‘Thurifer’ calls to mind the Fallen
November is the month of the Holy Souls, and of Remembrance. Perhaps surprisingly the People’s Republic of Islington (prop. the Rt Hon. Jeremy Corbyn, MP) has in several of its streets simple and dignified plaques to commemorate those killed in the First World War. In one street these men are remembered: W. A. E. Cole, 21, died of wounds 1 November 1917, in England; Albert E. Netherclift, 24, died of wounds 22 November 1917, in France; Charles E. W. Slade, 19, died of wounds, 1 December 1915, in Belgium. Remembrance is most felt and authentic for individual human souls; for the vast numbers are difficult to comprehend.
Let these men, whom we know by name – commemorated in the street where they lived – stand for all the Fallen, and let us pray for the repose of their souls. Let them stand for the hundreds of thousands: each a name, a child of God. For each human soul we do the best that we can in a world that is scarred and wounded. We celebrate the Christian ritual for the dead in Solemn Requiems; and from the carnage and chaos of death the Church offers the ordered Liturgy of the Dead. From the fragmentation of human life that conflict brings, the Church offers the complete and perfect sacrifice to transcend the failure of war. From the defeat of human aspirations that war represents, the Church pleads the victory of Christ in the immaculate sacrifice – the one that transcends all others.
The centenary of the Battle of the Somme, the bloodiest day in our military history, was commemorated in July with a Vigil at Westminster Abbey, attended by the Queen and Prince Philip. At the Thiepval Arch, the magnificent, sombre, and daunting memorial by Sir Edwin Lutyens, with over 70,000 names of those who have no known grave incised in its unflinching stone, there was a joint commemoration with the French. The President of Ireland and a former President of Germany attended; as did the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall with other senior members of the Royal Family, and Mr Cameron, then still Prime Minister. The dignitaries laid wreaths; and six hundred English, French, and Irish children laid posies on the graves of the Fallen. The most moving moment was the recitation of Siegfried Sassoon’s “Aftermath” by the estimable Charles Dance, to the background of “Sospiri” by Elgar. As the music began, so did the rain: the heavens were weeping.
Do you remember that hour of din before the attack,
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads, those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look up, and swear by the green of the Spring that you’ll
Earlier this year I saw the film “Son of Saul”, directed by the Hungarian László Nemes. It won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and concerns a troop of Sonderkommando at Auschwitz in 1944. These were Jews – themselves destined to be gassed or shot when their usefulness was over, to be replaced by others, until their turn came – forced to herd new arrivals into the gas chambers, then remove the dead (what their Nazi supervisors called “pieces”), collect valuables, the discarded clothing and luggage, and prepare for the next batch of victims. One boy survives the gassing, only to be stifled by the Nazi doctor. Saul thinks it is his son – it may or may not be – and he seeks a Rabbi to sing Kaddish and give the boy a funeral. It is an act of humanity within the orgy of mechanised murder and dehumanisation. He pursues this aim with ferocious concentration, as his fellow kommandos plan a revolt.
The film is shot almost entirely in close-up, with the horrors of the inferno in the background, often out of focus. The soundtrack is an unremitting cacophony of sound: shouting, barked order, screams, hammering, gun-shots, blasts of automatic fire, trains clanking, steam hissing. Summary punishment and casual brutality are its hallmark: it goes beyond the imaginings of Hieronymus Bosch, and the critic Mark Kermode called it “a silent scream within the ninth circle of hell”. It is profoundly moving, morally complex, harrowing, traumatic, intense and concentrated, haunting. Allowing for the artifice of the form, the knowledge that these are actors, I cannot imagine anything that comes near it for its intense realism. Even the contemporary footage of the death camps after their liberation, the mass graves, the emaciated survivors – horrific enough – seem slightly distanced. It is the finest film I have ever seen.
Tyne Cot was a barn on the road to Passchendaele, named by the Northumberland Fusiliers. It is now the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery with the largest number of burials. Much contested, the land changed hands several times. The cemetery was designed by Sir Herbert Baker, and now 11,962 members of the Armed Forces are buried there. Over half are unidentified and lie in graves that say “Known unto God”; and four German soldiers are also interred there. What was most affecting on my visit some years ago was not the regimented grief of rows of headstones – but the half-dozen graves at odd angles, dug where those soldiers fell and died.