Tuesday marked Armistice Day across much of the West – the last day of the Great War in 1918. It goes by other names today, but the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month will always have one meaning to most. Most, but not all – certainly not to those who died in the tenth hour solely for the desire to achieve symmetry.
There were parades, vigils, two-minutes of silence – all manners of remembrance.
I think it is worth considering what those veterans of the war that gave the world this Armistice thought – not about the war, but about the civilians cheering them on. From “The Great War and Modern Memory,” by Paul Fussell:
It was not just from their staffs that the troops felt estranged; it was from everyone back in England.
Why would the soldiers feel estranged from those cheering them on, calling them “war heroes,” and offering all manner of praise and adulation? One place to look is the news from the front – filed by correspondents sympathetic only to the official government narrative. One such “kept correspondent” was Lord Northcliffe, publisher of the Times. In an essay entitled “What to send Your Solider” he offered peppermint bulls’ eyes:
The bulls’ eyes ought to have plenty of peppermint in them, for it is the peppermint which keeps those who suck them warm on a cold night. It also has a digestive effect, though that is of small account at the front, where health is so good and indigestion hardly ever heard of. The open-air life, the regular and plenteous feeding, the exercise, and the freedom from care and responsibility, keep the soldiers fit and contented.
Without going into detail, suffice it to say that the life described by Northcliffe was not a life experienced in the trenches. During the winter, men froze to death. They wept in Gallipoli – not from fear, but because they were always so dirty – lice and dysentery were regular army issue. Peppermint bulls’ eyes, indeed.
Well, how estranged is estranged? The following should give some food for thought regarding what’s going on inside the mind of the next soldier you thank for his service:
The visiting of violent and if possible painful death upon the complacent, patriotic, uncomprehending, fatuous civilians at home was a favorite fantasy indulged by the troops.
Siegfried Sassoon, a veteran of the war, writes in “Blighters” that he:
…would like to see them crushed to death by a tank in one of their silly patriotic music halls, and in “Fight to the Finish” he enacts a similar fantasy. The war over, the army is marching through London in a Victory Parade, cheered by the “Yellow-Pressmen” along the way. Suddenly the soldiers fix bayonets and turn on the crowd:
At last the boys found a cushy job.
Sassoon did not neglect the politicians:
I heard the Yellow-Pressmen grunt and squeal:
And with my trusty bombers turned and went
To clear those Junkers out of Parliament
There was the hatred of soldiers returning to the front from leave; according to Philip Gibbs:
They hated the smiling women on the streets. They loathed the old men….They desired that profiteers should die by poison-gas. They prayed God to get the Germans to send Zeppelins to England – to make the people know what war meant.
Keep this in mind the next time you consider thanking a war veteran for his “service.”