Can you remember?

Wilf Stevenson on the importance of commemoration and our changing reflections of major events

Edmund Blunden wrote Can you remember? in January 1936, nearly 20 years after he fought in the Battle of Passchendaele. Asked to choose a poem to represent his war poetry, he chose this one – within which he asks himself if he can remember the war and describes his feelings when those memories return. The closing lines capture the duality of such memories: 

“And some are sparkling, laughing, singing,
Young, heroic, mild;
And some incurable, twisted,
Shrieking, dumb, defiled.”

This exploration of memory is not just important as a means of understanding a survivor’s experiences. It is also one of the ways we have of building knowledge of our past – complementing the dry histories and challenging art works that flow from these lived experiences.

Such learning is refracted because we no longer have the privilege of speaking to survivors. One museum manager at the In Flanders Fields Museum put it like this in 1998: Now that the generation of the First World War is disappearing, a museum must come in its place.”

As the distance between ourselves and the events widens, society’s responsibility to our past becomes greater. We must impart, in the very act of learning, an obligation to the young to be inquisitive about history. That is why commemoration, in its many forms, is so important.

Passchendaele symbolises the horrors of trench warfare, and has been described as “the worst battlefield in history”. Not only was the loss of life unimaginable – in just three months, 350,000 Allied and 260,000 German soldiers were killed – but the conditions in which they fought, lived and died were beyond hellish. Major Desmond Allhusen recalled in his diary:

“the mud and water reached our waists and it took us about half an hour to do a hundred yards… it [the mud] was different from what we were used to. It had lost all form and consistency and all resemblance to the honest stuff one finds in peaceful lands. It was just the shapeless mess that remains when everything else is gone.”

Lieutenant General Sir Lancelot Kiggell, General Haig’s Chief of Staff, broke down at the end of the campaign when he reached the edge of the battlefield, and exclaimed “Did we really send men to fight in this?”

One of the worries that people had about First World War commemoration and the related artistic work was that it would glorify as well as memorialise. As Blunden’s poetry attests, the memory of the war can be as devastating as the battles themselves – we need to gain that perspective before we celebrate. Commemoration, in particular of a battle like Passchendaele, must be multi-dimensional. It should be open to exploring the past both through the lives of the individuals who experienced them and within broader continental and global contexts.

We have a responsibility to seek the truth, to be inquisitive, and crucially be open to our own prejudices. In recognising our own pre-conceived notions, we will be better placed to get the most out of a commemorative act, whether it be a Paul Nash painting of the Western Front or a local council memorial. I would argue both are as valuable.

Both memory and commemoration have, for a long time, been acknowledged as areas of contestation. The commemoration of war is, in many ways, as political as the act itself.

In recent months, the threshold on accuracy and truth is being diluted and could have important consequences on how we commemorate and view the past. The antidote to such behaviour is to continuously renew interest in our own past, not to shy away from such debates, by being open to different types of commemoration.

Truth, memory and commemoration are all inextricably linked. It is not just the responsibility of academics, teachers, or even politicians to be mindful to this. The responsibility of interpretation should weigh heavy on all of us. Blunden was acutely aware of how memory changed our understanding of war. Our commemorations need to reflect that.

Lord Wilf Stevenson of Balmacara is a member of Labour’s frontbench team in the House of Lords. He tweets @Missenden50

Published 19th October 2017

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