Its around this time of year when many Brits bolt the box on the roof rack, fill the car with family and luggage and set off across the channel for their summer holidays in France and Italy. As they speed down the autoroute on their way across the fields of northern France few realise that they are driving over the falling places of hundreds of thousands of soldiers who made a similar journey a hundred years earlier with certainly no thought of a holiday on their agenda.
About half an hour in from Calais, the fast road to Paris skirts the small town of Vimy, the site of a hard-fought and bloody battle between the Canadian Corps and the German Sixth Army. A well-timed glance to the left provides an awe-inspiring glimpse through distant trees cut to show the huge double-towered white stone monument on the crest of Vimy Ridge.
The monument itself provides a opportunity for reflection, but the real significance of this moment is the realisation that the modern road from where you fleetingly see the monument, has been laid over what was the entrenched encampment of the Canadian Corps, the final resting place of thousands of young men. A sobering thought on one’s way to the sun.
The “marking” or “commemoration” (certainly not “celebration”) of the 100th anniversary of World War 1 is ubiquitous. Ceremonies and events are happening across WW1 battlefields, the British government has funded a scheme for two children from every secondary school in England to visit WW1 battlefield sites in Belgium and France, http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-27482073 and it’s difficult to turn on the TV without some kind of WW1 programme being available. Right now we all are being made very aware of WW1. Importantly so as it stands poised to slip from living memory into the vast snowdrift of history.
The marking of WW1 is unusual in that anniversaries are usually much more specific – a birthday or a death, but WW1 lasted four years with a multitude of events that equally deserve remembrance. It wasn’t all over by Xmas. So the question is, how do we do full service to the memory of WW1 without getting commemoration fatigue? I suggest we will need to be selective in our marking in order to arrive at the Armistice commemoration in 2018 without Remembrance burnout.
Nearly twenty years ago I was commissioned by BBC Radio 3 to make a programme to be broadcast on the day of the 80th anniversary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme. On one day, July 1st 1916, the British suffered 60,000 casualties, of whom 20,000 were killed: the war’s single largest loss of life.
I had adapted English writer Geoff Dyer’s book “The Missing of the Somme” into a sequence of radio vignettes exploring his themes of the nature of remembrance. Geoff and I, along with mutual friend John Berger and our several families spent three days walking the battlefields of the Somme whilst recording the programme. Vimy Ridge was especially poignant. Our small pilgrimage in search of a terrible past will forever be my connection with WW1 and so, forsaking all the other opportunities for remembrance, I will wait until July 1st 2016 for my quiet moment of commemoration.
You can hear our programme, “A Shadow into the Future” here: