We’ve invited people of different backgrounds and experiences, connected with St Chrysostom’s, to offer a thought on the commemoration of World War One. (An earlier post is here).
Mostly what I associate with the First World War is silence. In History class, we would look at photographs of the soldiers and occasionally watch a documentary where you could see early footage, black and white and soundless, the soldiers pushing their way through the trenches in that token sped up pace of early cinema. It might sound strange, but in a way, the propaganda paintings seemed more real to us kids of the 90s brought up in an era of colour television and films pulsating with special effects.
Every time one of the teachers would ask us if we could imagine the horror of it all and every time there’d be a silence before someone might duly parrot the correct response which we had all learned from watching films and reading historical novels and flicking ahead in our textbooks. To be honest, the initial reply was probably the most honest. There was the national silence, every year on the 11th day of the 11th month where we stood in our form rows for two minutes, waiting for the nervous blast of the Last Post to announce our duty was done.
In church we would often hear sermons relating to the untold experiences of the soldiers from those older members of the congregation who might remember their mentally battered fathers, uncles and grandfathers. These men returned in silence, never to discuss their experiences and that silence killed some of them.
There was also the silence of memory. My family is not one to talk of history except for as amusing anecdotes. Being on the losing side (colonialism, independence, civil war) can do that. However, every now and then my mother mentions her great Uncle George in that distant way people remember adults from their childhood. The way she describes him, I have always imagined him as a tall, wiry and dark Igbo man with a calm expression that’s often read as arrogance by outsiders, perhaps insolence by his British officers. He fought in that war, she says, but nobody ever said anything about it. He certainly never spoke about it. She never asked, too young to do so.
Sometimes she wonders out loud about what he must have seen, what he must have experienced, the suffering he must have gone through, but he is no longer there to ask. We can only imagine, drawing on remaining diaries and letters of other colonial soldiers some of whom like him came from comfortable families in comfortable villages, some eager to serve the motherland, some seeking adventure, some yearning to leave the daily grind of small town life. I wonder about his comrades who must have left with him but did not return, friends from school, friends from his age grade. I wonder how his experiences changed him and the way he saw the world.
Mostly I wonder about how hard it is to fully appreciate what he and others like him went through. The further we move from his war and the hazier the recollections become, layered with memories of more recent conflicts, the more effort it takes to pay attention and remember. As a lover of history, I don’t like forgetting and I don’t like silence. Even though it can be painful, it is a good thing to weave the truth together from what strands of memory and evidence can be found. It’s something worth doing, even if it might seem a thankless task.
I see this centenary as an opportunity for us to listen through the silence. Sharing the effort as we strain to hear that elusive note, transmitting what we have heard to each other, I like to think we can always find new ways of appreciating their sacrifices, of hearing their stories and most importantly remembering them and what they stood for, in all its madness, horror and at times unexpected humanity. The sensations have faded, and others have fallen since, but we can still remember. There is no reason not to.