When I first went outside this morning I could feel something different. A different energy. A false calm, and artificial pausing of the frantic energy in all the life forms around me. My walk was a challenge this morning. Too much was seeping into my awareness, to many images began to flood my interior vision, to many sounds assaulted my internal ears. I seemed to be walking in a daze, walking here and walking somewhere far away, in an alien landscape. My soul ached
Yes, the birds sang – muted songs.
Yes, the butterflies danced, but it was not the same sort of dance they danced yesterday.
Or maybe I perceived them differently . . . for though this morning was glorious, memory makes it harsh. Remembrance makes it terrible.
I watched the clouds tower up, rehearsing, remembering the rising storm clouds of the early morning of this day a century ago, that broke before midnight.
It is not possible for me to think back and not feel, feel things I shouldn’t possibly be able to feel. Not to know things I can’t possibly know. Perhaps because I have touched some to the history, lived and worked in the shadow of the energy of this day for many years, three decades ago. . .
In San Diego I worked for a woman whose stepmother was Helen Hayes Gleason Johnson, whose first husband (who died of typhoid in the 20’s or 30’s) was Arthur Gleason. He was a reporter of Colliers Magazine during the WWI and she was an ambulance driver behind the lines in Belgium. I worked for her step-daughter in the house Helen’s second husband built for them and that was their home in the 30’s to the 60’s by which time both my employer had inherited after the deaths her father and Helen.
Helen drove for the Red Cross. She was decorated by the King of Belgium after the war, being the first woman to be decorated as a Chevalier. I was privileged to have read all of Helen’s letters from the war and was supposed to get them to do something with prime source materials — an historian’s holy grail, but only a week before I had arranged to take them, the water heater blew up in the basement and flooded where the trunk was kept. The whole lot was soaked beyond retrieval.
But, several months before the water ruined everything, I spent a week going through the material. Two things stand out for me to this day, clear and in sharp relief. One was the letter I read that Helen wrote on a train going through France the day the war was declared and second was the piece of shrapnel, a chunk of metal the size of the palm of my hand that nearly killed her. I can’t remember the words Helen wrote, but I remember the feeling I had as I held the letter in my hands. I recall the sense of despair and the fear the leaked through time to me as I read the words — that letter opened a portal for me that has never really closed.
As others have commented there is no such thing as a glorious war, nor glorious warrior. The propaganda used to get young men to sign up and the fury unleashed on those who for conscience sake could not take up arms were both skillfully wielded to manipulate the masses.
I feel all this more keenly here, living in the UK, so much closer to the places where this frightful conflict unfolded and stalled and was pressed on. Trenches and gas and barbed wire and no man’s lands, and mayhem and palpable fear and bitter resentment.
What was lost to the world, to families and the sciences to literature, to medicine, to music — these are also things I think about. Also that without WWI and the misery and loss there might not have been the fictions of Tolkien; a terrible price to pay for Gandalf and Frodo and Aragorn, the Elves and the Orcs, Fangorn and Rivendell, Minas Tirith and Mordor. We might by now have a cure for some dreadful disease that threatens us. Would the Spanish flu have taken so many, wearied by war and weeping, bereft and unable to find hope and a reason to go on.
There is so much we might elect to conjecture and so much more we might wish we never had to consider, including that the so called peace at the end of WWI sowed the seeds for the rise of the Nazis and the Second World War. For, not one bit of this happens or happened in a vacuum. Not one little bit of that could have occurred without lots of other little bits that seemingly might, on the face of it, appear completely disconnected.
What is it then that I remember today? I am a rememberer. I am one who is called to live in a state and in the reality of anamnesis, of unforgetting. Today there is much to process. There are many threads to untangle. There are wide vistas to take in and the small sheet of paper, written with a pencil in a train carriage chugging through the French countryside, as the harvest was about be taken in, which landscape was soon to be altered beyond recognition. The ensuing conflict ruined lives and reshaped the entire social and political structure of Europe. This conflict toppled monarchies. This conflict bequeathed us Fascisms in Germany, Spain and Italy, and the rule of the Proletariat in what was at the time still Russia that in time transmuted into global Communisms.
What do I remember today? The weeping mother and the sobbing wife, the orphaned children and childless parents — on both sides of that War that did not end anything but our innocence.