicitly Christian as it was an open air combined service run by the local churches, and with a parade by the local guides, scouts and other youth groups. The memorial is in an open space in front of the library, on the main road. My own estimate was at least 300 people that I could see, with a crowd stretching out of sight round the sides of the building, and spilling out into the road itself. I was told afterwards that there were around 500 in total, and I can well believe it. Apparently it was the biggest crowd for years - perhaps the effect of 11.11.11.11, perhaps the knowledge that the very last of those who remembered the trenches had gone this year, perhaps simply the fact that it was a mild, dry day that made it feasible for parents to take young children. There were a good many very young children, and the silence was not quite as silent as it might have been. Even so, there was a hush over that end of the high street, the hush that falls over a crowd thinking of the dead and wounded of too many wars. I didn't even realise until it finished that the police had stopped the traffic for the two minutes.

No talk of our glorious dead. Just an exhortation to remember the dead of many wars, both military and civilian, and to work to make their numbers fewer in the future. And afterwards an opportunity for individuals to lay their own tokens of remembrance alongside the organisational wreaths. I laid a small wooden cross with the names of my own family's dead of the Second World War -- my reason for going this morning. I do not, can not, remember them as individuals, though they should have been among the ranks of my elderly relatives when I was a child. They died before I was born, and thus I remember them for a different reason.
julesjones: remembrance poppy (poppy)
The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the eleventh year. It seems somehow fitting that this is the first Armistice Day with no living link to the trenches of 1918. The last known combat veteran of the Great War died earlier this year, and now there are only our memories of those people who remembered being there.

Time will fade the memories, time will smooth away the scars it left in nations. But the Great War left its mark on all the nations caught up in that maelstrom, and a full lifetime of years later we are still coming to terms with its effects.

Two minutes of utter silence in the office today, the only sound the almost inaudible whisper of computer fans, bookended by the loud crack of the two signal rockets fired from the roof of the town hall. Silence across much of the city centre, as shops and offices observed the two minutes.

Two minutes to reflect on the price paid for war. The very, very high price. Sometimes it may be a price worth paying. It is never a price worth paying without reflecting on the cost, and those who bear it. Who bear it still, in newer wars, though the last of the living of the Great War have gone to join their dead comrades.

Lest we forget.
julesjones: remembrance poppy (armistice day)
Book 77

I chose to start re-reading this particular book on November 11 this year, and having finished it the next day, to post my log entry on Remembrance Sunday, for reasons which will be be clear if you know anything about the book at all. This is the fictionalised memoir of the Great War, based on Remarque's own experiences as a German Army conscript stationed on the Western Front.

My own copy is a battered cloth-bound copy from the year of first publication, though from the twentieth print run some six months after its first publication in English translation. I bought it in, I think, 1988, because I had heard a little about it and wanted to read it for myself, and so when I ran across a cheap copy in a second-hand bookshop I picked it up. And was devastated by it. At school I had studied the Great War, and the lead-up to it, starting with the intricate balance-of-power treaty jigsaw created by Bismarck and its later unravelling. I had watched in respectful silence the old men at remembrance parades. But this book took the war out of the realm of history, and made it real in a way I'd never encountered before. It gave voice to the ordinary soldier at the Front, without taking sides. It was all here -- the harsh conditions, the need to dehumanise the enemy simply to be able to cope with the killing, the sense of dislocation felt by soldiers returning from the front line to their homes far from the battlefield, the uncomprehending jingoism by those at home who had never seen battle.

The book was banned by the Nazis, and no wonder. It was a threat to their mythology, and a vivid undermining of their glorification of war for the Fatherland. The relevance of its message has not diminished down the years. War is neither glorious nor romantic, and the comradeship of soldiers is bought at a very high price indeed. And yet bleak as it often is, there are many moments of high humour in the book. Remarque was a skilled writer, and knew very well how to contrast the horror with the moments of emotional peace and even joy that could be found in quiet times in the trenches. This is an emotionally wrenching read, but very much worth the time.

LibraryThing entry
julesjones: remembrance poppy (poppy)
My office is some ten minutes' walk from the Cenotaph in the city centre. I don't know where they actually fire the gun from at 11 o'clock, but it was loud enough to catch attention even over the sound of of a busy office. Within a few seconds, that sound had died to nothing, as people stopped typing and set down their files. The traffic noise went on outside, but inside there was nothing, by good fortune not even the sound of a phone ringing. The second cannon shot to close the silence seemed very loud indeed.

I have no other words this evening. I am too full of someone else's words. The book which went with me on the bus this morning was first published in Germany in January 1929, and in England in March 1929. My copy is from September that year, and from the twentieth print run, completing, as the book's colophon notes, 300,000 copies printed. According to Wikipedia, it sold 2.5 million copies in twenty-five languages in its first eighteen months in print. It was not enough. In 1939, only ten years after All Quiet On The Western Front was published, the Great War became the First World War. The armistice was broken, and another generation would discover for themselves the horror of war.

11/11

Nov. 11th, 2009 03:53 pm
julesjones: remembrance poppy (poppy)
Here in Manchester the sun is setting on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, bringing this season of remembrance to a close. It will almost certainly be the last Armistice Day in which we have a living link to that first Armistice Day, to those on the front who heard the guns fall silent at the eleventh hour 91 years ago. Since last year's remembrance, the last handful of those living in the UK have gone. There are today but three still living verified veterans of the Great War around the world. The war to end all wars, which didn't.

Those men and women have seen more than one war since. Small wars, large wars. Wars which really were over within months, but more often wars which dragged on for years or decades. Monday saw the anniversary of two major turning points in two major conflicts which sprang from the unfinished business of the Great War. It was both the 71st anniversary of Kristallnacht and the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Hate and hope on the same day, and perhaps that was not entirely a coincidence.

Lest we forget, for those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.
julesjones: (Default)
Yesterday I posted about my visit to the Hack Green Secret Bunker museum, where I stood and looked at a pair of decommissioned nuclear missiles. I'm at the older end of Generation X -- I was already a young adult twenty years ago. I grew up in the shadow of the Bomb, with the knowledge that there was the capability and perhaps the will to go to Mutually Assured Destruction, the potential end of civilisation in a war that was not survivable in any meaningful sense.

And then, twenty years ago today, the most blatant symbol of that terrible, deep division between nations -- was repudiated. The East German people decided in large numbers that they had had enough of being divided from their own across the Berlin Wall, and the newly installed leader of East Germany declined to give the order to shoot. An order that had been given many times in the past, but not twenty years ago today.

It was a process that began before the Wall came down, and continued long after. It is a process that is not entirely complete, that has had reversals. There is still suspicion, there are still madmen with access to the tools of mass destruction. But twenty years ago today is a day I can point at and say that that was the day I really believed that the world would not end in fire just yet.
julesjones: remembrance poppy (armistice day)
It is, indeed, sundown, and I am sitting here with a cup of tea, having just returned from an overnight outing. It was a friend's 40th birthday party last night, and so we were away to Shropshire, staying in a B&B in Market Drayton. This morning we left the B&B and went for a stroll round the town centre, just in time to hear the approach of the pipes and drums leading the Remembrance Day parade.

It was a pointed reminder that the deaths go on. The parade was led by the band of the Royal Irish Regiment, and there was a group of young soldiers in dress uniform all with identical shiny new medals, which must have been their campaign medals from their recent tour in Afghanistan. Soldiers with the accent of my home town.

And after we had seen the parade go by, and had paused at the cenotaph for 11 o'clock, we went on our way. Which led through Nantwich, and a spur-of-the-moment decision to visit the Hack Green Secret Bunker. Now it's a museum, but not so long ago it was part of the UK's last ditch defence system, part of the control system for the country after a nuclear war. This afternoon I stood within touching distance of the stuff of my generation's teenage nightmares, a pair of decommissioned but quite real nuclear missiles. They are remarkably tiny objects for something that could destroy an entire city. The place as a whole is a disturbing way to spend a couple of hours on any day, let alone Remembrance Sunday, not least because the video room has the banned BBC film "The War Game" on continuous loop. They are *not* kidding with the sign on the door warning that it's not suitable for small children. More information about Hack Green at the BBC's H2G2 site.

At the going down of the sun, let us remember, and be grateful that we are still here to remember.

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