Flanders Fields

Why do we remember the casualties of war?

Some thoughts on why we remember the soldiers who lost their lives during the First World War. Plus news of upcoming posts on this topic.

In the lead-up to Armistice Day / Remembrance Day on 11th November, I am going to be publishing a series of posts, including:

  • My Belgium with Nele Bille, Area Coordinator of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission
  • A review of the novel The Photographer of the Lost, which is set in Northern France and Belgium 1916-1921, and an interview with author Caroline Scott
  • Historical walks around Diksmuide and Nieuwpoort
  • A review of the book From The Ashes which describes the reconstruction of Flanders Fields
  • A Quiz on the First World War in Belgium
  • Profile of Battlefield Tour Guide Genevra Charsley
  • A review of the new book The Frontline Walk.

As an introduction to the topic, I’ll ask a question: Why do we remember the casualties of war? The soldiers who lost their lives during the First World War … or the Second World War … or Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq … or any war at all?

It’s a complex issue. There’s no single, easy answer. Why you remember is likely to be different to why I remember. Some people don’t want to remember; they would rather forget. Here are some initial thoughts and questions on this topic.

Does it remind us of the horrors of war?

The German philosopher Theodor Adorno pointed to the evolution of the spear into the modern missile and said that “humankind has become cleverer but not wiser.” Anything that helps us remember the horrors of war – and the First World War is probably leading the horror parade – is surely worth continuing. But are we becoming wiser as well as cleverer? Or is our destructive power just becoming bigger and smarter, rather than wiser? Are we putting the horrors of war into practice? In other words …

Does remembrance help avoid future conflict?

If it reminds us of the horrors, then surely it will help us avoid future wars? The precept is that by shining the light of history on the darker aspects of our nature, we will in some way avoid falling into the same pitfalls and committing the same atrocities. Unfortunately, the Second World War began just 21 years after Armistice Day, which drives a horse and carriage – or a Panzer tank – through this argument. Some might argue that the speed that the UK went into the Falklands War, or the US into Iraq, also negates this argument. On the other hand, Europe has been free from major conflict for 75 years.

Does it express our gratitude?

Here I seem to have a lot of questions and no real answers. Are we grateful that soldiers fought and died in Flanders Fields? Am I thankful that Allied soldiers defeated Hitler during the Second World War? Do we owe a debt of gratitude to those who died fighting to safeguard freedom and democracy, a particular way of life, or to protect our values? Does this mean thanking someone for killing another person? Or being thankful to the RAF bombers who bombed Dresden and killed thousands of civilians? And what if the soldiers were fighting in a war that we might regard as “wrong” or unjust? Vietnam, for example. On the other hand, why aren’t we thankful for the soldiers who fought and died at Waterloo, or the Battle of Hastings? It’s easy for the words “thankfulness” and “gratitude” to trip off our tongues, but dig a little deeper and they make me feel uneasy.

Does remembrance unite politicians?

Remembering the casualties of war could be seen as a means to unite nations, to bring political communities together, and to strengthen the bonds between citizens. This often seems to be the case when I see large, televised gatherings at remembrance events. Here, leaders of nations and of opposing political parties rub shoulders in a display of mutual comradeship. But how long does this bonhomie last? Do they conduct themselves any better on 12th November? We all have short memories; those of politicians are maybe even shorter.

What about sacrifice?

A lot is said at this time of the year about sacrifice. The sacrifice of the soldiers. The sacrifice of life that war requires. But war also requires a soldier to sacrifice something else: their in-built unwillingness to kill. This comes out in a book I will review later: The Photographer of the Lost. There is a heavy, psychological cost of killing. Many of the soldiers who survived the First World War came back ruined. Not just from their physical wounds, their amputated limbs, their shell-shock and the effects of gas attacks. But from the consequences of killing other human beings.

Author and retired lieutenant colonel in the US Army David Allen Grossman reports conversations he has had with veterans who have killed. “Often these reports include at first a euphoria that they have survived followed by an overwhelming guilt at what has happened, that is, they have killed another human being. Often this guilt is so strong that the one who has killed is wracked by physical revulsion and vomiting.” This is certainly worth remembering. Or as Grossman puts it:

“The dead take their misery with them, but the man who killed another must forever live and die with the one he killed.”

David Allen Grossman

Do we remember the enemy too?

Military historian Basil Liddell-Hart remarks that “War is always a matter of doing evil in the hope that good may come of it.” In this respect, surely true remembrance involves remembering both sides of the conflict? Love your enemy, and all that? Easier said than done. In 1982, then Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie was vilified by the UK’s government and tabloid press when he prayed for the victims of both sides of the Falklands War. As he won the Military Cross as a tank commander in the Second World War, he couldn’t be accused as ignorant of warfare. Thankfully progress has been made on this front.

What about the wounded?

The casualties of war are the survivors too. But it’s easier to remember the dead than the wounded. The wounded are still alive to tell their dreadful stories. The mentally wounded in particular have had a tough time. It took until 2001 for the UK military to formally remember the soldiers from World War One who were so shell-shocked they couldn’t face returning to the Front and were executed for refusing to obey orders. A book I am reviewing later – The Frontline Walk – focuses on the excellent work that ABF The Soldier’s Charity is doing in supporting soldiers suffering from physical handicaps as well as PTSD.  

do we remember the civilian casualties of war?

There’s a horrible euphemism: “collateral damage.” It means the civilians who died in the war. And ”enemy” civilians at that. In some cases they are remembered, such as the annual commemoration of the bombing of the Bezuidenhout in The Hague in March 1945. This is when the British bomber crews were given the wrong coordinates and bombed a residential area instead of the German V-2 launch sites. 511 people were killed. And earlier this year a commemoration was held to remember the victims of Dresden. But generally the focus of remembrance is on the military, not civilians.

so why do we remember the casualties of war?

Remembrance is multi-faceted. Nothing is straightforward. It probably makes sense to choose your own reasons why you remember, while leaving others to remember in their own ways. Personally I think remembrance is vital, and I’ll give you my own main reason for remembering.

because they are not just casualties: they are people 

For me, remembrance humanises the past. It reminds me that war isn’t about nations and casualties, it’s not about allies and enemies, it’s about men and women with names and families, spouses and children.

It’s about Private James Olley of the Duke of Cornwall Light Infantry who was one of 72 men blown to pieces in 1915 by a German underground mine south of Ypres and whose bodies were never recovered.

It’s about Private Graham Adam of the Canadian Army who was one of the 275,000 casualties (including 70,000 killed) at Passchendaele:

I wish [the war] was over. I cannot get up much enthusiasm for killing, or being killed, especially the latter.

Private Graham Adam

It’s about Private Henry Cracknell of the Hampshire Regiment who was one of 125 soldiers who died at Ypres in August 1916 when a gas attack filled the trenches with poisonous gas.

It’s about Lance Corporal William Brough who served with the Black Watch on the Somme in 1916 and at Arras in April 1917 but who perished at Passchendaele. He was renowned for “cheering his comrades in billet and in battle” with the Scottish tunes he played on his mouth-organ.

Or Private Thomas Travers who was killed by a sniper while digging a trench, just two months after arriving in Belgium. He left a widow and four children.

Remembrance gives me the opportunity to read about the lives of these young men and women who died, so needlessly, on the battlefields of Flanders Fields and elsewhere. It reminds me of their courage in horrendous circumstances. It gives me hope that those who make the big decisions will do everything possible to avoid war. That it will be the last possible measure to take when absolutely everything else has been tried, re-tried, and failed. And that even then they will think “would I like to send my own spouse, son, daughter or grandchild into a war zone?”

I’ll end by quoting another ex-Archbishop of Canterbury. On 11th November 2009 Rowan Williams conducted a service to mark the Passing of the World War One Generation. He prayed that:

“In our solemn remembrance to those who have died, may we learn the lessons they learned, and God save us from learning them in the way they had to.”

Rowan Williams

more on the First World War in Flanders:

And to make sure you get all the forthcoming posts leading up to Armistice Day, add your email below. Thanks. Denzil

16 replies »

  1. Very thoughtful post, Denzil. “Remembering the casualties of war could be seen as a means to unite nations, to bring political communities together, and to strengthen the bonds between citizens. This often seems to be the case when I see large, televised gatherings at remembrance events. Here, leaders of nations and of opposing political parties rub shoulders in a display of mutual comradeship. But how long does this bonhomie last? ” In the case of an American president, this may not be accurate. There are conflicting reports in our news whether he did not make one trip to a cemetery because he did not think much of the war dead, he did not want to mess up his hair, or it was too wet to fly and (for him) too dangerous to drive. Mind you, that this is the same person that will go to a rally for himself in a heartbeat.

  2. Denzil, you’ve raised valid points about our remembrance of the casualties of war. While this remembrance has not led to an end of all wars, perhaps it could serve to remind us that peace among us demands solidarity and cooperation within and beyond our national borders.

  3. I was reluctant to read this, Denzil. Put me down as one who would rather forget. But as always you raise many valid points. Sadly it seems to be a vain prayer because killing does continue around the world. Please God, we never have to send our children to war.

    • I think that the Australian and New Zealand soldiers who travelled halfway around the world to fight in Belgium deserve a post all of their own.

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