Reflection: The centenary of the Armistice

Reflection for Remembrance Day 2018
Williamstown Uniting Church

Today we remember the guns falling silent at 11 am on the eleventh of November, 1918, one hundred years ago today. But what is it that we are actually remembering on ‘Remembrance’ Day? I’ve recently come across copies of two small books, one published in 1917 and one in 1939, that have influenced my thinking about the Armistice.

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The first is On Active Service: For Australian Soldiers, a fascinating, and depressing, little book published by ‘the Naval and Military Committee of the Presbyterian Church of Australia, in the State of Victoria’ in 1917. It starts with a message from the Moderator of the General Assembly, John Gray, who writes:

Dear Boys, In  a  splendid  way  you  have  “played   the game,”  and  given  fine  proof  of   your   courage and self -sacrifice. We thank God for you. We look to you to prove that faith in Jesus Christ is the grandest thing a man can have … Have the courage to salute your supreme Commander the Lord Jesus Christ, day by day, by kneeling before Him in prayer and reading the Bible! We believe that many of you can now pray far better than we at home can. Let us all keep it up! We are looking forward to your home-coming. God bring you back to us!  How we shall welcome you! Trust and honour Jesus Christ, your Saviour-King! Serve our good King George and the Empire! Be every inch true men, pure, brave, and worthy of your mothers, sisters, wives and sweethearts. Our women trust you. With the love and gratitude and prayers of your Church.

 

Scan20003 One of the things that most shocked people about the First World War was that it was a fight between two European powers, two at-least-nominally Christian powers. There is no mention of that in this little book, although it is mentioned that individual Germans are ‘fellowmen for whom Christ died’ and so they should not be hated.[1] It is assumed that God is on the side of England and the British Empire. And it is ‘England,’ of which Australia is considered to be a part. The first piece in the book is a poem called ‘For England’ written by a Corporal from the 21st Battalion, 6th Brigade AIF, J. D. Burns, who was dead when the book was put together. It starts: ‘The bugles of England were blowing o’er the sea/As they had called a thousand years, calling now to me’ and which ends ‘They lived and died for England, and gladly went their way/England, O England – how could I stay?’

I wish I knew where this book came from. It’s in remarkably good condition; I assume that it was treasured in the memory of someone who had fought in World War One before it finally made its way to a second-hand bookshop. But by the time it had been published, those reading it probably already knew how futile the fighting was. An English author, Edmund Blunden, who fought in the Battle of the Somme in 1916, wrote of it that: ‘Neither race had won, nor could win, the War. The War had won, and would go on winning.’[2] Blunden thought that war could never again be seen as glorious: ‘War had been “found out”, overwhelmingly found out. War is an ancient imposter, but none of his masks and smiles and gallant trumpets can any longer delude us; he leads the way through the cornfields to the cemetery of all that is best’.[3]

By the time the war had ended, and it was realized how many men were not going to come home, as well as what modern warfare was like, the feelings in which the Presbyterian Church’s book had been prepared had changed even on the home front. People no longer believed that there had been something glorious in their loved ones ‘playing the game’ and dying for England. The picture on the front of the pew sheet, Rejoicing and remembrance, Armistice Day, London, 1918, is by an Australian artist, Vida Lahey, and is held by the Australian War Memorial. Lahey is illustrating what Scottish author John Buchan’s sister Anna wrote of the Armistice, that: ‘To many it was a day of hysterical joy and relief, to others it was the saddest of days … it made many of us realise, as we had not done before, how irrevocable was our loss.’[4]

Rejoicing & Remembering, Armistice Day, London 1918 by Vida Lahey, 1924

For almost twenty years Remembrance Day was the day on which the ‘War to End All Wars’ was remembered in the hope and expectation that such a war would never occur again. And in one way it didn’t. The First World War seems to have been entered into initially by people, combatants and non-combatants, who thought going to war would be an adventure. Entering into the Second World War was different. The other contemporary book I have been looking at is Britain by Mass-Observation which was published in 1939. Mass Observation was a social research movement in which volunteers observed what people actually did and said, and asked them what they thought. This book was written after the Munich Pact had allowed Nazi Germany to annex western Czechoslovakia and Neville Chamberlain had returned to London saying that he thought the pact allowed ‘peace for our time,’ but before Germany invaded Poland and the Second World War was declared. One of the things Mass Observation observed was Armistice Day 1937. The book says of it:

The general attitude towards the Great War has changed. A new generation has grown up. Since 1918 the League of Nations has come into existence and then practically faded out again. The Versailles Treaty has been made and broken. The Great War is less in people’s minds than the possibility of the next war. So it is not surprising that on November 11, 1937, a very large number of people felt uneasy about the whole performance.[5]

In 1937 few people observed the two-minute silence, and of those who did very few mentioned the First World War or the Armistice: ‘Feeling that another war was not distant, many people resented as an imposition and mockery the version of history which the Armistice ceremony seemed to convey.’[6] The book also says that: ‘In 1938 sale of white poppies trebled, though still nowhere near reds’ forty million sold by 360,000 voluntary sellers, and made by 364 ex-servicemen in a Richmond factory (gasmask centre in the crisis).’[7] (In Britain the red poppies are to remember specifically the ‘British Armed Forces, those who were killed, and those who fought with them and alongside them’. The white poppies were worn in the 1930s to call for peace, and today are worn to remember all those killed and injured in wars, including civilians.)

While more people might have been wearing white poppies in 1937, it seems that most people knew another war was coming. In observing Britain’s response to the Munich Pact one observer was told by a Labour Party M.P.:

Tell you the truth, lad, you know I went through the last war as a C.O. [Conscientious Objector]. Well this time I feel that it all has to go by the board, if it’s a case of war between democracy and the Fascists, then we shall have to safeguard the little we have left. It’s a dirty business, none of us know where we are in this lot, it’s only the Germans and Chamberlain who know where they are.[8]

Jerry Doyle, New York Post, 1938

Jerry Doyle, Post (New York), mid-September 1938, in Britain by Mass-Observation, p. 198.

This copy of the book is from the second printing, in February 1939. Seven months’ later Britain was at war.

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These two books show the radical change in attitudes to the First World War; from a splendid opportunity to show courage and self-sacrifice, to a brutal waste that was going to have to be re-fought now that Hitler was in power in Germany. For almost twenty years Armistice Day was a day on which to remember the War to End All Wars so that it would never be repeated. Now we know that no war can ever end all wars. But if we still remember that in the First World War war was ‘overwhelmingly found out’, we will never glorify it and only ever enter into it as the absolute last resort. May we never think of war as a ‘game’ or as something to be celebrated. Lest we forget.

[1] Rev. W. Borland, Acting Chaplain-General, ‘How to be a Good Soldier without Hating’, p. 9.

[2] ‘The Somme Still Flows’ in Ian Hamilton (ed.) The Penguin Book of Twentieth-Century Essays (1999), p. 11.

[3] Ibid., p. 14.

[4] Anna Buchan, Unforgettable, Unforgotten, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1957, pp. 163-4.

[5] Britain by Mass-Observation, A Penguin Special (1939), p. 200.

[6] Ibid., pp. 208-9.

[7] Ibid., p. 209.

[8] Ibid., p. 99.

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