|This essay was published
in the catalogue Loci memoriae.
It was printed in an edition of 1,000 copies to coincide with 'Loci
Memoriae'- a project of writing, artwork
and web design on the themes of commemoration, monuments and other
acts of oblivia created in Bristol (UK) during the prelude to Armistice
How should we remember honestly the dead of war
at the same time as warning against future war?
For Phillip Larkin, memorably, the traditional tribute was ‘solemn-sinister
Wreath rubbish.’ Recent controversy over the American Second
World War memorial shows how potent the issue remains. The pointless
slaughter of the First World War is the most difficult of all wars
to remember. Most survivors wanted to forget quickly, and were soon
forgotten themselves, as the song says. Yet eight million died, and
the suffering did not end in 1918: much of the rest of twentieth century
history was affected by what happened in the four short years after
1914. So, both remembrance and warning were and remain essential.
A traditional memorial is that of the entombment of the Unknown Soldier
as the symbol of all the dead. The suffering of those who fought in
that unjust war (not really a Great War) has always moved me, even
haunts me, as does the experience and bravery of those who fought
Nazism in the only just war of the twentieth century. Yet I experience
little emotion when encountering official war memorials: only in the
arts can I find the understanding, the education and the emotion.
A sentence by Remarque, a poem by Sassoon, a picture by Nash, and
a film like All Quiet on the Western Front bring home to me the suffering
and the waste, more than the bricks, mortar and bronze of the official
tributes can ever do.
Most of all it is cinema for me. Memorials play small but influential
roles in films about the war: white crosses, statues, the Unknown
Soldier (strange that this should always be capitalised when lower
case would be more universal). In Bertrand Tavernier’s 1989
Film, La Vie et Rien d’Autre, one of many great French contributions
to world cinema about the war, Philippe Noiret has to identify 350,000
dead and deranged victims of the war. He has to find also a corpse
to be placed under the Arc de Triomphe as the Unknown Soldier. He
must be French and not British or a Hun he is told.
Tavernier’s film is powerful. But I remember more one released
in 1932, made by Ernst Lubitsch, known for comedy rather than combat.
Opening on armistice day, 1919, it shows a distraught French veteran
seeking forgiveness for having killed a German boy. The opening sequence
is the most powerful of all war films. Bells ringing and soldiers
marching in an Armistice Day parade up the Champs-Elysees are filmed,
though we do not know it yet, through the space left by a soldier’s
amputated leg. Nothing can say more than this.
In truth, I have nothing against war memorials. More than most, I
guess, I stay silent for two minutes every November and try to remember,
though in reality I can only imagine the horror. Anything that exists
to warn against a repeat of this is justified. Paul Gough brings together
both memorials and art in his moving work, ensuring that a new generation,
long removed from the war, can remember and learn. His work joins
recent books and films that symbolise the hold, and perhaps also the
fear, that this disaster of nearly ninety years ago still has on the
Andrew Kelly is
the author of 'Cinema and the Great War'
(1997) and 'Filming All Quiet on the Western