There is a lovely little classical piece by Maurice Ravel – Le Tombeau de Couperin, composed shortly after the end of the war, five of the six movements dedicated to the memory of an individual, and one for a pair of brothers, all close friends of the composer, every one of them fallen in a war of such ghastliness that it not only put paid to a century of optimistic progress, but barely twenty years later it birthed another and hardly less ghastly war. Maurice Ravel himself was over-age, under-tall and not in the most robust of health, but such was the sense of national emergency that he volunteered for the military anyway, eventually serving as a driver – frequently under fire and in danger. Not the usual place to find one of France’s contemporarily-famous composers, but they did things differently at the end of the 19th Century and heading all wide-eyed and optimistic into the 20th. Citizens of the intellectual and artistic ilk were not ashamed of their country, or feel obliged to apologize for a patriotic attachment, or make a show of sullen ingratitude for having been favored by the public in displaying their talents.
The war whose casualties Ravel memorialized in that way ended exactly a hundred years ago today; the eleventh month, eleventh day, eleventh hour. It seems now to have been unimaginably distant at this point. The soldiers who fought in it for every nation and yet managed by pluck and luck to survive are all gone now … but like a long-healed wound, that war left horrific scars both physical and psychic. Woodlands and meadows the length of the Western Front across Belgium and France to this day are still marked by trenchworks, crumbling fortifications, the soil still poisoned by chemicals. All across Europe, Great Britain, Canada, Australia, Germany, what remained of Austria-Hungary – and the US, to a lesser extent – the smallest villages and the largest cities alike have memorials. Sometimes they are in odd corners, most often in a prominent place, with engraved tablets of names; the most notable were usually designed by the architectural great and good, standing on or near the battlefields themselves. The smallest memorials are sometimes the most moving – especially when the same handful of names appear. Everyone in this tiny village would have known this man or that, not just the immediate family and friends. This man, his neighbor, the boy who polished boots or delivered the mail; this and this, a hundred and a thousand times over. When those memorial monuments were first put up, the loss of the men – and sometimes of women – was a raw and savage grief. The observer picks up immediately on the sense of loss, the grief, the futile attempt to make a sense out of the cruelty visited on that community; they were here, they were of value, and now they are gone! The only thing we can do is to remember them.
The political and psychic scars from the First World War, I think, have proved to be the deepest, and the longest-lasting. We are still dealing politically with the fall-out and the razor-edged shards of broken empires. The Austro-Hungarian empire splintered into component nations; Russia replaced the Romanovs and old ruling nobility with an even more vicious ruling class, the Ottoman Empire both splintered geographically, replacing the old inefficient Sultanate with an equally inefficient and/or vicious assortment of local ruling talent. Germany, wracked in defeat, replaced their supreme ruler serially with inefficient democracy and then crowned that debacle with Hitler, suffering another round of defeat and division. France – gutted of a generation of able, healthy and patriotic young men, required for the continuance of a stable society, those friends whom Ravel honored and mourned in his composition. Great Britain and her far-flung Empire, also gutted of men and the supreme societal self-confidence required to maintain that Empire, fell apart on a slower timetable. Documented in small and large ways in western literature and in even popular contemporary genre novels, the war marked a turning, a vast gulf, a shattering of the old, 19th Century optimism, and the certainty that things were bound – with the aid of science and industry – to only get better and better for that part of the world which thought of itself as ‘civilized.’ To the characters created for a mass audience by Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and any number of others – there seems in retrospect to be a “before” and an “after” to the war, which slashed a sharp dividing line across the cultural landscape; skirts were shorter, morals looser, music louder and more discordant, politics more rancorous, manners coarsened and buildings uglier. The shock and the loss of certainty in so much which had once been thought solid, stable, eternal … the reverberations when the guns finally fell silent on that day are still rippling across our consciousness, even when we don’t quite know why.