The largest commemoration event of 2017 was the series of media and other activities surrounding the centenary of the Third Battle of Ypres. I joined the crowds touring the various battlefields and cemeteries. I was there to attend ceremonies ‘remembering’ my Great-Uncle, a well-known Irish poet.
Two thoughts came to mind as an observer and indeed participant. First, and this is little more than an observation, not a single person of the tens of thousands in the area was in a position actually to remember any one of the half-million or so on both sides occupying the graves of the Ypres Salient. Interestingly, perhaps, I neither saw nor heard any German commemoration tourists. In the words of Seamus Heaney (in a slightly different context) dead Germans ‘consort now underground’ in similar numbers to the ‘true blue ones’ of the British armies.
Secondly, and of far more importance, no reference was ever made, or none that I heard, explicitly or implicitly to today’s conflicts, causing similar levels of casualty in the Middle East or Africa. At a wreath-laying at one of the many little cemeteries, the Prince of Wales, presumably on a default setting, said to me ‘It’s awful isn’t it’? Yes it is. Also awful was the savaging of Mosul going on as the military bands played and marched around. Ironically the same F16 fighter-bombers, presumably from the Belgian Air Force, roaring by on a ‘flypast’ to honour the dead of the First World War could well have been deployed to take part in the destruction of that or another Iraqi or Syrian city.
One was left asking so what? Of what relevance is all of this flummery ‘remembering’ the savagery of 1917 to the brutality of today? I can perceive no answer. It may well be there is no relevance, and aside from the surely by now empty rhetoric of ‘never again’, there is not intended to be any. One is then given to ask if that is the case, if, then what was it all about if not a display of confected grief?
Surely the same question can be asked of academics and writers, who it must be said are far removed from the crowds at Ypres in late-July of this year and every year. Pondering the ways of commemoration, if care is not taken to ensure relevance, risks being little more than meta-reflection. And what use is that? I put this not as a critical rhetorical question, but as a genuine inquiry.
Frank Ledwidge is a former barrister and military intelligence officer who served in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. His books include Losing Small Wars: British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan (2011) and Investment in Blood: The True Cost of Britain’s Afghan War (2013). He was a participant in the Textual 1 panel-led event.