William Davage reflects on Remembrance
The generation that went to war in 1914 with an heroic, romantic nonchalance did not envisage the slaughter that they would endure in the mud of Flanders and elsewhere. Their awakening was as swift as it was terrible:
I have seen
death’s clever enormous voice
which hides in a fragility
of poppies. (the bigness of cannon, E.E. Cummings)
In 1939 there may have been a more sober assessment of the realities of war but human ingenuity in evil was not exhausted and no-one entering the death camps of Europe or the Far East could be unaffected. Similarly, nobody who walks the fields of Flanders can be unmoved by the memory of that landscape slashed and scarred by the trenches and the mud and blood, the “abomination of desolation.” The enormity of what happened in those few fields, within a matter of a few hours is beyond the human mind to calculate and the human heart to accept and mere words to express. No-one who entered the death camps “where no birds sing” could doubt the existence of Hell. Dante’s infernal vision had been made real in concrete and wire. But two examples from countless that could have been chosen, of murder at its most vast, made all the more unbearable by the tragic willingness of its victims to walk across No Man’s Land or into the gas chambers to their rendezvous with death.
The memory of society is short. The Somme will become as remote as Agincourt or Crécy: the names of Belsen and Dachau and Auschwitz and the rest as remote as Troy and Thermopolyae. Yet if we are wise they will “pulse in the eternal mind” (in the words of Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier) as a warning and lesson.
Society remembers through ritual acts. Their power transforms the primal cry of grief wrung from David, “O Absolom, O Absalom, wherefore art thou Absolom” into the classical cadences of mourning where the discipline of the form and the formality of the language exist in tension with the emotion being expressed, such as by John Milton:
‘Weep no more, woeful shepherds, weep no more,
for Lycidas, your sorrow, is not dead,
Sunk though he be beneath the watery floor:
So entertain him all the saints above,
In solemn troops and sweet societies
That sing, and singing in their glory move,
And wipe the tears for ever from his eyes.’
That power can be felt in the rituals of the Christian dead. “And he showed me a pure river of water … on either side of the river, was a tree of life … and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” (Rev. 22.) Those who die for a just cause, who give up their lives that others might live in freedom and peace, who surrender themselves for the sake of an ideal make a sacrifice of themselves. Sacrifice requires a surrender, a costly offering, an offering in which the gift of the self is destroyed. There can be no sacrifice where there is no cost. “Sacrifice becomes rational and appropriate [when] the expense is commensurate with the need and the need with the expense.” Those who give their lives in war make a sacrifice in that they satisfy the criteria, of cost, of surrender, of offering. Inevitably, however, they have a direct and properly reasonable interest in the outcome for which they fight and if that militates against a pure and spotless sacrifice it does not prevent their offering being, to some degree at any rate, being made sacred.
The sacrifice of the Fallen, noble and memorable though it is and must ever be, it is not the Sacrifice of Calvary. Whatever we know of Cross and sacrifice is but partial and incomplete in comparison with that act of pure and perfect sublime self-surrender of Christ. The only perfect sacrifice is the one that Christ offered on the Cross as a total offering to the Father’s love and for the salvation of the whole of mankind. “Christ … through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God.” It is only by uniting ourselves with his sacrifice that we can make our lives a living sacrifice to God.
By his exterior actions and interior dedication Christ transformed the sacrifice of Abraham. There Abraham as priest offered the sacrifice of his son Isaac as victim in propitiation for the sins of the people. Christ is both priest and Victim. He makes the offering of himself as the Lamb without blemish, as the Divine Victim, to the Father for the glory of the Father and for the expiation and redemption of sinful man. Only that pure and sinless human life could restore man to his friendship and to communion with God. The life which he had created had been made impossible by sin. Something of infinite value to God had been defiled by the self-conscious choice of man, the expiation of which could not be achieved by human efforts. Only on the Cross, only in the self-surrender of Christ, through his perfect obedience to the will of the Father could redemption be won. “He humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on the Cross.” On the Cross he made that “full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction” that won the victory and effected our redemption. It is that same victory and that same sacrifice that is pleaded now for the living and the dead.
The sacrifice of Christ on the Cross is unique. It completes and surpasses all other sacrifice. “We have been satisfied through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” It is identically the same sacrifice, the distinction between them being only in the manner of offering, Christ’s body being visibly given and his blood visibly shed in the one, invisibly in the other. Christ is both priest and Divine Victim in the offering of himself then and now. Until we arrive at that direct union with God when “the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God and no torment will ever touch them,” (Wisdom 3.1) and we will no longer “see through a glass darkly” (1 Cor 13.12) and no longer need rites and ceremonies and signs that unite us with him, we offer the sacrifice of adoration, of praise and thanksgiving, we celebrate his Sacrament of the altar unceasingly to God.
Blow out, you bugles, over the rich dead.
There’s none of these so lonely and poor of old
But dying, has made us rarer gifts than gold,
These laid the world away; poured out the rare
Sweet wine of youth: gave up the years to be
Of work and joy, and that unhoped serene
That men call age; and those who would have been
Their sons, they gave their immortality.
(The Dead, Rupert Brooke)
Anthem for Doomed Youth
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) was born is Oswestry. Although only four of his poems were published during his lifetime, he has become known as one of the major War Poets and had honed his craft since adolescence. A teacher, he enlisted in the British Army in 1915 and evoked much about the WWI battlefields in his verse. He was killed in action on 4 November, 1918.
Anthem for Doomed Youth, written in sonnet form, takes religious imagery and tradition to deepen the sense of loss and asperity experienced by those in combat, the lack of ceremony adding to their tragedy.