I was going to leave the previous post as a singleton, and then of course it was Remembrance Day. I might have thought the things I go on to say here when I came across Another Damned Medievalist’s post on the subject, but actually I was already thinking it because of, quite unconnectedly, having that evening watched an episode of Dr Who I’d not seen before in which they had cause to show part of a Remembrance ceremony. It was total coincidence that we chose that DVD this evening, as far as I can tell, but it contained the following words that may be familiar to you:
They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
This never fails to choke me up. And it’s not because of sadness for the loss of life, as such, or any of the more conventional tugs it’s meant to make at the heartstrings. I freely admit, I used to be a war geek, and I’ve made some effort to get an idea of what fighting in the wars of the last century might have been like, but it’s not even empathy that really gets me with that quote. I haven’t got much right to empathy anyway; I have no relatives who died in the war, indeed I exist only because of my father‘s clever ability to stay alive through it out of his own incompetence, as he told it. Somehow his incompetence made him a lieutenant who served at three invasions, so I’ve had my doubts about whether he, a lifelong pacifist, was really as useless a war sailor as he would have liked to think himself, ever since I read a really good article in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society about Australian Great War veterans and how they liked to remember their service.1 Meanwhile, it’s theoretically possible, though vanishingly unlikely, that my father’s landing craft may have ferried my maternal grandfather’s company onto a Normandy beach in 1944, long before they had ever had cause to matter to each other. They both survived. So it’s not even grief.
No, the reason that quote gets to me is because it’s not true. We won’t remember them, for the vastly most part. We’re already getting to the point where there aren’t enough veterans to hold memorial services for the Great War dead. Soon the media exposure those get will collapse as a result. In another century the Great War will be as distant from the people then as the Franco-Prussian War is now. Its history will probably still be taught in schools, but individual connections to the soldiers, whether by acquaintance or genealogy, will be the preserve of amateur researchers and real obsessives. After all, tracing one’s genealogy back as far as, say, the European settlement of the USA, is still fairly reasonable to our perspectives; but when you get people who claim to be descendants of English nobility from before the Conquest (which I have met twice already) you, or at least I, assume that they’re quietly and harmlessly mad, because we know what the evidence is like and that it basically can’t be done. It’ll be a good guess for most people that they had ancestors in the Great War, but for the most part knowing who they were or what they did or didn’t, won’t be an option without doing heavy research at Kew or wherever.
You may already have seen where I’m going with this. When popular memory fades, as it will, who remembers the fallen? Who, in fact, remembers anyone? We do. Historians are our cultural memory specialists. That sets all kinds of agenda that most of us would probably wish to disavow, but nonetheless we are the only ones who can. In the same way as I can’t bring back a full picture of Adalbert of Taradell, I haven’t been able to get a full idea of what, for example, Sergeant Edward Mott of the 1st Battalion, Border Regiment was like as a person: probably fairly frightening I would have to guess, because in my world people don’t charge German machine-gun nests single-handedly even after being wounded in the eye, but in 1915 actually some ordinary people did do stuff like that, because war is Hell. Similarly when I got my hands on the medal group of 2nd Lieutenant John Mitchell, RAF, my personal reaction was, “you madman!” but that doesn’t remember him as someone who knew him would have remembered him. We can’t do it perfectly; but when no-one else can remember them, we can at least pick up the bits and make something, and this is in some sense what we’re paid for (those of us who are).
Now at the moment the Second World War is still close enough that memories are painful and we see the horror and the heroism with an unavoidable attachment. I read too many Biggles books when young and I still feel kind of the same way about the Great War although not to the extent of glamorising it I hope. But as I’ve argued above we seem now to be watching the Great War crossing that threshold of about three generations whereafter it will be difficult for people to be attached to its memory any longer. It will join the other stuff that we study in the past, where relevance is not immediately apparent and has to be argued, or else can even, eventually, be disowned because popular attachment is now so weak that just interest is a more powerful justification, which puts you about where I was with the previous post in this series. And it will be our job as historians, is already some of our jobs, to try and bring stuff like that back as far as it can be brought back, and to try and tell what it was and what it was like, with imaginative reconstruction where necessary and steadfast adherence to the evidence where possible and so on. Because no-one else will know how to do it well. We have been trained in where to look and how to evaluate. We are the memory experts; we’re boring compared to Beowulf’s scop, maybe, and it may be a toss-up as to who wins between us and Patrick Geary’s cartularising monks when it comes to care and disinterest,2 but for better or for worse, it’s we with the research Tardis whom society needs to hear these lost voices for them. I might have quarrels about whether we can improve ourselves by hearing them, but that’s what the previous post was about, why most of the uses for historians are dangerous or unhelpful in a situation where concrete benefit is demanded. This is the use for history that society will pay for least, though I suppose archivists have got it going on. But it might be the most important one.
1. Alastair Thompson, “Making the most of memories: the empirical and subjective value of oral history” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th Series, Vol. 9 (Cambridge 1999), pp. 291-303.
2. I refer here to Patrick Geary, Phantoms of Remembrance: remembering and forgetting in the tenth and eleventh centuries (Princeton 1985), which is actually really quite relevant to the whole question I’m attacking here.