In Brexit time: Remembering the Great War and its Poets

Kensington, November 2018

Visiting London last week, one could expect some external expressions of the Brexit crisis, such as street signs and demonstrations. While the media did indeed discuss Brexit, the most common sight was the poppies which most everyone attached to their lapels. London took the centennial Remembrance Day very seriously, perhaps illustrating the changes that England had undergone in a hundred years, from a lofty empire to a soul-searching European economy.

In the spirit of the day, this centennial Remembrance Sunday was less on the side of the “pomp of yesterday” than on the human suffering of the soldiers of the Great War. The main event took place at the Cenotaph with the three services marching in solemn parade, as if the empire is still here with all its military might. However, the major feature of this year’s commemoration was the People’s Procession of ten thousand civilians marching in Whitehall to honor the fallen. The German president also came to lay a wreath and pay his respects in a gesture of mutual acceptance.

Away from the paramount events in Whitehall or the Imperial War Museum, my family and I chose to attend the events at St. Mary Abbots Parish Church in Kensington. The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea lost 1,189 men (and earned seven Victoria crosses) in that war, their names are engraved on the War Memorial just outside the church.  A few hundred people gathered next to the Memorial to chant the hymns, watch the wreath laying, listen to the Last Post, observe the two minute silence alongside the rest of the country, repeat in unison the Affirmation “we will remember them” and sing the national anthem. The church made the commemoration accessible to all not only through open attendance but also by a well thought-of fifty page booklet, reprinting messages and memories of a hundred years ago (including the period’s ration books).

All wars are horrible but the First World War was especially horrifying for the young, those who fought in the trenches and their loved ones who stayed home. The United Kingdom alone lost over 800,000 young men (the total for the entire British Empire was close to 1 million), all of whom were in the age of working and raising families. Among soldiers younger than twenty-five, the death rate was about 15 percent and over 20 percent for young upper-middle class officers.

For the bereaved families and especially the women, there was first the need to come to terms with the personal loss. In her “Verses of a V.A.D” Vera Brittain wrote of Roland Leighton, her fiancé,

Perhaps some day the sun will shine again,
And I shall see that still the skies are blue,
And feel once more I do not live in vain,
Although bereft of You.

Brittain later married and had a family. May Wedderburn Cannan, who lost her fiancé Bevil Quiller-Couch, wrote:

We shall never shake the world together, you and I,
For you gave your life away;
And I think my heart was broken by war,
Since on a summer day
You took the road we never spoke of; you and I
Dreamed greatly of an Empire in those days;
You set your feet upon the Western ways
And have no need of fame –
There’s a scarlet cross on my breast, my Dear,
And a torn cross with your name.

Cannan also married later and had a family.

Apart from the endless sorrow, there were day-to-day hardships for those who survived and came back from the war. The grateful nation did not always deal with them fairly. In her autobiography: “Grey Ghosts and Voices” May Wedderburn Cannan introduced some phrases with which job seekers were met. “You must remember that you’ve lost four years”. “Yes, yes, but things have changed”. “Call next week, we might have something then”. “It’s the younger men we want”. “We’ve got more men and girls than we know what to do with”. “We don’t want Army ways here”. In her “Testament of Youth” Vera Brittain also described the cold shoulder she encountered upon returning to Oxford after four years as a V.A.D. nurse (Voluntary Aid Detachment).

Indeed, the new world was harder for women. After their unavoidable integration in the work force and several military functions (with the men serving in the battlefields), they were expected to gently clear the way for the returning men.  Cannan called them “the surplus two millions” women that apparently nobody needed.  They were sometimes offered to move to other countries, such as Canada, which had a scarcity of men. Moreover, with nearly a million men killed and many more wounded and maimed, many women lost their husbands, fiancés, brothers or fathers as both Vera Brittain and May Wedderburn Cannan experienced. Thus, without their traditional anchors in life, many women were lost in a strange new existence, as Cannan wrote (in the motto for her autobiography):

Now must we go again back to our world

Full of grey ghosts and voices of men dying,

And in the rain the soundings of Last Posts,

And Lovers’ crying,

Back to the old, back to the empty world…”

The outcome of this bewilderment was perhaps a determined new generation of women. They were perhaps the “surplus” human resources, but they neither wanted politically nor could economically give up their newly acquired positions in British society and economy.

Consequently, a completely new journey have begun for Britain, especially in the “roaring twenties” with their permissiveness and later in the 1960 (following the interrupting decades of the economic crisis and the Second World War).

Today’s Britain is a changed country and a different society. Debating over Brexit, though crucial for the future of the United Kingdom, seems petty in comparison with the challenges of the First or the Second World Was. Those who came to St. Mary Abbots Parish Church in Kensington last weekend may be merging the New Britain with the Old.

About the Author
Ambassador (ret.) Barukh Binah is a policy fellow at MITVIM, the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. He has served in a variety of diplomatic positions vis-à-vis the United States, including Spokesman in New York, Consul General in Chicago, Deputy Head of Mission in Washington DC and Deputy Director General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem,  heading the North American Division. He also served as Israel's ambassador to the Kingdom of Denmark.
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