Thursday, November 8, 2018

Remembrance Day, 1921

British soldiers

Although British Prime Minister David Lloyd George had promised in late November of 1918, just weeks after the Armistice, that his government would work “to make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in,”
By 1921, countless former soldiers, many of them badly disabled, were living in dire poverty, begging on the streets or trying to eke out a living by selling matches and mementoes, eating at food kitchens, sometimes forced to sleep in doorways or on park benches. “We were no longer heroes, we were simply ‘unemployed’ was one former officer’s bitter commentary.”*

British soldier and writer Edward Shanks served with South Lancashire Regiment until he was gassed in 1915 and medically discharged from his unit. He worked in clerical support positions for the rest of the war, publishing several volumes of war poetry.**  However, his poem “Armistice Day, 1921” was not published until 1925.  Perhaps it was too real, too disheartening to print before that time.

Armistice Day, 1921
Cenotaph 1920 © IWM (Q 31488) 

The hush begins.  Nothing is heard
Save the arrested taxis throbbing
And here and there an ignorant bird
And here a sentimental woman sobbing.

The statesman bares and bows his head
Before the solemn monument:
His lips, paying duty to the dead
In silence, are more than ever eloquent.

But ere the sacred silence breaks
And taxis hurry on again,
A faint and distant voice awakes,
Speaking the mind of a million absent men:

‘Mourn not for us. Our better luck
At least has given us peace and rest.
We struggled when our moment struck
But now we understand that death knew best.

‘Would we be as our brothers are
The Match Seller, Otto Dix, 1920
Whose barrel-organs charm the town?
Ours was a better dodge by far—
We got our pensions in a lump sum down.

‘We, out of all, have had our pay,
There is no poverty where we lie:
The graveyard has no quarter-day,
The space is narrow but the rent now high.

‘No empty stomach here is found:
Unless some cheated worm complain
You hear no grumbling underground:
Oh, never, never wish us back again!

‘Mourn not for us, but rather we
Will meet upon this solemn day
And in our greater liberty
Keep silent for you, a little while, and pray.’
            —Edward Shanks

Shanks’ poem “Remembrance Day” gives the dead a voice: they speak to the despair that many war survivors experienced.  The poem also provides an interesting contrast to one of the most famous poems read on Remembrance Day, Laurence Binyon’s “For the Fallen,” that proclaims, “We will remember them.”

Beggar (with war medals) chases coach of George V
But how are soldiers who survived the Great War remembered?  Fifteen million men from all sides of the conflict received wounds that left them permanently crippled.  In Britain, over 41,000 British soldiers had arms or legs amputated, while 65,000 received disability pensions for mental health problems diagnosed as ‘neurasthenia.’ Robert Graves, British soldier and war poet, recalls that in the years following the war, “Ex-servicemen were continually coming to the door selling boot-laces and asking for cast-off shirts and socks.”††

As Ian Kershaw notes in To Hell and Back: Europe, 1914-1949, “Nowhere in post-war Europe was there a land ‘fit for heroes.’”†††  The war was over, but the suffering continued. 
* Ian Kershaw, To Hell and Back, Viking, 2015, p. 94.
** Fred D. Crawford, British Poets of the Great War, Susquehanna UP, 1988, p. 34.
† Niall Ferguson, The Pity of War, Basic Books, 1999, p. 437.
†† Robert Graves, Good-Bye to All That, Penguin, 1975, p. 257.
††† Kershaw, To Hell and Back, p. 98.

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