War – and when memories become history

As absolutely everyone knows, we have just marked the centenary of the armistice that ended the First World War. We saw or heard about the various commemorations and ceremonies, and once more the Great War became alive. Peter Jackson’s extraordinary film, They Shall Not Grow Old, has added a new dimension of immediacy, a sense that we can see and hear and almost smell the trenches and the men who served in them.

I belong to the generation of people who remember talking with those who lived through the First World War. When I was a schoolboy in Ireland I occasionally got a lift by car from a local gentleman, appropriately called Mr Pickup, who fought in the war and was fascinated to meet a German. He had, as he told me, shot many Germans (and was nearly shot on some occasions by Germans), but had never spoken to one. I devoured his fascinating and compelling accounts of the fighting in France.

Both my grandfathers fought in the Great War, but I never knew either of them because they had died before I was born. One of my grandmothers told me stories of life in Berlin during the war. And there was Mr Pickup. But time moves on. Generations who could tell of their lives in the war passed away, leaving those like me who weren’t there but heard about it from those who were. And eventually there will not be anyone alive who was there our who heard directly from people who were. And at that point the war passes from memory to history.

Memories are precious, and provide rich materials for historians. But they are also personal, and carry with them the anguish and terror, as well as the pride and glory, of the experience. They keep all this alive, but also keep alive the impressions of contemporary politics, in which objectivity was not a huge concern. I grew up with the view, stated as fact, that the Great War was started by Germany in unprovoked aggression. More recent historical analyses (for example The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark) offer a more complex view. Whatever the judgement might be, it is better offered from evidence than from experience.

It is right, indeed it is crucial, that we remember and honour those who sacrificed themselves or were sacrificed in war. But these are experiences we must hope will not be repeated. To achieve that, history needs to take over where memories once dominated.

Explore posts in the same categories: history

Tags: ,

You can comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.

2 Comments on “War – and when memories become history”

  1. Vince Says:

    Most of the WW1 veterans I encountered wouldn’t don a poppy ever. They saw it as the tool of recognition by the strike breakers in 26, and saw the IWGC and the RBL as little more than tools of the establishment.

  2. Anna Notaro Says:

    To achieve that perhaps we must also learn to forget, as Wisława Szymborska seems to suggest in her poem “Reality Demands”


    Maybe there are no fields other than battlefields,
    those still remembered,
    and those long forgotten,
    birch woods and cedar woods,
    snows and sands, iridescent swamps,
    and ravines of dark defeat
    where today, in sudden need,
    you squat behind a bush.

    What moral flows from this? Maybe none.
    But what really flows is quickly-drying blood,
    and as always, some rivers and clouds.

    On the tragic mountain passes
    the wind blows hats off heads
    and we cannot help–
    but laugh.

    (https://poezja.org/wz/Szymborska_Wis%C5%82awa/2021/%5Bin_english%5D_Reality_demands)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: