Sunday, November 11, 2007
Apparently there are more marchers at the annual Remembrance Sunday parade on Whitehall this year than there have been for many years. Many people have expressed their surprise that, instead of withering as the two world wars grow ever more distant, the commemoration has only gathered strength.
Edward Marsh, Churchill's private secretary, described the first anniversary of the Armistice in 1919. At eleven o'clock in the morning - it was a Tuesday - everyone had halted where they stood, for two minutes, he said. "It was really solemn and impressive - everyone standing like statues, and the dead silence." Winning the war had cost Britain 723,000 lives, and a further 198,000 soldiers from the colonies had – willingly or otherwise – given theirs. Half a million more had been seriously wounded: nearly half of these were amputees. And sixty thousand men had shell-shock.
Marsh, however, had not fought in the war, and when I was researching Setting the Desert on Fire, I came across a surprising comment on the anniversary which made me wonder whether former combatants felt differently. It was made, some years later, by T.E. Lawrence. Writing to his confidante Charlotte Shaw (the wife of George Bernard Shaw) on 10 November 1927, he remarked: "Tomorrow … this horrible celebration of an armistice of long ago."
It would be interesting to know whether Lawrence's view was widely shared, or whether he was simply being provocative. It may be, though, that he did not appreciate the reminder. Like many former soldiers he must have suffered flashbacks to the violence he had witnessed. "It's like malarial bugs in the blood", he wrote later to his friend, the writer Robert Graves, "coming out months and years after in recurrent attacks." Perhaps too, as the years went by, while others continued to appreciate the sacrifice made on their behalf, Lawrence realised that the Great War had created more problems as it solved.