Archive for November 11, 2008


Posted in Music, Poetry with tags , , on November 11, 2008 by telescoper

Not many summers ago, in 2004, I spent an enjoyable day walking in the beautiful Peak District of Derbyshire followed by an evening at the opera in the pleasant spa town of Buxton, where there is an annual music festival. The opera I saw was A Turn of the Screw, by Benjamin Britten: a little incongruous for Buxton’s fine little Opera House which is decorated with chintzy Edwardiana and which was probably intended for performances of Gilbert & Sullivan comic operettas rather than stark tales of psychological terror. When Buxton’s theatre was built, in 1903, the town was a fashionable resort at which the well-to-do could take the waters and relax in the comfort of one of the many smart hotels.

Arriving over an hour before the opera started, I took a walk around the place and ended up on a small hill overlooking the town centre where I found the local war memorial. This is typical of the sort of thing one can see in small towns the length and breadth of Britain. It lists the names and dates of those killed during the “Great War” (1914-1918). Actually, it lists the names but mostly there is only one date, 1916.

The 1st Battalion of the Nottingham and Derbyshire Regiment (known as the Sherwood Foresters) took part in the Battle of the Somme that started on 1st July 1916. For many of them it ended that day too. Some of their names are listed on Buxton’s memorial. On the first day of this offensive, the British Army suffered 58,000 casualties as, all along the western front, troops walked slowly and defencelessly into heavy fire from machine guns that were supposed to have been knocked out by an artillery barrage that had been tragically ineffective. Rather than calling off the attack in the face of this slaughter, the powers that be carried on sending troops to their doom for months on end. By the end of the battle in November that year the British losses were a staggering 420,000, while those on the German side were estimated at half a million.

These numbers are beyond comprehension, but their impact on places like Buxton was measurably real. Buxton became a town of widows. The material loss of manpower made it impossible for many businesses to continue after 1918 and a steep economic decline followed. It never fully recovered from the devastation of 1916 and its pre-war posterity never returned.

And the carnage didn’t end on the Somme. As the “Great War” stumbled on, battle after battle degenerated into bloody fiasco. A year later the Third Battle of Ypres saw another 310,000 dead on the British side as another major assault on the German defences faltered in the mud of Passchendaele. By the end of the War on 11th November 1918, losses on both sides were counted in millions.

The First World War ended a long time ago, and there is now only one living survivor of the British trenches, but the tragedy that it was shouldn’t be forgotten and neither should the sacrifices made by those caught up in the slaughter. Every year, we have Remembrance Sunday (which passed yesterday) for which it is traditional to wear a poppy after John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep,
though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

And tomorrow morning, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month – when the guns fell silent 90 years ago – I will stand (as I always do) for the two minutes of silence observed across the country. Some people consider the wearing of a poppy and the observance of the two minutes’ silence to be celebrations of militarism. I don’t. I wear mine with respect for those who have made the ultimate sacrifice (on both sides, including non-combatants, and in all wars not just the “Great” one). As their deaths recede into the past, these rituals are needed to stop us seeing them as mere statistics. Each name on the war memorial at Buxton represents a human life extinguished and is evidence of the capacity for inhumanity which we all possess and from which we must not be allowed to hide.

For me the poppy also symbolises anger for those whose arrogance and mendacity has led us into wars that we should have avoided. I thank my lucky stars that I never had to live through conflict on the scale my grandparents’ generation had to face and curse those who have inflicted that fate on others. I quote another great First World War poet, Siegfried Sassoon (writing here in prose) whose words are as apt today as they were ninety years ago:

I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolonging these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. On behalf of all those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception that is being practised on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize.

That could just as easily have been written about Iraq (2003) as Flanders (1917).

Benjamin Britten was the reason I went to Buxton that day in 2004 so its only fitting I should mention the moving performance of his War Requiem I listened to yesterday on the radio. This is a powerful work that interleaves the latin mass for the dead with poetry from the greatest of all the war poets, Wilfred Owen. This is his Anthem for Doomed Youth , which is set right at the beginning of the War Requiem, the references in the poem to church services adding tragic irony to his already powerful verse.

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
-Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,-
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Wilfred Owen died in battle in 1918, aged 25, just a week before the armistice was signed. Another statistic.