November is the month of the Holy Souls, and its theme is remembrance. Last year saw solemn commemorations of the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, this year of Passchendaele. It is the over-arching name for a series of encounters, as bloody as any in that bloodiest of wars, that stretched from July to November 1917. The offensive in Flanders had been opposed by David Lloyd George, the Prime Minister, but the War Cabinet eventually agreed. The film Churchill, which came out earlier in the year, saw that Prime Minister—like his predecessor—oppose an expedition, this time the D-Day Landings. The kernel of the film is that Churchill’s opposition stemmed from his searing experience of the tragic and costly Dardanelles campaign of the previous war which he had supported, and its failure had cost him his office. The film is rather plodding but the central performance of Brian Cox makes it worthwhile. This is Churchill warts and all. However, a bullying harangue of a young secretary for some typing error is followed by a sentimental touch as she reveals that her fiancé is in one of the landing craft. Churchill redeems himself by ascertaining that he is safe. It may or may not have happened but it does show that great men are not without fault but few are without some redeeming features.
My grandfather fought at Jutland. My father was in the RAF but just young enough not see active service. I was born in touching distance of the Second World War. But as the years roll on and the events become beyond the memory of most of us, will commemoration fall away and those conflicts become as remote as Waterloo, the Spanish Armada, Marathon and Thermopylae? What might save us from that is the names. The names of the fallen are incised in the war memorials in every city, town and village. Shakespeare has Henry V recite the dead at Agincourt:
‘Edward the Duke of York, the Earl of Suffolk,
Sir Richard Ketly, Davy Gam, esquire:
None else of name; and of all other men
But five and twenty…’
‘None else of name…’ Twenty-five nameless and unknown.
Thankfully the names of the fallen are now known and are memorialised and will long outlast us.
There is a marvellous scene in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys where Hector is discussing Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘Drummer Hodge’:
They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest
… portion of that unknown plain
His homely Northern breast and brain
Grow to some Southern tree
And strange-eyed constellations reign
His stars eternally.’
Hector points out the similarity of Hodge being buried in a foreign field and Rupert Brooke’s poem ‘The Soldier’, the difference being that Hardy is more down-to-earth and that his soldier has a name. Private soldiers were not known. They were all unknown soldiers. But that lost boy, perhaps in a common grave, had a name.
In the Sculpture Gallery of the V&A, which I passed through regularly on my way to the old Friends’ Room, there is a marble slab, cold to the touch were we allowed to touch it. It bears a coat-of-arms, lavishly carved, and a name. Above it, in soaring magnificence, is an almighty and powerful monument of a knight, a soldier mounted on a charger: strength and purpose captured in stone. Beneath him are saints, prominent among them Our Lady who holds the Christ Child. The knight is the Marchese Spinetta Malaspina, a great soldier—probably a mercenary—of the fourteenth century. His deeds are known and recorded and his memorial speaks of his fame. His monument overshadows that marble slab, almost inconspicuous by comparison. The name on the slab is that of Visconte Malaspina, son of the Marchese. And that name, carved on that marble slab, is the only historical record there is of his existence.
My grandfather’s memories of his service, some harrowing for a small boy, made the First World War vivid as did my introduction to the War Poets at school by Barry Ford, one of my three inspiring English teachers (the others were ‘Pop’ Walker and ‘Jim’ Robinson). Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon dominated the scene then. I suppose I was not alone in that generation in being moved by the horrors of ‘Dulce at Decorum est’ or by ‘Strange Meeting’ which I cannot now read without hearing in my inner ear Britten’s setting of it in the War Requiem, particularly the alternating, then merging voices, of Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer-Diskau. Wilfred Owen said in his brief and eloquent manifesto that his poems were not about heroes, ‘nor about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power,’ they were about ‘the pity of War.’ If he distils the pity of war, Sassoon may encapsulate its futility but Isaac Rosenberg directs our gaze beyond the trenches. In his poem ‘Returning, We Hear the Larks’ he writes about the terrible experience of war as if from ‘immense and calming heights’ and directs our eyes beyond the carnage and the waste to a place where suffering is transfigured into something akin to understanding and clarity and a purified realm.
‘But hark! joy—joy—strange joy.
Lo! Heights of night ringing with unseen larks:
Music showering our upturned listening faces.’
The war memorial outside St Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield reads: ‘Hallowed in Christ to the memory of all gallant men and women who fell in the Great War for the freedom of the world. They shall yet stand before the throne an exceeding great army and in that last muster shall be found these our own beloved.’