World War I ended ninety-nine years ago today. Exactly a week before, almost to the hour, a young man, twenty-five years old, died, along with hundreds of his comrades, at the Battle of Sambre. That young man was the war poet Wilfred Owen. His poems: Anthem for Doomed Youth, and especially Dolce et Decorum Est moved me immeasurably through my teens and early twenties. Like those of his friend and mentor Sassoon, Owen’s poetry spoke much more to me than the romantic patriotism of Rupert Brooke. Brooke captured the Edwardian propriety of Kipling, the Empire, the stiff upper lip. Owen gave me the visceral intensity I thought of as modern. Those poems sat next to Plath’s Daddy and Guernica in my formative exposure to culture. Of course, the fate for both War Poets, as decreed by Brooke, was the same: to rest in some corner of a foreign field. Wilfred Owen in France, killed in one of the last battles of the war. Brooke in Greece; dying from sepsis on the way to Gallipoli.
Both my grandfathers served in the British army during World War I. They both survived, fighting, in Northern France. I never met my mother’s father, he came home from the war having been gassed, he never fully recovered and died a decade before I was born. My dad’s father, I do recall, but of the days and the horrors he saw in The Great War, he remained silent.
We live in an age of the transience of information. We are told there is more data than ever. Of course, data captured today could be unreadable or unplayable in as little as a decade. Technology changes and media evolves. Films converted to digital in the eighties exist as data on magnetic tapes, the players long forgotten. My wife just handed me a CD to play for my daughter, it came in one of her music books. I had to think long and hard about where we might have such a device: CD players having been banished from computers in the ongoing struggle for thinness, as I have banished grilled cheese sandwiches and beer from my diet, for similar reasons. Thankfully it was easier to find a player than the necessary ingredients for my indulgences. As with CD’s, so with so much of the day to day data of our lives. Tweets that were once hundred and forty characters are now two hundred and eighty. Thankfully the US President does not seem to have noticed. HAPPY. In ten years-time, of course, they may not exist at all, outside the quiet solemnity of the Trump Presidential Library (Only $200 dollars to visit, children half price, free diploma for every guest). The server farms of Twitter may have been decommissioned, the company folded, replaced by something newer, shinier. Such is the nature of information transience.
Our forefathers did not have the ability to tweet, or blog, or emote with emojis. They carved names on war memorials. An act of permanence. I grew up in Britain, in a typical English village. At its centre, the church, built in the fifteenth century. Flint faced and now idyllic. Historically a dual symbol, one of peace and love (the original Christian message), and one of power and dominance (the aftermath of the English reformation). Cenotaphs and war memorials sprung in the grounds of these churches in the years immediately after November 11th, 1918. They are still used today, recording the sacrifices of village men, and now women, who fought. Recording the solemnity of sacrifice, while not succumbing to the credence of the old lie of Horace: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. It is sweet and proper to die for your country.