The World Remembers Project: Opening Ceremony CBU Library, September 21, 2018 (UN International Day)
The World Remembers project is a unique international experiment in commemorating the ‘Great War’ as the truly global, human tragedy and disaster it was. Its aim is both simple and radical: in the months leading up to the five Remembrance Days of the Great War Centenary (2014-2018), to show in as many places and countries as possible as many names as possible of the over ten million people who served and died, on all sides and fronts of the fighting.
Some sixteen nations are now involved, former allies and enemies, colonizers and colonized: Australia, Belgium, Canada, China, Czech Republic, France, Germany, India, Italy, New Zealand, Slovenia, South Africa, Turkey, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, the United States. And at different times from September 11 to November 11, varied venues in these countries – Universities, Schools, museums, libraries, high commissions, embassies, town halls, community centres – will display the names of over one million of the war dead from 1918 (the bloodiest year of the conflict). And as you can see, here at CBU Library the display is now running and will continue, 12 hours a day, for 49 days until Friday November 9.
And it’s shocking to think, in the words of the project’s creator and producer, the Canadian actor R.H. Thomson, that “as far as we are aware, no other organization has seen the need for such an inclusive and comprehensive commemoration.” After the 1918 display was launched in Ottawa on September 12, Thomson told the Globe and Mail: “If you only remember your own, you’re only remembering part of the story. So you have to remember everybody. It’s the people that matter, and no one’s named them.”
Certainly, no one’s named so many of them; though my friend and colleague David Johnson was right to remind me yesterday that 600,000 names of the Great War dead are engraved in stone – alphabetically, irrespective of rank or nation – at the new Ring of Remembrance Monument for Peace in Lille, France (between Vimy and Ypres). And The World Remembers, of course, doesn’t and can’t name ‘everybody’: some major combatants are not taking part – Austria, Hungary, Russia – and there is, for example, just one participant from Africa, from which large numbers of ‘colonials’ were dispatched to distant killing fields, and in which, while comparatively few Europeans died, hundreds of thousands of native porters perished from injury, malnutrition, mistreatment and disease. Nor are we about to see – though imagine if we were! – the names of the vast numbers of civilian dead, deliberately targeted, blockaded, and starved (mainly by the British, including for six months after the Armistice). But the project doesn’t have to be perfect to be powerful; and it does, we believe, have the potential to help change – humanize – how the world remembers to think about not just the Great War, but all war.
We’ve chosen to join the World Remembers community on this special date of September 21, the United Nations International Day of Peace, since 1981 a day of intense and sobering focus on the daunting distance yet to travel to the goal set by the UN Charter: saving ‘succeeding generations from the scourge of war.’ At 9 o’clock New York time this morning, Secretary-General António Guterres rang the ‘Peace Bell,’ cast from coins and medals donated by Ambassadors of member states, and schoolchildren from over 60 countries, and donated by the United Nations Association of Japan in 1954. This year’s Day of Peace theme is ‘The Right to Peace,’ reflecting on the profound impact but still immense unfulfilled potential of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 70 years young this year. To realize that potential, we need not only the absence of violence but peace as a presence in our lives, a culture of peace in every community and country.
Contributing to building such a culture in our community is the aspiration and, I believe, in a small but real way already the achievement of Peace Quest Cape Breton, a non-partisan citizens’ group, formed in the traumatic wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. One of the group’s leading lights and guiding spirits, Sister Agnes Burrows, died earlier this year, and is missed more than words – or even silence – can say. We dedicate our participation in this extraordinary project to this extraordinary woman, in thanks for her tireless service, in many years through pain and illness, to peace and justice.
To set the scene for the seven weeks to come, a quote from Sebastian Faulks’ novel Birdsong. Here, the book’s ‘hero,’ Stephen – a study, really, in the limits of how heroic a human being can reasonably be expected to be – writes to his lover while waiting to go ‘over the top’ on the first day of the Battle of the Somme: “Like hundreds of thousands of British soldiers in these fields I am trying to contemplate my death. … Some crime against nature is about to be committed. I feel it in my veins. These men and boys are grocers and clerks, gardeners and fathers – fathers of small children. A country cannot bear to lose them.”
07:15, minutes to go, “Stephen on his knees, some men taking photographs from their pockets, kissing the faces of their women and children. Hunt telling foul jokes, Petrossian clasping a silver cross” as “the bombardment reached its peak’” –
The air overhead was packed solid with noise that did not move. It was as though waves were piling up in the air but would not break. It was like no sound on earth. Jesus, said Stephen. Jesus. Jesus.
The mine went up on the ridge, a great leaping core of compacted soil, the earth eviscerated. Flames rose to more than a hundred feet. It was too big, Stephen thought. The scale appalled him.
By the end of the day, 20,000 British Expeditionary Force soldiers were dead; another 40,000 wounded, many abandoned to die, or wish they could, in No-Man’s-Land. And it went on for four more months, ending in a stalemate followed by even greater and more futile, mechanized slaughters. It was too big: for words, thought, philosophy, religion, art, remembrance itself. So how on earth, a century later, can and should ‘the world remember’?
On August 10, 1914, the twenty-year-old poet Charles Sorley, killed by a sniper in Flanders two months later, wrote to a friend: “But isn’t all this bloody? I am full of mute and burning rage and annoyance and sulkiness about it. I could wager that out of twelve million eventual combatants there aren’t one in twelve who really want it. And ‘serving one’s country’ is so unpicturesque and unheroic when it comes to the point.” How optimistic he was: by November 1918 (itself not the end of fighting in Eastern Europe or elsewhere) 72 million men and women had served, nearly 12 million for Britain alone – and I don’t know if one in 12 of them ‘believed’ in the cause, but roughly one in 12 of them died. Six hundred thousand Canadians served; one in ten of them died, an almost exact decimation. And in addition to the combined military/civilian death toll of (conservatively) 15 million, compelling evidence exists that the worldwide influenza epidemic of 1918 – in which tens of millions of people suffered symptoms which eerily resembled those of poison gas attack – was, if not caused, dramatically exacerbated by the conditions and consequences of global total war.
It was too big: too many people died, killed, incurred and inflicted monstrous injuries, mental and physical: it was, as the Great War poet Siegfried Sassoon would write in 1922 – lamenting the marble ‘whitewashing’ of the bloodshed at the Menin Gate memorial – “the world’s worst wound”.
You can’t ‘remember’ what you can’t imagine, pin with a poppy or shine with a rhyme something unthinkable and unspeakable even to most of those who endured it. But you can begin to share a sense of how big it was, how many untold stories, tiny but telling details, our often airbrushed, photo-shopped picture of the War conceals. Because by ‘the war’ most countries (for reasons both pragmatic and propagandistic) mean their war, their victory or defeat, with their front (often glorified and simplified) front and centre.
Though it may seem counter-intuitive – and precisely because it takes us out of our cultural comfort zone – the best way of revitalizing our Remembrance even of the part of the War we think we know best may be to place it in truly global, transnational (‘post-patriotic,’ as it’s sometimes called) perspective. In their influential 2005 book, The Great War in History: Debates and Controversies, American historian Jay Winter and French historian Antoine Prost, lament “the national framework which still dominates historical writing about the war,” urging instead a turn towards that “more European history which one day must be written if Europe is to forge its own identity.” But to place the War in European perspective means placing Europe at the unstable centre of the global imperial struggle which triggered and sustained the killing: the struggle, primarily, to win or keep the ‘right’ to rule non-white non-Europeans in the Americas, Asia, Africa, the Pacific and elsewhere.
Not only did the cancer of the war spread out from Europe, the fate of the war in Europe was profoundly influenced by imperial troops: we will see, for instance, the names of 2,425 members of the Chinese Labour Corps, men thrown by their government into the meat-grinder of the Western Front in the hope their ‘sacrifice’ would buy – it didn’t – post-war influence and concessions; and 30,997 names of men from India, their lives likewise ‘spent’ (in Europe and the Middle East) in a bid to win – it didn’t – respect and autonomy in the British Empire. (The same futile hope, of course, motivated many indigenous, and other non-white men from Britannia’s four ‘White Dominions’ to volunteer.) And in the bitter end of 1918, the War was fundamentally decided not by battlefield heroics but the power of British and French colonies (and the world’s settler-Superpower, the United States) to supply not just cannon-fodder but food and fuel to their ‘motherlands,’ while denying other ‘mothers’ the chance to keep their ‘children’ fed and clothed and armed.
But the greatest tragedy of nationalized remembrance is that it prevents not just a European, or international, but a human perspective emerging, a re-definition of our political (and even personal) selves as People of this Place, the Earth, so thoroughly menaced, and for so long so viciously violated, by nationalism, militarism, racism, imperialisms old and new.
In What I Believe, an essay written in the 1920s, British novelist E.M. Forster notoriously declared: “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” He was writing, of course, in the wake of a Slaughter in which many of his friends had been, he believed, betrayed. Can, though, the concept of ‘country’ be reclaimed as a form of community, a collective endeavour to imagine a more humane future for all its members? If so – and I don’t know – the best expansion of the term remains that of Virginia Woolf, writing during World War One: “As a woman, I have no country. As a woman, I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.” And while I acknowledge that the cultivation of such global consciousness is a movement traditionally and currently led by women, I also believe (as Woolf herself did) that it needs male as well as female followers, people who have and want no country except the Earth.
Not everyone participating in The World Remembers would go so far or say as much: in Canada, for instance, the project is backed by Retired Major-General Lewis MacKenzie, a proudly militaristic nationalist and prominent booster of the ‘Mother Canada’ project seeking to build here in Cape Breton a towering memorial overtly celebrating the Great War as the war that made Canada great, a nation to which, miraculously, men gave birth in the mud and blood of France and Flanders. As he knows, I begged to differ; but it is, I think, to his great credit that he supports this project, one, in the words of an August 29 World Remembers press release, that “respects the losses on all sides, and looks to the future with hope and understanding.” As the distinguished Canadian historian Jonathan Vance declared in the same press release: “The World Remembers offers a profound reminder that the Great War was, first and foremost, a human tragedy. To see all those names is to appreciate that behind every one of them is a life and a story... We must never lose sight of the fact that history is not the history of nations or ideologies, but of people...”
Vance’s Award-winning 1997 book Death So Noble: Memory, Meaning, and the First World War, is sometimes read as a defence of conventional, nationalistic remembrance rather than, as I read it, a cultural history of how those conventions, and that nationalism, rose to prominence, withstood serious challenge and persist to this day as the dominating “version of the War [as] a traditional, Victorian conflict, full of the High Diction concepts” supposedly “validated by the experience of the trenches”; a “compelling story,” he concedes, “but one that has little to do with the reality of the First World War and everything to do with the Great War as it was interpreted in the” official nation-building “myth” – an essentially “nineteenth-century” misremembering “of this very twentieth-century war.” Perhaps, then, Vance sees in The World Remembers a way to begin to dispel that myth in this country, and indeed others long-fallen into the same trap of thinking of the ‘fallen’ as either more or less than human.
The project, in sum, is one that clearly wants you to think, maybe even re-think how you think, but doesn’t tell you what to think about the War; it provides much food for thought, but no ready-made, replacement ‘Remembrance.’ And I’m not sure what I’ll think – or, even, whether I’ll cope – spending time, week after week, with all the names. One thing I’ll force myself to register is that while it’s true all these people died, many also killed, were not just the victims but the perpetrators of extreme violence.
I’ll be thinking, then, of the poem Strange Meeting, written by Wilfred Owen just weeks before his death (just days before the Armistice), in which he imagines his freshly-dead spirit greeted by a ‘German’ ghost –
Courage was mine, and I had mystery;
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery; …
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war. …
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
Though I’ll also try and remember that such ‘intimate,’ man-to-man killing accounted for less than one half of one percent of combat deaths: the main way the War was ‘too big’ – was, as Vance said, so “very twentieth-century” – was that its biggest machines, the heavy artillery’s ‘storm of steel’, took most of the lives, a mass production of mass-destruction only surpassed (so far) in its all-too-predicable sequel, World War II.
And because, finally, of this hideous effacement of humanity, I’ll be thinking most often of another poem, the last Charles Sorley ever wrote, a pencil-draft sonnet scribbled (probably) the evening before his death:
When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you’ll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, ‘They are dead.’ Then add thereto,
‘Yet many a better one has died before.’
Then, scanning all the o’ercrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all his for evermore.