By Sean Howard
The recent, bitter controversy over the proposed ‘Mother Canada’ War Memorial in Cape Breton — embraced by the Harper Conservatives, disowned by the Trudeau Liberals — revolved in part around questions of scale: the magnitude of gesture requisite to immeasurable loss. What to some is intended as tasteful reverence strikes others as kitsch, perversely ‘over the top,’ excess.
Walter Allward’s Vimy Memorial, featuring the sombre ‘Canada Bereft’ figure later interestingly impersonated by ‘Mother Canada,’ was described by Garnet Hughes, son of Great War Militia Minister Sam Hughes, as “another enormous thing,” a “waste of money,” and “a tribute to vanity.” Some find grim irony in the pristine, ‘English garden’ mass cemeteries of France and Flanders, row on row of dazzling graves whitewashing reality. And the name-engraved Menin Gate, which has moved millions to tears, reduced war poet Siegfried Sassoon to despair: “Here was the world’s worst wound. And here with pride/‘Their name liveth for ever,’ the Gateway claims.” Sassoon’s fear was that such monumentalism would lend greatness to the ‘Great War,’ creating false cultural impressions of an ignoble, criminal fiasco. And nowhere was tragic farce more in evidence than on July 1, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
In his acclaimed novel Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks describes, through the eyes of his protagonist Stephen Wraysford, the moments preceding the assault: “The bombardment reached its peak. The air overhead was packed solid with noise that did not move. It was as though waves were piling up in the air but would not break. It was like no sound on earth.” Then a “mine went up on the ridge, a great leaping core of compacted soil, the earth eviscerated. Flames rose to more than a hundred feet. It was too big, Stephen thought. The scale appalled him.” Faulks imagined Wrayford writing home, the day before ‘Zero,’ certain that “some crime against nature is about to be committed. I feel it in my veins. These men and boys are grocers and clerks, gardeners and fathers — fathers of small children. A country cannot bear to lose them.”
Many of those doomed generations served in battalions of ‘Pals,’ drawn from the same towns or trades, an unprecedented arrangement made possible by the vast influx of volunteers in the patriotic gold rush of 1914. Already grievously depleted, necessitating the introduction of conscription in January 1916, it was still ‘Kitchener’s Army’ of willing Tommies that led the charge — or, rather, the stroll — that day.
The bombardment, it was assumed, had cut the German wire; hence the heavy kit the men carried, provisioned for the long march ahead. True, it slowed them down, but orders were to walk, upright, at a slow, steady pace. And indeed, as Pte. W. Slater (2nd Bradford Pals) told historian Martin Middlebrook, “nothing seemed to happen to us at first; we strolled along as if walking in a park. Then, suddenly, we were in the midst of a storm of machine-gun bullets and I saw men beginning to twirl round and fall in all kinds of curious ways as they were hit — quite unlike the way actors do it in films.” By contrast, a young officer, Edward Liveing, wrote that “one man after another fell down in a seemingly natural manner, and the wave melted away.” For Liveing, something else died too: his faith. “I felt,” he confessed, “that if I was blown up it would be the end of all things so far as I was concerned. The idea of an afterlife seemed ridiculous in the presence of such frightful destructive force.”
Some officers emerged from the trenches with footballs, ready to dribble across no man’s land. Three quarters of all officers were killed, part of the day’s still incomprehensible death toll of 21,000, most machine-gunned in the first hour. By dusk, there were 60,000 Allied casualties — including almost the entire Ulster Division and 1st Newfoundland Regiment — and an estimated 8,000 German dead and wounded. Tens of thousands lay dying, sobbing and screaming, in corpse-filled craters between the lines. And there were over 150 days to go, none as bloody but all horrific, mass-producing over one million combined casualties by mid-November for a gain — a mass grave — of seven strategically insignificant miles.
Sassoon ends his poem On Passing the New Menin Gate, by urging the “dead who struggled in the slime” to “rise and deride this sepulchre of crime.” He knows, of course, they cannot, that, in the words of British novelist Alan Burns, “the war dead do not hit back.” For this reason, perhaps the silence observed as each milestone in the Great War centenary passes is the best we can or should do, an implicit acknowledgment of the failure of language — including the language of architecture — to fathom the depths plumbed by war.
But in the silence, can we still hear it, the apocalyptic War Requiem performed in no man’s land that night?
Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University.