The Missing of the Somme, by Geoff Dyer. Pub 1994, updated 2016
Last year, one of my favourite reads was But Beautiful by Geoff Dyer. At the time, I looked at his bibliography, but nothing leapt out at me. Then I heard him on a book-chat podcast a few months ago, and enjoyed his discussion, including a reference made to a book of his called Broadsword Calling Danny Boy about a favourite film (Where Eagles Dare, an improbable WWII story with the even more improbable cast of Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood). When ordering that book, I also saw this one and was intrigued by the laudatory reviews. With Remembrance Day around the corner, it seemed timely.
This book is excellent. It tells of Dyer’s own pilgrimage to the Flanders region and south to the monuments at Vimy and at Thiepval. The journey initially was an exploration of his own grandfather’s experience in the Great War, but expands to consider historical details of the war, the immediate establishment of Remembrance Day (or Armistice Day as was) and the many memorials, the art that emerged during and after the war – especially the poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon and the sculptor Charles Sergeant Jagger – and reflections on the experiences of the war. He also explores the concepts of remembrance and monuments as social constructs, the changes to the approach to war and conflict with advances in technology, and the strange confluence of cultural norms of sacrifice and duty and honour that allowed for so much death and destruction and suffering.
Dyer uses the trip to and through France as a loose framework to talk about all the above. His own questions and meditations are insightful and thought-provoking. For example, in discussing the strange phenomenon of the various war cemeteries and monuments being scrupulously maintained in close to pristine condition: “This is strange; cemeteries, after all, are expected to age. In these military cemeteries there is no ageing: everything is kept as new…The cemeteries look now as they did sixty years ago.” (I think this is still true today, another thirty years on). He then notes:
“Then as now the official idiom of Remembrance stressed not so much victory or patriotic triumph as Sacrifice. Sacrifice may have been a euphemism for slaughter but, either way, the significance of victory was overwhelmed by the human cost of achieving it…Even while it was raging, the characteristic attitude of the war was to look forward to the time when it would be remembered.”
While not explored in depth, the issue of how technology changes contributed to the considerable horrors and loss in all the wars of the 20th century makes for interesting reflection. In the 21st century’s hyper-connected world, where most first-world people have little to no experience with physical hardship or labour, privation of food and shelter, or extended periods of isolation and separation, and where wars are usually elsewhere and unfamiliar, could true global threats to freedom and democracy be defeated? Where would the multi-millions of cannon fodder come from, and how would society survive that? We can perhaps say that that experience is occurring right now in Ukraine (if we’re honest, it’s been occurring in non-White regions for decades) so maybe we will learn lessons from that.
One we have seemed not to learn is the danger and long-term ineffectiveness of demonization and isolation of the enemy; that’s a practice we seem doomed to repeat. Interestingly, the Great War memorials often elided the distinction between the conquerors and the conquered, instead referring to all “the glorious dead” uniformly and without discrimination or judgement. The approach definitely waned through the century, and now carries through to ongoing and emerging conflicts, where us-vs-them, or even our-enemy’s-enemy-is-our-friend (making some pretty terrible partnerships), are more the norm.
The introduction by Wade Davis (part of the 2016 update for the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme) raises further reflection about the far-reaching impact of that war and the next several. It seems romantic (but now inappropriate in modern times) to extol the virtues of honour and duty and country. But, while the modern world points back at those wars as the hard-won victories for freedom, there is a narcissism and nihilism of the current age and society that celebrates those freedoms while rejecting (or worse, belittling) the very characteristics and traits of those who made those sacrifices to achieve those victories. To me, this is food for thought: how much of the past can a society reject or change before accomplishments get lost, before the structure becomes too broken or fragile to function, or before the instability leads to war? Without those quaint virtues that made the sacrifices of the Great War possible, how would a similar threat to freedom be addressed?
Clearly, this book provoked a lot of thought.
The timing of reading this to align with Remembrance Day was planned, but it also coincided with viewing the newest film version of All Quiet on the Western Front, a story I knew previously only by reputation. This latest version is exceptionally compelling, better even than 1917 from a few years ago. While certainly not a pleasant film, it is powerful and important, especially as a reminder of the cost of what the modern world takes for granted.
As the year is winding down and I’m confident of reaching the 2022 book goal, I’ll be juggling around the various categories and choosing more wisely/deliberately for the remaining 5 titles.
Fate: I will hang on to this one for a while, as I may revisit it as a source of thought or recommendations for other reading. I’ll also expand my future reading list to include more of Dyer (including one that seems made for me: Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It).
6 – a non-fiction book about travel
13 – a book set somewhere I’ve never been
17 – a book with a place name in the title
31 – a book about history