Wednesday, November 11, 2009
The Eleventh Hour of the Eleventh Day of the Eleventh Month
I hate the weasel words of the Whitehall Cenotaph - "The Glorious Dead".
There's nothing glorious about being dead, especially those slaughtered for nothing in the hell of the trenches.
Rudyard Kipling chose the words, stricken with grief and guilt after the death of his only son.
But he was wrong, no doubt trying to make atonement: understandable, pitiable, but wrong.
Siegfried Sassoon knew from bitter personal experience. He spoke the truth.
On Passing the New Menin Gate
Who will remember, passing through this Gate,
The unheroic Dead who fed the guns?
Who shall absolve the foulness of their fate,—
Those doomed, conscripted, unvictorious ones?
Crudely renewed, the Salient holds its own.
Paid are its dim defenders by this pomp;
Paid, with a pile of peace-complacent stone,
The armies who endured that sullen swamp.
Here was the world’s worst wound. And here with pride
‘Their name liveth for ever,’ the Gateway claims.
Was ever an immolation so belied
As these intolerably nameless names?
Well might the Dead who struggled in the slime
Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime.
John Kipling was killed during the Battle of Loos, in September 1915. Massed infantry were ordered forward in parade-ground formations, towards barbed wire and machine guns. British losses after 3 weeks were 16,000 dead and 25,000 wounded; a short section of the front had been pushed forward 2 miles.
"The Corpse-Field of Loos", the Germans called it, sickened by the slaughter, holding fire as British survivors retreated.
Many of those gunned down were malnourished, poorly educated, conscripted young men from the impoverished slums of London and the big cities. Many wounded suffered hours in the mud before dying.
The loss of young officers was especially grievous: the brightest and the best of their generation, so important in the seed-corn of the future.
"The Glorious Dead."
The story is told that some months later Winston Churchill attended a conference on the Battle of Loos. Afterwards he was asked what he had learned. "Never try such a damn-fool thing again", he growled.
But the generals had learned nothing. They went back to their chateaux and planned the Battle of the Somme.