Today marks the 100th Anniversary of Armistice Day: November 11th, 1918. Perhaps it’s just me, but I haven’t seen a surplus of retrospective pieces about World War I this year, despite its being the centennial of the war’s end. Maybe this is because we here in America have never remembered the first Great War like Britain and Europe remembered it. We contributed, certainly. We had a brush with the war. But we crossed the ocean to meet the war. The war could not come to us, to steal, kill and destroy. It did not shatter us. It did not lay us waste.
The British death toll alone was 995,939, and 1.6 million more wounded. For some perspective, the total population of the UK as of the 1911 census was 42,082,000. The bloodiest battle, the Battle of the Somme, was fought from July to November 1916. It claimed 418,000 of Britain’s war dead. Battalion after battalion was wiped out, each battalion often containing the young men of a whole town together. So the flower of a generation fell in its prime, cut down like wheat before the reaper’s scythe. “The glory of England,” says the Master to the new college in Chariots of Fire, “And they died for England.”
Behind a table of students, in the film, the camera pans across the memorial of names: the war list. “Name after name which I cannot read, and which those of us who are older than you cannot hear without emotion. Names which will be only names to you, the new college, but which to us summon up face after face.” “Now,” the Master continues to the young men before him, too young by a whisker, “Now, through tragic necessity, their dreams have become yours.”
Perhaps no piece of literature better captures this tragedy than R. C. Sheriff’s play Journey’s End, which follows a single battalion over several days as they brace for the devastating onslaught they know is coming. The play hits an inflection point when the high command hands down the order to raid the enemy camp in broad daylight and capture a prisoner for questioning. It’s a ghastly and foolish order, delivered by higher-ups to whom the men in the trenches are little more than cannon fodder. In one scene, we count down the minutes until the raid begins with the two officers chosen to undertake it. One is a young lieutenant who has never seen combat. The other, much older but still not an old man, is a gentle soul who serves as a father figure to the battalion. Raleigh, the young lieutenant, cannot focus. With minutes to go before they must go up and lead the men out, his adrenaline is pumping, his mind racing with questions.
What are the Boche doing over there now, he wonders?
“I don’t know,” answers Osborne, the older officer, the one the men call “Uncle.” Is Raleigh’s coffee sweet enough, he asks? Does he like coffee better than tea?
Yes, Raleigh answers. Then back to the questions: Will the smoke bombs work as a cover? Do they “make much row when they burst?”
Not much, says Osborne. Another gentle try: “Personally, I like cocoa for breakfast.”
Raleigh laughs: “I’m sorry!”
Osborne: “Why sorry? Why shouldn’t I have cocoa for breakfast?”
It’s just so hard, Raleigh says. It’s so hard not to talk about… Will they retaliate afterwards? “Bound to.” “Will there be shelling?”
I like how Saul Dibb’s recent film adaptation of the play stages this next part, as Osborne puts both hands on Raleigh’s shoulders and sits him down, sitting down with him. He begins to quote Alice in Wonderland: “The time has come, the walrus said, to talk of many things. Of ships and shoes and sealing-wax, and cabbages and kings…”
Raleigh lights up: “And why the sea is boiling-hot! And whether pigs have wings!”
“Now we’re off! Quick, let’s talk about pigs. Black pigs or white pigs?”
Raleigh prefers black. It’s the kind you’d find in the New Forest around his home, Allum Green, just outside Lyndhurst. Osborne says he knows Lyndhurst well. He likes it more than any place he knows. He used to take long walks around it. “I wish we’d known each other then!” laments Raleigh. With his brother, they could have shown Osborne such things, taken him such places. They could have followed the Highland Stream that runs straight through it, running with it for miles and miles. They could have led him to the places in the forest nobody knew about: thick, dark, cool places where you could stir up strange little creatures. They could have gone hunting together for the legendary ruins he and his brother never found. “You must come and help look one day,” he insists. Osborne assures him, “I’ll find them all right!”
Before they leave, Raleigh notices that Osborne has left his ring on the table and picks it up. “Just don’t want the risk of losing it,” says Osborne lightly. “Oh,” says Raleigh, slowly putting it back down.
Osborne does not survive the raid. In the film version, he is last seen firing his pistol to cover for Raleigh while dragging a wounded man behind him. Raleigh survives until the end of the play, when he is taken out with a bullet to the spine.
“Have you news of my boy Jack?” writes Rudyard Kipling, in his poem about a sailor which is not about a sailor, but about his son, his only son. Comes the answer: “Not this tide.” “When d’you think that he’ll come back?” “Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.”
In the heart of Edinburgh’s Old Town, under the shadow of a great hotel, flanked by tenements east and south, you may stumble upon the church of Old St. Paul’s. Alongside the chancel, you may trace the Calvary Stairs, winding up and up. Above the stairs, you may find a chapel. There, carved into the stone walls of that chapel in bronze, Roman letters, you may find another war list, and run down it.
For the building of that chapel, you may thank a man called Albert Ernest Laurie, for whom the 149 names on the wall were not only names. The faces they summoned up were the faces of the boys from that parish whom he had lost as a chaplain in the War, following them, yet unable to save them. You might have found him there, of a sleepless night, climbing Calvary’s way to light a flame and fill the chapel with a sweet fragrance.
The former Bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway, paints this picture for us in Leaving Alexandria. He leads us up the stairs with Albert Ernest Laurie. He writes so vividly that we can close our eyes and see the candlelight flickering on the stone walls, smell the incense filling our nostrils. He watches Laurie from the shadows. He watches, and he wonders: Why is the priest’s heart so heavy? Why is he so bowed down with grief? Has he not heard of the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come?
Does he not remember? Does he not believe?
Perhaps he does, and does not. Perhaps he believes and does not believe. So Holloway suggests, in prose as lovely as it is cruel:
If he really believed in the resurrection of the dead, why mourn them so? Why build these stairs to tread the Calvary of the trenches again every day? Why build this chapel with its flags and lamps, yet in such a way that it became a place of sorrow rather than a trumpet blast of pride like so many other war memorials? Why make sure their names are all written down here, on this wall, if you know they are already written down in the Book of Life…? It is because he was not, could not be sure of these confident claims, and was hurt, like Dante, by the knowledge that death had undone so many, and continues, inexorably, to undo them.
…Laurie was a man of faith, but he also had to be a man of doubt to build those stairs and that chapel. Faith supreme and unconquerable would not grieve at all that dying, because it would know that dying was the gateway to more abundant life. Who could grieve over those whose dwelling was now in the heavenly Jerusalem, where all tears had been wiped away and sorrow and sighing were no more? Laurie hoped for that, but could not know it, might even have doubted it, which is why he had their names all written down.
I found this passage difficult to read when I first encountered it. I found it difficult to fathom how a man who had worn the collar of a priest and a bishop, closet apostate though he was, could fail so utterly to grasp what it means to grieve as a Christian. It seems that for the former Bishop of Edinburgh, the only alternative to not grieving at all is to grieve as those who have no hope—or little hope. Of course Albert Ernest Laurie is a man of doubt, in his mind. Self-appointed apostles of doubt must always drag figures of present and past down into doubt with them. It is their way.
We might ask the former Bishop what he makes of Christ outside Lazarus’s tomb. We might ask him how he reads the tears that started to the Master’s eyes when Mary told him “Rabbi, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Martha comes in anger, but Mary comes in sorrow. It is for Mary that Jesus wept.
Did Jesus not know what he himself was about to do? Had he forgotten? Had it slipped his mind?
No, he had not forgotten. And neither have we. We set the past and the future before us. We hold them together in our minds and in our hearts. We walk slowly through the New Forest of Allum Green, straining in vain for youthful voices that will never again split that air, for youthful feet that will never again crunch those leaves underfoot.
It is good to think on these things. It is good to weep, as Jesus wept. It is good to look behind us, even as we look ahead, through the glass, darkly, where we can just make out the New New Forest: that blessed plot, that earth, that realm where no good thing is destroyed, and all manner of thing is well.