“The dead. The body count. We don’t like to admit the war was even partly our fault ’cause so many of our people died. And all the mourning’s veiled the truth. It’s not “lest we forget,” it’s “lest we remember.” That’s what all this is about — the memorials, the Cenotaph, the two minutes’ silence. Because there is no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.”
This quote from The History Boys by Alan Bennett has been playing on my mind for the last couple of days. What is it about the First World War that we are all so obsessed with? Why that war in particular and not any other? There’s nothing quite like a centenary to focus the mind and cause an outpouring on the artistic front, to indulge the nationwide WW1 fever. (This probably all sounds terribly cynical – it isn’t).
I too have been swept along in this inexplicable need for commemoration. I went to see the poppies at the Tower of London and was stunned at the sheer scale of it. Even looking at it, 888,246 is still a difficult number to get your head around. Back in January we were putting together a season of plays for my theatre, with the intention of including one WW1-related play every year for 4 years. We had one we liked, but then suddenly Journey’s End by R. C. Sherriff came available for amateur rights (thank you people of Samuel French London!) a powerful, moving drama full of well-drawn characters. It opened our season in September – at the end, some people were reportedly coming out of the auditorium in tears. It broke my heart as I took show photos, then it broke me again as I painstakingly picked through pictures trying to choose a few for front of house and the website. But it seems we’re not the only theatre with this idea: I’ve seen posters for everything from The Accrington Pals to My Boy Jack to Birdsong. War Horse has been running in London almost constantly since 2007. If audience numbers are anything to go by, we’re not bored of war yet – far from it.
So are theatres fuelling this desire for stories of war and tragic loss, or simply responding to a demand for it? Are theatre, TV and film responsible for this warped image we have that WW1 was 4 years of relentless day-and-night bombardment, whilst the truth is that there were a lot of gaps in between, that frequent rotations meant that soldiers spent very little time at the front line? It’s easy to think that the death toll accounts for a much higher percentage of the total fighting force than it actually does. It beggars belief that it’s as low as 10% (and that 7.8 million men lived to tell the tale). What is it about the Western Front that has inspired so many plays as opposed to other theatres of war during WW1? My great-grandfather served in Palestine for his part. With a few stats, it appears that at any one time, 46% of soldiers were serving away from France and Flanders in places like Egypt, Palestine, Mesopotamia, Italy and Gallipoli. Where are those plays?
But I suspect the theatre’s love affair with the Western Front endures for several reasons. For the fact that it was so geographically close, that it was meant to be over so quickly, that it quickly fell into stalemate, that mass conscription meant that almost everyone can count a relative within a few generations who served. That the roots of so many modern conflicts that dominate the news today have their roots in the clumsy decisions made at the end of the war. But amongst other things, it’s a very basic human desire to understand. To know why so many died, to ask whether it could’ve been different. Or possibly, to be horrified. To reinforce our view that so many men who went to fight for King and country died for no gain whatsoever. Because it’s easier to shake our heads at futility than to say that the outcome of the war (which inevitably led to WW2) was worth that unprecedented scale of bloodshed.
In Doctor Scroggy’s War, recently on at Shakespeare’s Globe, it focuses briefly on the Battle of Loos and the use of poison gas; the strategy of which was pinned on the availability and position of French troops rather than the weather. In spite of the forecast indicating that wind direction would cause the gas would blow back onto their own troops, the operation went ahead. Generals were adamant that it was too late to call off the attack, even though they knew that they were condemning untold numbers of men to certain death. In the places where soldiers were able to make a breakthrough, reinforcements were too far away to be of any use, or sent on their way too late so that when they arrived at the front line, they were exhausted and in no fit state to bolster momentum. Any ground gained was soon lost – within a matter of weeks, positions reverted to as they had been before and almost 60,000 men had been killed or wounded. It is said of Loos that the tragedy is not in the failure, but in how close they came to succeeding, if only the back up had been ready and waiting.
888,246 is not a number we should ever be comfortable with. Art in its various guises, whether it’s a moatful of ceramic poppies, a play or a TV dramatisation, routinely keeps that wound open and serves to remind us of a war fought with so little consideration for human life.
Lest we forget indeed.