It all started a hundred years ago this summer, so we’ll be hearing a great deal about the Great War this year. Which may be what drew me to this book. Or maybe it’s the fact that it’s a book about mortality and death, things I’ve been thinking of during this Year to Live I’ve been writing about.
Either way, this is not a book about the Great War itself, but about its effects on the British people, several million of whom had either lost someone or had someone returned to them maimed.
It’s chapter titles follow the possible paths of grief we have or will all go through as people in our lives die. Through experiences of Wound, Shock, Denial, Anger and Hopelessness. Eventually arriving at feelings of Resignation, Release and Acceptance. The difference from our individual lives being, of course, that between 1918 and 1920, the whole country was in a state of grief. Us and the other countries involved in the War having suffered levels of loss never previously experienced in the history of humanity.
Following twenty or so people who left letters and diaries behind them, from all sectors of society including her own family, the author shows the ways all of these people try to cope with loss and depression. Through forced jollity to hanging on in quiet desperation. Brilliant works done by teams of sculptors and surgeons to develop plastic surgery and make life more bearable for the veterans of the trenches. The political and social stirrings of never going back to the way society had operated before the war. And yet still this all pervading dragging down feeling that, actually, the country is never going to be able to recover and move on.
Until two things are done that are suggested by ‘ordinary’ people, and help more than anything else to move the country towards the later stages of its grief, emerging at last into Resignation, Release and Acceptance. These two crucial things: The Great Silence and the Burial of the Unknown Warrior.
The Great Silence
The ending of the war had been marked significantly and in great numbers. Architect Edwin Lutyens had designed and built a Cenotaph (an ’empty tomb’) – a temporary structure for the moment, in Whitehall, paraded past by thousands of the returning troops and witnessed by many more thousands. But logistically this was not going to be something that could be repeated every year. So what to do the next year and beyond has been much thought about by many. With no clear ideas emerging as the day approaches.
“But Edward Honey, an Australian soldier and journalist living in London, had been unable to erase from his mind his uneasy response to the high spirits that he had witnessed on Armistice night. The exuberance of the day demonstrated to Honey a failure to understand and pay tribute to the fundamental horror of the past four years. He felt there should be some way of recognising the silent grief that so many of the bereaved were unable to express.”
So he writes to the London Evening Standard with his idea.
“Concentrating on the bereaved rather than those relishing victory, Honey’s idea was less tangible than a monument, and all the more accessible because it did not require people to travel or involve any sense of pilgrimage. Honey proposed a moment of silence, an act of remembrance that would be open to any man, woman and child at any place they chose to be. ‘Five little minutes only,’ he proposed. ‘Five silent minutes of national remembrance, a very sacred intercession.’ He suggested not an obliterating of the past but a proper act of memory such as could only be retrieved in a state of silence.”
Lloyd George, the Prime Minister gets to hear of the idea and takes it to the King. It was still that way in those days. And the King agrees, though only to a two minutes silence.
So, on the ’11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month,’ in 1919, for the first time ever the country falls still and silent. A silence only broken throughout the land by the sobs of the bereaved. A healing of sorts has begun.
The Burial of the Unknown Warrior
But the dead of Ypres, the dead of the Somme, the dead of Flanders are not buried.
Early in the War the Government had decided that the scale of death was such that the bodies were not going to be brought home. As the years would pass the fields of Flanders and Northern France would fill with lines of military gravestones. But as of 1920 the people of Britain have not buried their dead, not even begun to say their goodbyes.
This time the ‘ordinary person’ with an idea is David Railton, an army padre who has spent years ‘in the body-thick mud of France’ and has seen there one night, a little garden with a grave in the corner marked by a simple wooden cross on which is written ‘An Unknown British Soldier.’ He has his idea.
So come the 11th November 1920, the Cenotaph we now have in Whitehall has been completed. And the body of one of the many unknown British soldiers has, with great ceremony and dignity, been brought here for this year’s Great Silence. And then taken on to Westminster Abbey to be buried amongst Kings and Queens, who will henceforth have to step round his tomb at their own coronations.
This day and in the days to follow thousands bring flowers and file past with their children. A funeral has been had, the dead have been buried and the country begins edging into Acceptance.
I still get tears in my eyes at war memorials. Still regret that they all died in the numbers and ways they did. But have taken comfort and inspiration from this wonderful book. The knowledge that when it was all done, when the killing finally stopped, it was two people much like you and me who came up with the two ideas that most gave the country the strength to begin to cope with our loss.
And maybe this year we should remember the dignity and power of The Great Silence. I’ve already noticed little outbreaks of jingoism and perverted patriotism, the political uses of a hundred years ago war. Maybe we could stop all that with the dignity of silence. Maybe The Great Silence is as necessary now as it ever was?
Anyway, thank you Edward Honey and David Railton for your beautiful and simple ideas. And thank you Juliet Nicolson for this beautiful book. I recommend it and will remember it for the rest of my life.