This year saw the 75th anniversary of the D-Day Landings. The main commemoration in Portsmouth saw two particularly touching moments: HM The Queen’s simple ‘thank you’ to all who served and gave their lives, and a letter read by President Macron from a young Resistance fighter about to be executed to his mother. ‘I am going to die for my country… I do not fear death, my conscience is clear… Adieu, death is calling me… It is still hard to die. A thousand kisses. Vive la France.’ The following day in Normandy the Prime Minister (Mrs May) said: ‘Standing here, as the waves wash quietly onto the shore, it’s almost impossible to grasp the raw courage that it must have taken that day to leap out from landing craft and into the surf—despite the fury of battle… as the sun rose that morning, not one of the troops on the landing craft approaching these shores, not one of the pilots in the skies above, not one of the sailors at sea—knew whether they would still be alive when it set once again… These young men belonged to a very special generation, the greatest generation… whose unconquerable spirit shaped the post war world. They didn’t boast. They didn’t fuss. They served … they laid down their lives so that we might have a better life and build a better world.’
Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig was not the most imaginative of men. His diary entry for 11 November 1918 noted the weather, ‘Fine day but cold and dull,’ before a brief paragraph about the signing of the Armistice. On 4 November 1918, Colonel Joe Rice MC wrote: ‘I was now the only officer in brigade who had come to France with the Division and had not been killed or wounded or gassed or evacuated sick. And I felt that if the war did not end pretty soon I was just about due to join the majority some day or another.’ In one of his last letters to his mother, Wilfred Owen wrote that amid ‘the ghastly glimmering of the guns outside, and the hollow crashing of the shells… of this I am certain; you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here.’ Signalman Frank Tooke was ‘called up at 7am and after rushing breakfast of coffee and a few small biscuits we load up our old cart and start off… in the pouring rain. We were saturated through to the skin and my boots were full of water. Nearly all of us have sores on our feet, especially one or two of the lads who have no boots… their feet protected by pieces of rag or old socks. Having no chance of drying our clothes most of us lie down on our straw bed and sleep just as we are.’
7 November 1918: At 6.10 am Private Ernest Jackson, 32, was shot by firing squad having been found guilty of ‘deserting his Majesty’s Service.’ He had pleaded that ‘both my father and mother died in an asylum. I suffer from the same mental trouble caused by worries.’
Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem was composed for the consecration of Coventry Cathedral in 1962. The 14th century Gothic cathedral, bombed by the Luftwaffe, stands now a ruined shell forming a narthex to the new building, integral to Basil Spence’s design. The fusion of Britten’s music, the Latin Mass and the poems of Wilfred Owen was conceived with three soloists in mind, representing three European powers: Peter Pears (UK), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Germany) and Galina Vishnevskaya (Russia). The godless Bolsheviks refused her a permit to travel and the soprano part was sung by Heather Harper. Later Vishnevskaya did record the work. The dedicatees were Roger Burney and Michael Halliday, who had been killed in the Great War, and Piers Dunkerley who had survived fighting in World War II but committed suicide in 1959, and David Gill, all friends of Britten and Pears. Last year English National Opera presented several staged performances. It is the latest oratorio to be reconfigured for the stage. (Among them, St John Passion, Messiah, Dream of Gerontius and, notably, Saul at Glyndebourne.) The production divided critics. From ‘Ghastly production, banal and gloopy’ to ‘arresting images.’ There was one spectacular coup de théatre when an enormous snow cloud exploded on the stage like a nuclear mushroom cloud. It certainly had Brechtian overtones and some touches missed the mark, but overall it had a powerful impact. Not least because it made me hear the music (which triumphed over any tendentious directorial moments) afresh and exemplified Britten’s aim to portray ‘the pity of war.’ This is from Owen’s manuscript notes for the preface to a book of poetry that he did not live to see. He wrote that the book is not ‘about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War. Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.’ It ended with the soloists Roderick Williams and David Butt Philips interweaving Strange Meeting and its refrain ‘Let us sleep now’ with the chorus and the distant ‘Requiem aeternam’ from the children’s choir. There was a deep silence as the curtain fell eventually broken by applause, but a more appropriate response would have been tears.