With the death of the last surviving WWI soldier, memory of the first military conflict of modern times fades from the horror of personal experience to the safe sepia of historical fact. For those who fought in it, it was an experience so harrowing that, out of respect for those that died and to protect those spared the experience, they simply refused to speak about it. Now as that generation leaves us, their silence finally becomes complete, a permanent memorial their lost friends.
Although it seems a long time ago, to have experienced the Great War, you only need to have been born about one hundred and ten years ago, which is barely three generations ago. It’s only the soldiers todays great grandparents. They’re the same people that bobbed their hair, drove the first cars and wore the clothes still hanging in forgotten wardrobes. They went to cinemas, cheered the present Queen, they were around for The Beatles, it’s not ancient history; their scent still lingers in the air. And yet, psychologically, their generation’s world view had more in common with the ancient past than our own.
Politics was then still the preserve of the aristocracy, women didn’t have the vote and Europe was a family firm run by Queen Victoria’s grand children. In the early days of recruitment before the horrors of the trenches became widely reported the war was sold as an invigorating noble crusade and death at worst an awfully big adventure. If they were to die, it would be as Wendy had insisted in J.M. Barrie’s popular play of the time – as brave Englishmen. Training still involved bayonets and horseback riding. Men were recruited from villages that barely had electricity and fought in battles against automatic weaponry, armoured tanks, gas attacks and mortar attacks. Instead of heroically riding into battle most soldiers waited for nerve shredding weeks in trenches slowly losing their mind. The condition of “shell shock” was coined for the first times and sufferers treated with suspicion bordering on out right aggression. The most common symptoms were either severe stuttering or selective mutism, the English language unable to catch up with what they had experienced.
In the Crimean war, the last major military conflict before The Great War, the most controversial battle of the conflict at Balaclava resulted in the death of 110 men. 19,240 died on the first day of the Somme on the British side alone. There were only sixty years between those two events, less than between now and the dropping of the nuclear bombs in Japan. It’s comparable to our children finding it quant and old fashioned that we find the idea of millions killed in single second strange hard to understand.
At home there was a hysterical craze for mysticism, bereaved families flocked to mediums, scientists attempted to use the newly mastered electricity to try to proof the existence of the soul, serious newspapers reported angels on the battle fields and the latest in photographic equipment captured fairies at the bottom of gardens. Communities that had lost their sons to the industrial weaponry of the 20th century were trying to use dying ancient myths to reclaim them.
Literature imploded; either into the escapism of Tolkien’s “Lord of The Rings” fantasises where homesick confused hobbits battled against faceless industrial death or fragmented into the emptiness of Elliot’s “Wasteland” and Joyce’s streams of consciousness. The safety of Victorian plots abandoned, that A would follow B, the reassurance that everything could be resolved no longer seemed possible. It wasn’t just the demise of literary happy endings; it was the death in the belief of proper endings at all.
The soldiers fighting today have one hundred years worth of vocabulary to make sense of their experiences. Phrases like Pre emptive strikes, collateral damage and Post traumatic stress help to numb the horror, normalise the bloodshed and legitimise the casualties. They have the language but they don’t have the narrative anymore. The reassurance that there is point to it, that order will be restored ,that it will all eventually be worth it. Humans haven’t evolved beyond needing and yearning for those stories but they’re now as ancient and archaic as Edwardian uniforms. With the passing of the last First World War veteran we’ve lost the last person who remembered a world that looked like that.
Now with the old battalions finally reunited, the regiments at last complete, I wonder what the lost boys of the trenches will make of the final aged Tommy returned. If they ask him how the rest of the century worked out, what their war solved and what we learnt from and did with their sacrifice; I hope he’ s able to keep his silence.