Tag Archives: honouring the dead

The saddest songs

There are a lot of songs about the First World War, and most of them really get to me. The tragedy, waste, grief and pathos is almost unbearable. And so it should be. It’s really important to have these expressions in our culture, and the mainstream does not do anything like enough of it. There is a power in this kind of storytelling that goes far further to honour and remember than the laying of wreaths ever could.

Human lives are full of disasters, from the personal errors to the catastrophic horrors of war. These are things we need to know about. We need to meet them head on, and feel them keenly. By this means we are able to learn from each other. We can reflect on the things that have broken other people’s hearts and wrecked their lives, and do something different. The more we sing about the incomprehensible slaughter of war, the less willing we will be to rattle sabres and send our own children off to die. As Pete Seeger sang ‘when will we ever learn’? Well, the short answer is that we won’t if we steadfastly refuse to even think about these things.

We want our entertainment amusing, pleasant, distracting, easy. This is without doubt a very good thing to have in the mix, but if we have a culture that only wishes to be amused and refuses to look at anything dark or painful, we miss these chances to learn and to do better.

It may be uncomfortable to weep for the dead of wars that happened before you were born, but sometimes a song can help us do just that, and we are all the better for it.

This is a fairly upbeat sounding song, if you don’t pay close attention to the lyrics. Words by A.E. Houseman. And if for any reason, you can’t play or listen, here are the words…

The lads in their hundreds to Ludlow come in for the fair,
There’s men from the barn and the forge and the mill and the fold,
The lads for the girls and the lads for the liquor are there,
And there with the rest are the lads that will never be old.

There’s chaps from the town and the field and the till and the cart,
And many to count are the stalwart, and many the brave,
And many the handsome of face and the handsome of heart,
And few that will carry their looks or their truth to the grave.

I wish one could know them, I wish there were tokens to tell
The fortunate fellows that now you can never discern;
And then one could talk with them friendly and wish them farewell
And watch them depart on the way that they will not return.

But now you may stare as you like and there’s nothing to scan;
And brushing your elbow unguessed-at and not to be told
They carry back bright to the coiner the mintage of man,
The lads that will die in their glory and never be old.

Honouring the dead

Today is the anniversary of the end of the First World War. Here in the UK we will be honouring the soldiers killed in armed conflicts. I’ll be very clear up front: I take no issue with people who are soldiers as a general premise. Individual conduct is a different thing. I am not questioning honouring the war dead in any way (emotive topic after all) but I am questioning the things we don’t do alongside that.

The desire to serve and protect has always brought people to armies. Propaganda and tales of glory, cultural pressure and politically nurtured fear: Honest reasons to defend hearth and home that no individual should be blamed for responding to. Formal drafts and recruitment by force mean that many who have fought and died were not there by choice. Poverty and lack of other opportunities has always been a great army recruiting officer, too. I do not blame anyone for doing what they had to, to survive. Thinking about soldiers dropped into disaster zones, and the way these trained and disciplined people can be mobilised in any emergency… there’s a lot of good work you can do with an army that is not about killing people.

Wars have always been about people in power wanting more power and more resources. If you are obliged to fight to defend your home and way of life, you have every right to do so, but never forget this only happens because some power hungry bastard has started a thing.

War does not just kill soldiers. We do not talk about the medical folk, men and women alike, who died trying to save lives. We do not speak of the men and boys who died in the merchant navy, trying to keep countries supplied with essentials. Their work is no less heroic – and arguably more so because it is simply directed towards preserving life, and often undertaken with no arms or armour.

In the First World War, one fifth of the casualties were civilian. By the end of the 20th century, your typical war inflicted a 90% civilian casualty rate, while wars in the 20th century accounted for some 187 million lives worldwide. (Figures taken from John Keane’s The Life and Death of Democracy). Wars kill off countless animals, both those used to facilitate it, and those who are ‘collateral damage’ alongside their civilian human neighbours. Landscapes and eco systems are destroyed by bombs, alongside culture and heritage. War destroys.

It is simply not enough to honour those who fought and died. We need to start talking about what war actually means, and what it actually costs. The best tribute we could pay to the many victims of war, and especially those who fought, would be to cease this madness. World War One was supposed to be the war to end all wars. It wasn’t. We failed them. We owe our war dead more than that. We owe each other more than that and we owe it to the future. Killing people is not the answer, the ‘collateral damage’ of murdering civilians is not acceptable, and there is no excuse.