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Tuesday, 5 August 2014

The pain of acknowledgement

World War One still chokes me. As I get older, the sensation intensifies. All those deaths - accepted and borne for so long.

Television, the home of shallow reaction, last night faced an un-televisable event - a national enactment of Lord Grey's comment at the beginning of the war: lamps going out all over Europe. Television depends on light and needed to communicate its own brief extinction. How do you depict the dark?

I recalled a Guardian reporter who had sat in a café in Mons in Belgium, watching the world go by, chatting to customers. For decades Belgium has been the butt of jokes about the country's presumed unimportance. Yet Belgians, some of them great grandchildren to the WW1 generation, said the same thing: they would never forget the sacrifices made by British troops (later other nationalities) in coming to Belgium's help a hundred years ago.

One café customer was Belgium's prime minister. On his own, chatting, reflecting.

I am no monarchist yet two smallish details stand out. The Queen took no part in the Westminster Abbey event, preferring to meditate in (I think) a small Scottish church. A rare occasion when non-participation proved to be the greater tribute

Prince Harry read out a letter from Pte Michael Lennon sent to his brother Frank in 1915. Harsh bare words about the likelihood of death; gruffly pushing this idea to one side. Inevitably Michael Lennon died two days later at Gallipoli.

As I said, the sensation is one of being choked. As if old events were reaching out, determined I should share some of the pain. And so I should.


  1. Yes, the sensation of choking. The Duchess and I acknowledged pain and darkness last night. Loss. Coming to another's aid.

  2. Thank you for that.

    Although on my own and with nobody to see I lit a candle and stuck it in the window. Every time I think about it it seems to become more difficult to comprehend the scale. On my walks I encounter many war memorials, often in small villages indicating whole communities and families practically wiped out.

  3. Tomorrow, we in the USA will skim over the annual perfunctory reminder that it was on Aug. 6 that Hiroshima was vaporized by an A-bomb. The Aug. 9th anniversary of Nagasaki's demise gets less attention (it wasn't a first). Two small cities targeted because all the larger civilian population centers had been reduced to ash with conventional bombs, rendered unfit for the experiment.

  4. Joyce and I too watched the Television - was this our one light? The start of the First World War does seem like the beginning of everything bad. The scale is horrendous and the sheer reversal of everything civil and hopeful. A chapel in which to meditate is a good thing I agree, and thanks for pointing out that is where the Queen was.

  5. All: Many people (combatants and civilians) died in WW2 and yet I for one feel slightly different about those deaths. They were no less tragic but most of them (with notable exceptions like Dresden) had an identifiable purpose. Facism, whether in Europe or the Pacific, was thought to be evil at the time, and turned out to be even more evil than was thought.

    My overriding conclusion about WW1 (despite the message Michael Gove was trying to preach before he was fired) is a horror of national incompetence. The fixed mindset that led to a depersonalistion of what passed in those days for strategic vision. When leaders ceased to believe that armies consisted of humans and saw them only as taps to be turned on and off.

    After WW1 the popular prints mounted a Hang The Kaiser campaign. Thank God that didn't happen because there must have been many Brits who would then have supported a Hang Haig campaign.

    Death is death and perhaps it makes no difference - or only makes a difference afterwards. To die with the Allies on D-Day just seems a less lonely death than to die in bits in a trench on the Somme among thousands who were equally lonely.

    RW(zS)/Sir Hugh: I must confess I didn't watch most of the BBC's coverage, only caught up with it when I turned on the later-than-normal News At Ten. I think my reason was I didn't want to see the faces of politicians in this context, though I can't be sure. In a sense it didn't matter because I was immediately drawn in by the individual stories and heartened by the cemetery at St Symphorien at Mons where British and German graves lie side by side. Thereafter giant cemeteries, though worthy, can also be seen as expressions of nationalism.

    MikeM: If American want to observe a day which commemorates political courage in the face of the awfulness of nuclear weapons, they might consider Harry Truman's firing of Gen. MacArthur along with MacA's proposal to bring the Korean War to a swifter conclusion with you-know-what. War, it is said, is too important to be left to generals.

    Lucas: As a bit of television the Queen's gesture looked forced and stagey. As a moment for reflection it could hardly have been bettered.