A Tale of War and Forgetting

Rescuing the memory of a cataclysm

Ceramic poppies, one for each fallen soldier in the Great War, surround the Tower of London. (Martin Pettitt)
Ceramic poppies, one for each fallen soldier in the Great War, surround the Tower of London. (Martin Pettitt)


On a cold, wet day last winter, I visited the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and stood for a long while before one of Claude Monet’s paintings of the Rouen Cathedral. In the early 1890s, Monet created more than 30 variations on its façade, revisiting the cathedral through two winters and many phases of light, painting in rented rooms and later finishing in his studio at Giverny. Some of the paintings capture the shifting moods of Normandy; others, gaudy and bright, prefigure Andy Warhol’s pop repetition. Some even seem to summon Monet’s nightmares, in which the anxious artist saw the cathedral collapse upon him. If a museum possesses more than one canvas, they are usually hung together, and Boston’s MFA has two, both finished in 1894. The paintings always compel me to move—to close in, back up, hunt for new angles. I love the way the cathedrals melt and reform as I circle before them. And though there is no direct line to the horror that would arrive 20 years after their completion, the paintings always make me think of the First World War.

Impressionism works through dissolution and reassembly. From a certain distance, you recognize what it depicts: here is a church, there is a haystack, this is a boat. Nothing crisply defined, nothing imprisoned in thick black line. If you move toward Monet’s cathedrals, their Gothic geometry vanishes. When you step even closer, close enough to stir the guards, your eyes cannot account for all the actions and particles, the colors and shards of light. It is overwhelming. Even Monet nearly lost himself in the complexity. “Things don’t advance very steadily,” he wrote to his wife, “primarily because each day I discover something I hadn’t seen the day before … In the end, I am trying to do the impossible.” Admitting this, he might have been a nervous young infantry officer, grasping at the ebb and flow of a battle, or a historian hunting after the mood of an era in yellowed letters and bits of marginalia.

The paintings can be confusing, even frightening. I’ve noticed people don’t often get very close. They tend to back up, sometimes across the room—sometimes all the way into the next gallery and on to stuff more narratively solid, like sculpture. For me, part of the unsettling beauty of Monet’s work is in his compression of time and light—his distillation, for example, of the life of the cathedral, which had stood for 600 years, into fewer than three dozen images. It is here, in Monet’s struggle to render the impossible, that I find endless perspectives on the war.

Monet’s art burns with the same incandescent ambition that animated the politics and science of his time (and that would soon ruin Europe), and in the nearest, most intimate approach to his cathedrals I see this force unleashed. There is bravery and blindness, splinters of bone and steel, mud, horror, cacophony—even, in certain brush strokes, the movement of men toward their own destruction. Step away from the canvas, and the names of the dead recede into a simpler list of generals and casualty figures, a timeline of decisions and battles. Pull back farther still, and the war appears the way most of us now see it: as a vague event portrayed in colors that seem almost quaint. The view reveals something enormous and yet so distant we might as well be children gazing up at the Milky Way.

Today, the war seems to be accelerating away from us. August 5 marked the centennial of its first battle, and though an anniversary is only math, it does have an emotional side effect: it makes the war seem old. A friend summarized it this way when I told him I’d been thinking a lot about it: “Dude, that’s like ancient history.” Chronologically
inaccurate, but it feels true when measured against the span of a human life. How does this feeling of ancientness happen? I’ve begun to think of the war as a satellite, hurtling beyond the edge of the solar system. It has surpassed the boundaries of direct human experience. Every transmission is delayed, indirect. The war reaches us now through the mediation of experts, who distill it into words.

In Europe, particularly in Britain, France, and Belgium, this summer opened a season of memory, flush with events, exhibits, and memorials. The monuments have been scrubbed, the sacred fields trimmed, fresh flags and flowers planted in the cemeteries. Commemorations, in one form or another, will continue for four years, until November 2018, the centennial of the armistice. Outside Europe, things will be quieter. Australia and the United States, for example, which were involved but less bloodily, will focus on smaller, intermediate dates, like 2015 and 2017, the anniversaries of their first combat. Russia and Germany, which perhaps suffered most in the war, don’t seem sure what they’ll do, but will undoubtedly hold their own minor remembrances.

Of course, all this attention is deserved: nothing comes close to the Great War for psychological effect and transformative power—the modern world was born to that molten chaos. And yet, if you live in the United States, the war is difficult to see. The number of Americans who served was relatively small, around 4.5 million, reducing the chances you have an ancestor who endured the trenches. The Second World War, by comparison, saw 16 million Americans in uniform. It is, on every level, a far more accessible trauma.

For most of us, 2017 will be a muted anniversary, a prediction lamented to me by several scholars. Here the war is regarded as a bizarre spectacle, mainly watched from the sidelines, best taken as proof of Europe’s failures. Though the Great War did much to launch the United States toward great-power status, many Americans consider it a mere warm-up for the larger war that followed. You must work hard to draw the first one out of obscurity.

I first read Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front during my junior year of high school. I remember its apocalyptically orange cover and the zombie-soldier who stared out past a strand of barbed wire. On the title page, the previous owner’s name was printed in blue ink. The name is lost to me, but it might as well have been my father’s or mother’s, or that of any of my brothers, because that book was how we all came to know the war.

It was 1992, and like any boy might, I associated myself with the novel’s hero, Paul Bäumer. I was freshly aware of how war hung around the edges of my world. The Bosnian War was just beginning, the Gulf War had just ended, and the Cold War had screeched past like a subway train, trailing sparks. I wondered about the wars I had missed and daydreamed of those that might come, spurred on by the local Marine recruiter who had begun courting me. He must have sensed indecision because he phoned my house many times. It was amusing, at first; it even made me feel wanted. No colleges were calling, after all, and the Marine, in almost desperate tones, was making wild promises.

Around this time, I also discovered that several of my teachers were veterans. Dr. Hull of Europe, Mr. Sullivan of Korea, Mr. Banit and Mr. Droste of Vietnam. When you’re a student you can deduce the lives of most teachers—the trembling hands, the engagement ring or its sudden removal, the Marlboro hard pack pocketed beneath a sweater vest. They drifted in clouds of mood and chalk dust. The veterans were calm and pensive, harder to read. They weren’t interested in busting us for such minor rebellions as smoking in the bathrooms, and they didn’t exude the uncertainty that attracts young punks like flies. You had to win their rage. Where did their detachment, which at times bordered on collusion, come from? Were we supposed to admire them or think them broken?

Banit, an English teacher, told the only war story any of us heard in school. It was about Vietnam, where he had been a Marine lieutenant, and it began in the aftermath of an all-night battle, as strung-out survivors blinked into morning and saw before them piles of bodies. Somewhere in that slaughter, a North Vietnamese soldier lay still, feigning death, waiting for another chance to attack. When the Marines found him, they fired so many rounds that Banit had to order them to quit shooting. He told all this plainly, and you can imagine the silence that afterward filled our classroom. I was the only student to raise a hand. “I told them it was a waste of ammunition,” Mr. Banit answered. “And I told them they would probably need it later.”

Among the messages a young reader is supposed to receive from All Quiet on the Western Front is that adults gamble at war and pay with the lives of their children. The revelation is subversive, confusing, and sad. Bäumer had been urged into war by his teacher; would mine ever do the same? In certain moments it seemed possible, even desirable. I could see the place that awaited me, like some tragic literary appointment. All I had to do was call back the recruiter and confirm.

Why should anyone care about the First World War? It’s an incredible story, more awesome than any fiction, its consequences felt today in the very small (daylight-saving time) and the very large (the wars in Syria and Iraq). But if the past doesn’t easily move you, perhaps how is a better question—how can we lose contact with an event so large and important? The French philosopher Pierre Nora would say it is because the very way we remember has changed. Nora has called Western society “hopelessly forgetful” and, in an essay written in the late 1980s, lamented what he called the fragmentation of memory. Nora believed we had mostly ceased to be “peoples of memory” and become instead keepers of archives. The former, in his view, lived surrounded by and in unselfconscious contact with the past, perhaps like an extended family, where generations communicate in words but also in a silent procession of behaviors and traditions. The archivist, on the other hand, is disconnected, solitary, adrift in a stream of events. He preserves objects and images but ignores context. Instead of living in memory, as Nora would describe it, the archivist gravitates toward the capture of moments. Anyone with a smart phone, or who maintains a Facebook or Instagram page has known the urge to capture and preserve, and probably even the pressure to do it. Nora would say that we have become superattuned to the passage of time, not in the grand sense but in the tiniest.

This tension becomes clear in our attitudes toward the relics of the Great War. Over the winter, I talked with Belgians who live along the still-visible scar of the Western Front. One of them is a farmer, another an archaeologist. The farmer often comes into contact with the war’s debris—helmets, beer bottles, rusty bayonets, boots, live grenades, poison-gas shells—that he finds buried in his family’s fields. The archaeologist encounters these things less frequently, and always in the capacity of a guardian. None of it is old by the measure of science, but the archaeologist told me that Belgian law now protects objects that the farmer might once have called junk. Stuff he would have plowed under, asked the bomb squad to remove, or in some cases gathered and taken into his home, is today state property. The junk has lawyered-up.

Now the men find themselves on opposite sides of remembering. The farmer wants to live as he always has; the archaeologist wants to preserve and enshrine. They have become Nora’s partisans of the past. Neither of them regards the war with any less reverence, or its leftovers with less interest. The nature of their care, however, begins to tear the story apart; it pushes us too close or too far from the painting. Nora might call this the beginning of forgetting. Needless to say, the two men don’t think much of each other.

I never did call back the Marine recruiter. I graduated, just barely, and he phoned other boys with his promises. But from that age forward, I understood that the First World War was far less dead than it had seemed. It was an evolving narrative, and I began seeing it everywhere. In Monet and Tolkien, in the old artillery pieces rusting outside VFW posts, and as an echo in the memories of my grandfathers. Later, in the contours of Darth Vader’s helmet, songs by PJ Harvey, or the route of professional cycling’s classic race, the Paris-Roubaix, which runs along sections of the old frontline. I don’t think obsession is the word. I don’t own any relics; I’ve never joined any of the intense online communities. I know only one or two people who share my interest. Mostly I have encountered the war slowly and off to the side, in books, on battlefields, and now and then in the radiated glory of a real expert’s knowledge.

This year’s centennial has almost overwhelmed me. Books, films, and exhibits continue to multiply, seemingly without end—from the Oxford English Dictionary’s attempt to trace words back to their wartime origins to journalist-illustrator Joe Sacco’s extraordinary representation of the Battle of the Somme in a 24-foot-long graphic mural. The next four years will provide ever more interpretations. I wonder sometimes if this extended reflection won’t, by its very weight, bury the war and hasten its mummification. By 2018, people may feel as many of us already do about the ongoing Civil War sesquicentennial: woozy, gluttonous, stupefied.

But even in this rich moment, there is still the problem of distance. History and documentary can feel extraordinarily finite. How do we cross the temporal rift between ourselves and the war? For the devout, there are always new books, thick with reexaminations. But those of us who feel oppressed by heavyweight titles massing on the nightstand are left looking for other perspectives. Last winter, exhausted with reading, I searched and finally found sources that were, for me, entirely new: podcast interviews with veterans.

The series is called Voices of the First World War and was produced by the Imperial War Museums in London. The episodes draw from the IWM’s archive of more than 15,000 voice recordings, some reaching back to the early 1960s. The podcasts provide an incredible arc of first-person experience presented in minimalist style. No sound effects, simple narration, varying lengths of up to 30 minutes. Each episode explores a subject (the use of animals in war, for example, or trench raids), a battle (Arras, Gallipoli), or a larger theme (shell shock, conscientious objection).

When I spoke this spring with its producer, Nigel Steel, he had been preparing for several years, like a professional athlete, for the war’s centennial. He is principal historian for the IWM’s First World War Centenary Partnership, and the podcasts are but one of its many memorial activities, which include a remodel of the flagship London museum. In 2011, Steel and his colleague Kate Clements began mapping out topics and sifting through interviews. They planned their last podcast to coincide roughly with the anniversary of the German “hammer strike” across Belgium in August 1914.

What can compare with the human voice for delivering the broadest range of emotional texture? Texture is the most important and ephemeral quality of the past—the one that fades first. The podcasts are weightless, and yet profoundly substantial. Most of the interviewees are British men (though Germans, Frenchmen, British women, and others do appear), and they recollect their war experiences in accents that reflect region, class, and education. The ambience of the recordings stretches your sense of space—a speaker might feel quite near, or nearly too removed, as though sitting in a chair across an empty room. We expect in contemporary media high production values, and without them we usually stop paying attention. Here, though, imperfection—the hiss of tape turning in the spools, the echo in a pensioner’s parlor—heightens our sense of intimacy.

During a podcast called “War in the Air,” a former pilot speaks of how their service drove him and his comrades to the bottle. Each evening, they would retreat to the barracks bar, where they learned which friends had fallen out of the sky that day. “The center of the squadron seemed to be in the bar,” he says almost offhandedly. I could see the pilot sitting there, surrounded by young friends, all of them mourning in a world of wood, leather, and cloth. Out beyond them in the night sat their airplanes and beyond them the trenches, and beyond those lay the moonscape of no man’s land, cratered and oozing with dead. Drifting farther, I could see enemy trenches and the soldiers huddled within, and then more artillery batteries and more airfields, all arranged in a vast canvas of men and machines, corpses and nations, the night air humming, Europe disintegrating. An age mainlined through the old man’s voice.

Another powerful episode explores the Christmas Truce of 1914, when against orders, small groups of Allied and German troops stopped fighting and exchanged songs and gifts, and even played soccer together in no man’s land. They did not realize the scale of the destruction around them and had no idea of the suffering ahead. But we do, and it is heartbreaking. Listening to the podcasts is to be strangely astride time. You recognize death. You may remember that the last of the veterans died a few years ago. But in the moment of recording, their memories are preserved in a kind of permanent present tense. They reflect on one lifetime from a later one, recapturing their incredulity and youth even as they know how it all turned out. It is expansive, telescopic. These men and women had already survived the greatest disaster of the past 100 years, and then survived its sequel. What was death to them?

A few years ago, I was living in a small apartment in a gray German city, and from there I commuted for long stretches to Afghanistan, where I wrote about the war. One cold December morning, I rented a car and drove west, through rain, to the battlefield of Verdun. The autobahn was deserted. I sped through empty fields and dense forests, past stands of enormous wind turbines, and suddenly I was entering Lorraine.

Two hours after leaving my apartment, I bought a baguette in the only open
boulangerie I could find.

“What should I see?” I asked the girl behind the counter.

She shrugged and smiled, slipped my change in a little dish. “It’s all the same,” she said.

Under different circumstances, I would have thought she was merely standing too far from the painting. Rain clattered on the windows and beyond them Verdun’s monuments loomed, black and mournful. That burden of reverence probably annoyed her. There is such a thing as too much. I took the bread and headed out, and soon I was alone, lost in a sea of shell holes, searching for one more view of war.

By the middle of 1916, Verdun was a savage, treeless mudscape. So brutal was the fighting, so poor seemed the odds of survival, that Monet might have known it by the nickname “the meat grinder” and hoped, along with the parents of every French soldier, that his only living son would not be deployed there. More than 700,000 soldiers were killed or wounded during the 10-month battle. It is often invoked as a symbol of stalemate and proof of the war’s futility. But Verdun was no lost cause to the besieged French, who held back the German advance at great cost in a struggle that has become a national legend. More than anything, though, Verdun demonstrates what modern nations were newly capable of, and what their weary, frightened citizens would allow.

At a cemetery outside the city, where the unknown dead lay stacked three deep beneath cement crosses, I hid from the rain under a chestnut tree. In all directions the hills were dark and still. During the war, waves of attacks and counterattacks had flowed over, around, and even under them, but it was not until American troops joined the French, in 1918, that the Germans were finally driven out. I stood awhile and listened, heard only crows griping in the forest. Then I picked a chestnut from the grass and dropped it into my pocket. A few days later, I carved the name of the place, Les Éparges, into its smooth, brown skin and mailed it home.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Neil Shea’s first book, Frostlines: Dispatches from the New Arctic, will be published next year.  


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