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Remembering the First World War: Touched from a distance

Inspired by the discovery of the frozen bodies of three soldiers of the First World War, Peter Englund considers the ways we remember and write about a conflict of which there are now no survivors left.

Claude Choules photographed in 1936. Until his death in May 2011 he was the last surviving WW1 combat veteran in the world. In August 2004 the bodies of three Austro-Hungarian soldiers, fallen in battle in 1918, were found in a thawing glacier high up in the Italian Alps. The men were still in uniform and the faces of two of them were so intact that their features, although ghastly, were recognisable. The human remains of combatants are still found, regularly, but this case created more interest than most.

I think that the image of something ‘frozen in time’ fascinates because it narrows the gap between now and then. It makes you feel that the past isn’t so distant after all. For the same reason people bring home rusty relics from the battlegrounds of Belgium and France. The war becomes something more than just words and images tinted in sepia; it turns tangible.

This urge to close the gap in time is, perhaps, more acute now that there are no eyewitnesses of the First World War left. The last of the last was Claude Stanley Choules, who died in Australia this May.

This is for better and for worse. The passions that made the First World War possible and sustained interest in it are ebbing. This may make way for a deeper understanding of the conflict than was possible when these energies were alive. The historian thrives on this distance and rightly so. At the same time, something vanishes. When the past turns into history a part of its complexity gets lost, not least because of the overwhelming need to turn a confusing and chaotic reality into a neat and tidy narrative.

Narratives of tragedy are what are left for us to create and consume. Part of the reason for this lies in the function that the memory of the First World War has in contemporary Europe as the supreme cautionary example of the horrors of war. It is pretty well impossible to get a sense of anything else but tragedy when you stand in the neatly kept cemeteries and see row upon row of headstones. Only veterans were able to address it in any other way. Few today, for example, would dare write about the Gallipoli campaign of 1915 in the way that Compton Mackenzie did in Gallipoli Memories (1929), mixing the grisly and the funny with abandon, sometimes on the same page.

The pruning of the narrative, the editing of elements that don’t fit (actively, passively, or simply by forgetting) is a consequence of distance. It works on the individual, too. You can see it clearly in the works of famous participants in the First World War such as Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth (1933); in Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930); or Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel (1920). For them writing about the war was a way to get a grip on their experiences, to make literature out of it. This mirrors a larger process. As Geoff Dyer has written in The Missing of the Somme (1994), his personal meditation on war and remembrance: ‘Our idea of the war, with its elaborately entwined, warring ideas of “myth” and “reality”, was actively constructed through elaborately entwined, warring versions of memory in the decade and half following the cessation of actual hostilities.’

That is probably the way remembrance works in the years following a momentous event. But for us, with no ready access to ‘entwined, warring versions of memory’, the spectre of anachronism looms. It is impossible to understand the First World War, not least its origins, without insights into the contemporary psyche – collective and individual – that now seem strange or even repellent to us. Many of the participants afterwards were quite willing to forget, because their own disillusion tended to blot it out. After all, few events in history offer a greater contrast between expectation and disappointment as the First World War. Hence the revolutions that followed in its wake.

What we call contemporary psyche is a very complex thing. The Australian Fredric Manning, who wrote one of the most insightful books that came out of the Great War, Her Privates We (1930), wrote: ‘There was no man of them unaware of the mystery which encompassed him, for he was part of it; he could neither separate himself entirely from it, nor identify himself with it completely. A man might rage against war; but war, from among its myriad faces, could always turn him one, which was his own.’

Catching fully these myriad faces of war is probably impossible for those who weren’t there, but still we should try. Here a paradox comes into play. Being in the middle of an event is no sure way to understanding what it is about or even what is happening. I would say that a historian writing on the battle of the Somme today probably knows more of what really happened during that episode than those who were actually there, at least when it comes to the background and the ebb and flow of the fighting. Thanks to history we know more and more what the war was about. But at the same time we tend to lose our grasp of what it was like.

So how do we go about trying to catch the multiplicity of war? My own contribution has been in the shape of an experiment in history writing. I decided to discard overarching narrative and instead try to depict the war as a strictly personal experience. I did this by following 20 people of different ages, different nationalities, on different fronts, with different attitudes to the war, and not just men and not just soldiers, trying to avoid the benefit of hindsight, instead dedicating each chapter to what each individual sees, does, thinks, feels on certain days – stuff that, at best, ends up in the footnotes – and then follow these intersecting biographies up until November 1918. Although several of these persons were involved in quite agonising events, the focus is not – as it often is – on the horrific and colourful drama of battle but instead on the everyday aspects of the conflict, and especially on war as a state of mind.

What Manning called the ‘mystery’ of war still haunts us. But part of our own understanding of this important historical event surely must come from us trying to understand the individuals that were part of it, to be able to look into their faces, unflinchingly.

Peter Englund is the Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy and the author of The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War (Profile, 2011).

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