The Lamps Are Going Out

tower of london poppies
On the day on which, one hundred years ago, Great Britain entered a war against the empires of Germany and
Austria-Hungary in support of the alliance between the bourgeois republic of France and the Russian Czarist empire, there are many comemmorations.
Church services….ceramic poppies tumbling from the Tower of London…lights replaced by a solitary candle in public and private buildings all over the country…radio and television programmes following the course of that war – to become known as the Great War before succeeding madness relegated it to being merely the First World War.

I do not doubt for an instant the sincerity of people comemmorating the start of that war….surprising how close it is in terms of family lost – people we never knew, but who were known and loved by those we knew and loved.

I do doubt the nature of the comemmoration itself.
The latest brand of the royal family in Belgium…French President Hollande embracing his German counterpart; choreographed public remembrance.

What has that to do with the men who entered that hell?

Men who went willingly, on a tide of nationalism..patriotism as they saw it.

Men who went reluctantly….threatened with the loss of their job and the inevitable eviction of their families from the tied cottage if they did not join up…in the later years shaken out from ‘reserved occupations’ as the war of attrition threatened to turn Germany’s way.

Not every man was an angel – a veteran of those years described to me the line of men waiting outside the other ranks’ brothels in Amiens, trousers doffed and folded over the arm to save time once admitted.

Not every man was a hero….old sweats would advise new boys to abandon the underpants soiled under the first experience of bombardments. Quartermaster sergeants became plump in the pocket…but nothing to compare with the industrialists safe at home.

Those who survived remembered their mates, both the living and the dead….because government certainly did not.
The land they returned to was not, in any sense, a land fit for heroes…a Victoria Cross might get you a job as a commissionaire – if you kept your mouth shut, your nose clean and your hand ever ready to touch the brim of your hat.

We hear a great deal of ‘sacrifice’. A weasel word which covers the nastier one …….

I worry that we are comemmorating by gesture, not by action.

These men went forward against terrible odds….fell…rescued each other under fire…assaulted and took positions that were deemed impregnable….because they were in it together.

A true comemmoration of this war would be a revival of solidarity and decency….decency which recognises that governments who deliver ‘suspects’ to torture under ‘extraordinary rendition’; governments which abandon translators for their armies to the vengeance of their enemies; governments which send their young men to war on behalf of commercial interests have to be brought to book..and only solidarity will achieve this.

That generation faced bullets and bombs from an external force: our generation faces police ‘kettling’ and false charges leading to imprisonment from a force within our society….our own government.

Blinded by gesture…by the formalities of respect…by elevating these very ordinary men to the status of demi gods – we betray them.

We have forgotten that we are in it together, as they were…

Revive that memory…..remember them, but not just their fate.

Dido’s Lament



60 thoughts on “The Lamps Are Going Out”

  1. Yes. We have definitely gone backwards, which it think is the point of your eloquent post. Their ‘sacrifice’ or rather their deaths, seems to have been in vain. Although, isn’t that the case in all wars? And one can criticise current invasions by that great world leader, champion of liberty, democracy, and all things brave and free in the hunt for oil for its greedy consuming residentsface of evil oppression by lesser nations, but the truth is that war always has been and always will be about the battle for power. As were WW1 and 2. However that is not to excuse, I totally share your feelings and your fears for the present and the future. Britain, for example truly is 1984. I was reading about the Ministry of Justice, and was so reminded of Orwell’s wonderful government departments named after the exact opposite of what they did…

    1. Our lives, even the lives of the poor in western Europe, are materially so much better than for the majority of those living in th early part of the twentieth century….but in terms of independence we have fallen back into deference and submission…afraid to speak in case we fall into the abyss of joblessness and all that that brings with it.

      And so the government advances: removing the safey nets put in place to protect the vulnerable, pushing inefficiency and waste to feather the nests of its cronies….joining the dance of currency death that is QE….while the press and television have their own dance – that of the seven veils with six missing – to distort or ignore what does not please their masters.

  2. I so agree. The men and women of the First World War were just like all of us. All the good, all the bad, all the same dreams, all the same ambition, laziness, lies, honour and love. And that is the point. They were ordinary folk of the same stock as us. That does not lessen them but it lessens us if we fail to acknowledge their wonderful, ordinary humanity.

    1. You have it exactly, Steve. By deifying them we put them at a remove from ourselves, do not relate their lives to our own, do not see that what happened to them should not happen to anyone…should not happen now.

  3. I have a real problem with the phrase ‘Our glorious dead’ on the war memorials. It does not sit well, makes me wince, far too jihadist. I think the poppies/flowing blood memorial at the Tower is extraordinary — at first glance beautiful, then creepy. Something that evokes the horror of this period. I’ve been reading about Verdun recently. No wonder Pétain and his government felt they could not put France through that again. What to do about it all? I agree — be wary of sentimentality, be prepared to stand up for others if necessary (judging the moment for this last is tricker than it sounds, as oppression and injustice is insidious and very easily normalised).

    1. Yes, I find even using the Tower of London for Remembrance peculiar. As in my mind it is always associated with the Tudours. The place where they would ‘house’ their suspected enemies while they constructed the ‘evidence’ for their mock trials and executions. Oh, maybe that’s the point.

      1. If only the powers that be were so intelligent….or so aware….

        As far as I can see these days the centre for such shenanigans is the HQ of the Crown Prosecution Service where goodness only knows how many minor medias figures can be fingered for child abuse while the police are told to lay off the big boys in the ring…..where the case against Murdoch’s serving wench Brooks can be deliberately presented so as to permit her to escape conviction…

    2. I found that poppy installation distinctly sinister….a creeping tide of blood. I wonder what it will look like by November.

      Have you read Genevoix’s ‘Verdun’? A shocker of its time.
      Yes, there is the argument of never putting France through such an experience again and there is the argument put forward by Bloch – I don’t have the book to hand but its title is, if memory serves me right ‘Strange Defeat’ – that it was the paralysis of thought, of social structure, that brought about the situation where the apologists for Petain could use that argument.

      Oppression and injustice are, it seems to me, successfully normalised as it is and the individual who puts the head over the parapet will lose it…thus the need for dialogue, for communication to breed solidarity.

        1. No, not forgotten, just busy on Google asking for it to be removed from history….
          Our governments seem to believe that their countries belong to them..not us us….

  4. What gets me is that the leaders (in name only) are only too happy to be seen ‘remembering’ but they haven’t assimilated a damn thing. They know the lessons of history, but they think they don’t apply to them. We, in Europe in particular, are currently heading for some sort of melt down, and it’s always the same who push for violent action but are never affected by it themselves. For them, the lives of the rest of us are cheap and dispensable for their idea of the greater good (more money and power for them).

  5. Rarely have I been more in agreement with you than today.

    Were it to happen again (it could so easily), canon fodder would once again be required and become expendable, while the wire pullers sit in their counting houses.

    1. Yes, it could happen so easily….war to the wire pullers is a win-win situation. They are safe, the people are expendable and the whole process makes money for them, so why hesitate?

  6. Being in France without TV I’ve been spared all the big public events, so that I’ve been able to concentrate on the human cost, paid by very ordinary and far from perfect people like my grandparents and their families and friends. However, as we’re seeing daily in the Middle East, in present and future wars the great majority of casualties won’t be combatants but the innocent civilians caught up in the terror and wholesale death that can be inflicted by modern armaments at the press of a button.

    1. And in the earlier wars, those of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century you had to kill and injure these civilians yourself…burn and loot their property yourself…now it is depersonalised.

  7. I do agree with everything you say. I think the point about war is that it’s never “glorious” or “heroic” or all the other phoney terms. War is just nasty, brutal, distressing and often pointless, and ordinary people are ordered or duped into taking part in something they may not even agree with and may end up killing them and devastating their families and friends. And usually, as others have said, they are merely doing the bidding of politicians who don’t risk their own lives for some dubious cause but are willing to risk the lives of the “less important”.

    1. My father used to reckon that politicians who wanted war should be put in an arena and left to fight it out themselves. Not much risk of wars in that situation….

  8. All these ceremonies are glamourising a hideous event in which millions of lives were thrown away, by the generals from the safety of their wood-panelled offices, with their moustaches, self-portraits, brandy and cigars, playing a game of human chess. Rather than ceramic poppies we should be looking at ragged, muddy skeletons as a reminder of the reality of WWl. But would anybody want to see?

    And if all those lost lives could see where their ‘sacrifice’ has led today, what would they think?

    1. I hate to interrupt but more than 60 Generals died, and Allenby lost his son, as did others. Generals did not in my opinion sit back, play chess and smoke cigars. They were limited but more limited by the politicians, especially Lloyd George!

  9. I don’t know that these ceremonies glamourize the events of 1914-18, as most today who have any knowledge of the war recognize it for the utterly unnecessary waste of life that it was. It seems to me that the least that the governments who sent these men off to die can do is honor them in a dignified way – not glamourize them, but ensure that collectively they are not forgotten.

    1. I think that the problem I find is that these politicians and representatives of royal families are not worthy to lead such ceremonies…..I’d rather see servicemen injured in the recent unjust wars laying the wreaths…it might bring the realities home to people rather better.

    1. The more I see of the way in which our planet is descending into barbarism again the more I think it necessary to try to combat it in our own communities….we have so little power, but what we have we must use.

  10. Helen.I agree with others who have said this is a wonderful piece. I’m going to tweet it.

    I think Dido’s Lament is probably the best thing Purcell ever wrote although my favourite performance is probably Janet Baker’s.

  11. Aye indeed. Much of the commemoration passed me by. Far too much appeared to be a wee game, a chance to enjoy an unusual situation rather than commemorate the dead and what the war brought.
    Such events require formal events, church services, presidents and premiers shaking hands publicly. These are right and good, however the organisation of such appeared to me to be lacking an insight into the war.

    In times past men who served would attend such events, there were few even from the last war who could attend this one. Their input would have changed the organisation from ‘show’ to ‘commemoration.’
    In my mind while a great many today remember the war and study it far too many involved yesterday will soon forget and return to their ipad instead.

    We do much more for our men today after they leave the service, yet far too many still turn up on the streets or in jail.

    1. At least the army no longer deducts the price of the blanket you are buried in from your pay….but its care of servicemen is still abysmal…how many injuries and deaths come from inadequate material.
      Send those commissioning it to use it and we’d soon have a rapid turnover of civil servants.

      I would count it a lesson learned from that war if the high heided yins laying the wreaths would announce that, in comemmoration, their country would not be going to war again. Anywhere. Nothing less will do.

  12. Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est said it best. A gut-wrenching poem describing the suffering in almost unbearable detail. He referred to the call to arms for a country’s glory “the old lie.” Indeed.

      1. Conned they were. Have you read Siegfried Sassoon’s Base Details? Full of loathing for the officers with their “puffy, petulant faces.” The poetry of WWI has haunted me since I first discovered it.

        1. But on another tack do you know the Irish poet, Tom Kettle’s poem to the baby daughter he was never to see?

          THE GIFT OF LOVE

          In wiser days, my darling rosebud, blown

          To beauty proud as was your mother’s prime –

          In that desired, delayed incredible time

          You’ll ask why I abandoned you, my own,

          And the dear breast that was your baby’s throne

          To dice with death, and, oh! They’ll give you rhyme

          And reason; one will call the thing sublime,

          And one decry it in a knowing tone.

          So here, while the mad guns curse overhead,

          And tired men sigh, with mud for couch and floor,

          Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,

          Died not for Flag, nor King, nor Emperor,

          But for a dream, born in a herdsman’s shed,

          And for the Secret Scripture of the poor.

        2. How noble to give your life for your country. Not. All those naif young men marching off, singing, with absolutely no concept of the reality of 20th century warfare. Sassoon got it right with the petulant, arrogant officers.

  13. Knowing what your family sacrificed, your words hold particular resonance.
    I do think that many people have been affected by the publicity that has surrounded this anniversary, and in a very genuine way. Maybe for the first time, some people have really thought about those lost and remembered by people they have known and loved, as you say. I just hope that the enormity of what people are remembering may have some impact on the way our politicians respond……

    1. Not mine alone…unfortunately.
      I do hope that you are right..but have a feeling that they will not respond unless they are made to do so – and that won’t be pretty.
      Still the reaction to Blair taking Britain into the Gulf War was strong wnough to make Cameron take the vote to the Commons….and the strength of feeling expressed by constituents was enough to keep Britain out of Syria… there’s hope.

  14. Hello Helen,

    What a very thought provoking and eloquently expressed post, accompanied by such a hauntingly beautiful piece of music. We are in complete agreement with you and fear that it is the lack of humanity and of empathising with ordinary human suffering that is the reason why wars can exist and why they continue to ravage our world. Indeed, once people can be dehumanised then the way is surely open to commit whatever atrocities circumstances or money making may demand.

    Perhaps of interest are the protests which are occurring here in Budapest regarding a recently erected monument to those Hungarian Jews who were persecuted in the Second World War. In this grotesque sculpture Hungary is portrayed as an innocent victim of German oppression……….how history is rewritten and immortalised in stone!

    1. And how worrying it is that even within countries governments are trying to dehumanise sectors of the population….people reliant on benefits through illness or disability, people unable to find work because of the policies of successive governments…..and once dehumanised can treat them as they please without more fortiunate sectors of the population protesting the inhumanity of it.

      I had seen a brief piece about the monument – I believe it is the same one you refer to – and yes, the mind boggles at the depiction!
      Too much rewriting of history – or inthe case of people and institutions asking Google to wipe out their past – obliterating it, to avoid facing up to the past.

  15. I’ve been mulling over your very good post for a couple of days trying to get my head straight on how the folks in far way Hawaii feel about World War I, the people who fought, the sacrifices of those at home and the legacy of that epic and tragic struggle. I’ve concluded our attitude is shameful. Except among the historians there really is no awareness of this period and no gut level connection.

    Case in point, on Waikiki Beach there is a memorial called the Natatorium which (obviously) was a swimming pool and commemorative arch dedicated to the soldiers from Hawaii who fought in WWI. For 30 or more years efforts have been made to preserve and restore the memorial as it slipped into disrepair but the effort has lacked the traction to raise funds and political clout. It just isn’t considered relevant anymore. So it erodes, closed to the public and rots in the sea air. In Waikiki. Shame.

    1. What a hell of a mentality….just what do they think ‘relevant’ might one ask? From earlier posts on your blog some ‘edgy’ development to provide a blot on the landscape and a few fat wallets while vague;y thinking that if there should ever be a threat to their security poor people’s kids will take up the strain….

  16. As always, Helen, you take a look at things from a different angle and expose the elegantly crafted facades behind which the bloody power games are played out and you show us, once again, how ordinary folk are unwitting victims of power and commercialism. I rely on your acute observations to show us every side of the things we accept, go along with and take for granted. Thank you, once again, for being there and writing about it all!

  17. Wise words. PF’s great grandfather fought in the first world war, and his grand mother talked about his departure and the anxiety until he returned in a way that brought tears to my eyes. Our grandfathers all played a role in world war two. One, a fireman, died from the damage to his lungs many years later, another was taken prisoner. PF’s father flew the injured back from the war in Algeria. Will our generation and future generations be spared from war? We should respect and honour these soldiers by not glorifying the horror of war, and never letting it happen again.

    1. And for that we have to regain control of governments…an uphill job but worth it to spare more people more suffering, both militaruy and civilian.
      To see the U.K. government wittering about scrutinising arms exports to Israel in the face of what we see happening to women and children in Gaza passes belief…but it should aropuse fury on the part of people.

  18. As ever, Helen, it is both what you say and how you say it that I admire and respect so much. My sister has been this year to visit our great grandfather’s grave on the France/Belgium border and I was touched to hear she’d left him a photograph of us with our mother and granny – his daughter and grand daughter.
    What is happening in the world at the moment is excrutiating and outrageous and we must do whatever small things we can to express how we feel and show our fury at the very least.

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