There’s a lot of Wilfred Owen about right now; unsurprisingly, given that he has become the reach-for voice of the First World War in the popular imagination. Cohorts of British schoolchildren have emerged from their GCSEs familiar with his war poetry, their memories indelibly inscribed by the extraordinary lines and images they have tortured into life once again over years of study. Would that the media cognoscenti knew more about the culture to which they casually refer, as occasion arises, in the course of their work. For example, ‘Anthem for a Doomed Youth’ is neither the title nor the subject of Owen’s poem – to be read aloud by a famous celebrity – ponderously introduced in plummy tones by a recent BBC presenter. It might as well be, though, for all the presenter really cares about the art so casually promulgated before an audience probably assumed to know little and care less: like sequins on a utilitarian gown, the ‘meaningful’ can be sprinkled on the meaningless, the only thing that matters being that the gesture towards the high-brow has been made. It is so easy to point, and think a point has been made. It’s that war of attrition, the one we fought for nothing: bring on the Wilfred Owen; pick a poem, any poem.
But there are as many voices of the Great War (for that is how its contemporaries spoke of it, not as some build-up to the next one) as there were participants; when it comes to those who responded in poetry, there are almost as many again and this powerful commemoration of the 1918 Armistice provides an opportunity to think again about the way the Great War affected and indeed continues to affect us all. The loyal and patriotic citizens who rose without hesitation to confront an ambitious, militaristic Germany were of course denied the prism of the Second World War through which to view their undertaking – a four year sacrifice, and perhaps for them not the ultimate one. It is all too easy to feel that the cold, the wet, the rats, the gas, the ghastly disfigurements, the loss of pals – all the horrors we have heard and seen and are so keenly reflected in Owen’s poetry are the point on which we should dwell. Because we are horrified, it is tempting to think that the depiction of what is horrifying is the true representation, perhaps even the only point for a modern sensibility. But in truth, all human life was there, and we should remember that. Then was as complex as now.
Kemo Sabe’s own grandfathers each spent four years in the Army, away from their wives and young families, and each returned to tell the tale – or not to tell: their choice, as the case may be. The elder, a Boer War veteran and keen member of the Yeomanry, was already in France with his battalion preparing for hostilities before war was even declared. In due course, his eldest son enlisted too; he was shot through the cheek, blessedly survived and wore his dashing scar through what was to be a long, fulfilling life. For both grandfathers, the scars were more complex: the reason the first never worked again was because there was need for fewer furriers after the war and he had no drive to find another job. He preferred the Army to ordinary life and would have stayed there if age had not prevented him; he only missed contributing to the next war because he died before it, from drinking and smoking too much. For such a life, and the war experience which lies behind it, that poem remains as yet unwritten.
On BBC Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday came a brief but very welcome contribution from an unexpected but familiar figure, John Simpson, notable foreign correspondent and BBC News world affairs editor, who has reported from scores of countries and many war zones. As the western world focuses its collective memory on the centenary of the 1918 Armistice, Simpson quietly reflected in a personal capacity on the effect of the Great War on two undistinguished members of his own family: ordinary men, both of whom survived the war, like the ordinary grandfathers mentioned above, but in their own multifarious ways marked for ever by their experiences. Simpson described the first of his great uncles, once a handsome, proud man – who lived until the 1960s – as so seriously injured that he neither worked nor had another relationship again. The other, from the less respectable side of the family, was a short, pub regular whose wartime experiences were integrated more subtly into a normal way of life. Of him, Simpson said, ‘He knew the poems of Wilfred Owen. He knew them, and he didn’t like them’. The picture Owen painted of soldiers’ lives – tortured victims, the by-now cliché of lions led by donkeys – was not how he saw himself and his comrades during their experiences in the trenches; the choices they made; he and his fellow soldiers united in their determination to do their duty and fight their country’s enemy. They were active, not passive; doing, not done to.
Perhaps Rupert Brooke’s most famous poem, simply called ‘The Soldier’, speaking as it does of the meaning endowed by personal sacrifice, should stand this day for such an attitude to the pity and reality of war and act as a corrective in a society where some now draw attention to themselves by turning into a controversial symbol the British Legion red poppy, the closest thing we in the United Kingdom have to a symbol of national unity, in all its emotional complexity. It is an unfashionable point of view but, lest we forget, here are his words: