By Robert Fisk, Sunday 3 August 2014
Let the memorials gather grass and the commemorations be over. I wish all those dead men could lose their eternal youth beneath those ever-fresh graves, now that their natural lifespan has ticked past the final Zero Hour, and that the kind old sun would finally go down and spare them another morning, that they may now grow old as we grow old. Close down the annual production line of replacement gravestones. So at least we can get on with the business at hand.
For Little Belgium, Little Gaza. For Flanders poppies, Ukrainian sunflowers. It’s not difficult to imagine what “they” would have thought, the men we should – today – respect, love, remember, but finally leave in peace. For their Horatio Bottomley, we had Blair. For Woodrow Wilson, we have Obama; and Netanyahu, an Austrian Archduke facing a Serbian horde. For Gavrilo Princip, read Khaled Meshaal. And then there’s Putin. Ah yes, Putin, a truly 1914-18 statesman, the only giant on the stage – which is part of our problem with him – who understands that war is a placebo upon which ambition feeds. And between the dead of the Great War and us – we post-nuclear, globalised, Googled folk – there lies that titanic tragedy whose hundredth anniversary we shall have to face in another quarter century from now. Must we really go through all this again?
We didn’t always worship the corpses. After Waterloo, the bones of the dead – Wellington’s Britons and Napoleon’s French and Blücher’s Prussians – were freighted back to Hull to use as fertiliser for England’s green and pleasant land, military mulch from the 1815 battlefields which also yielded fresh teeth to be reused as dentures for the living. Hence my old Great War soldier Dad used to refer to “Waterloo teeth”. Tears for the departed, but no sentiment for the dead.
Bill Fisk (born Birkenhead 1899, 2nd Lt, 12th Batt. Kings Liverpool Reg, Third Battle of the Somme 1918, died Maidstone 1992), grew tired of it all, threw away his poppy in disgust, refused to pay homage to dead comrades on 11 November. My Dad survived, of course, and grew very old, and did so with a rage that became ever greater as his enemies – like the British empire he fought for – diminished in size. “Damned fools, the lot of them!” he would say of Haig and Foch, and then of the Appeasers and Hugh Gaitskell, and finally of drivers who overtook him too fast on the A20. I persuaded the vicar to mention the Third Battle of the Somme in front of the two ancient friends I could find for Bill – before we cremated him courtesy of the borough council. His own Mum had given him a miniature iron Buddha to take to the trenches around Arras for good luck – why a Buddha, I have no idea – but it sits inside my safe deposit box today. I prefer to keep it locked up there lest it becomes too important for me.
But I look from time to time at the pictures that Bill’s mates posted to him from France before he was sent to the Somme – posted, of course, in the real, stamped, in-the-mailbox postcard sense, before we lost our joy and imagination. Come and join us, they wrote.
One shows a sergeant in puttees, thick, black, swept-back hair, piercing eyes, staring centre-right. In fountain pen, he has written “Yours, Trevor” at a slope on the bottom right of the card.
They all died in the war, the men my father knew. He never found their graves. I fear Trevor ended up like that infamous snapshot from the Somme: of the German soldier, face towards the sun, arm akimbo over his chest, rotting in the mud. A soldier known unto God. Kipling, of course, and engraved on the stone of every unknown man who died in the war – a dedication which smothered his identity then as surely as it challenges our faith today.
Bombadier Wyndham Lewis, the master of Vorticism, got it right when he claimed that the 1914-18 war “went on far too long… too vast for its meaning, like a giant with the brain of a midge… It was far too indecisive. It settled nothing, as it meant nothing.” And it’s how it ended – if it did end – that we should reflect upon.
Long before its present status as a butcher’s shop for Palestinian civilians, Gaza was “liberated” by our chaps, was it not, in 1918? There are Great War cemeteries in Gaza today, if they have survived Israel’s bombardment. Baghdad was “liberated” by General Maude in 1917, long before its Bush-Blair “liberation” in 2003. Field Marshal Allenby’s lads “liberated” Jerusalem in 1918. The Great War victors produced the McMahon papers, the frontier-production Sykes-Picot agreement, the Balfour Declaration, and we betrayed everyone who now lives in those bloodied lands. No wonder, destroying the Iraqi-Syrian frontier last month, the crazed rulers of the latest caliphate marked the border post as “the end of Sykes-Picot”.
As a small boy – and my Dad always laughed at this – I always blamed the trains for the Great War. If the German rail-tracks had not led directly to France and the lateral French rail-tracks had not been so useful for “poilu” –redeployment, ignorant armies might not so swiftly have clashed. And, I coldly ask myself, how many of those very same Reichsbahn steam locomotives puffing enthusiastically to the front in 1914 – in that silent, black-and-white “nach Paris” documentary footage – survived to take a different set of passengers – scarcely 25 years later – along the tracks to Auschwitz? Some of these big steamers, after the Great War, were given to the French under the Versailles “reparations” – Hitler’s feeding trough – and ended up riding the rails in little French-controlled Lebanon, thanks to Mr Sykes and Mr Picot. And today, those great monsters of the Reichsbahn are still there, a few miles north of my Beirut home, bullet-scarred from Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war, smothered in bougainvillea. I’ve even climbed aboard and opened the firebox. Their oil still bleeds onto the undergrowth around the rusted tracks. Men die. Machines can be wounded. History goes on forever.
The 1918 Armistice was only a ceasefire, of course – to last, as Georges Clémenceau accurately predicted, for a mere 20 years. And now we have more ceasefires called for, abused, rejected, dishonoured. In Gaza. In southern Sudan. In Ukraine. And why not tell the truth here? Our Great War produced the Russian Revolution and the Holodomor genocide-famine of five million Ukrainians and then it brought the Nazis to the Ukraine, whose Einsatzgruppen dug mass graves in 1941 and 1942 for their Jewish Holocaust victims in the very fields above which a great airliner exploded two weeks ago – though this historical coincidence went oddly unmentioned.
And so yet more bodies lay in the fields. We recoiled, those of us who saw the pictures. One showed a man amid a wheat field, arm akimbo across his chest like the soldier at the Somme. Could the sun not awaken this young man as it awoke him once, at home, “whispering of fields unsown”? Alas, no justice for him. And so he lay there in the bright fields, still strapped to his seat, a passenger known unto God.