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THE WARS AND THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER
THE FIRST WORLD WAR CHANGED EVERYTHING…Mary Ann had begged Alfred not to leave for the Western Front but off he went, a 39-year-old who had never handled a gun in his life. He returned unexpectedly one day, terribly tired, muddy and lousy from the trenches and went straight to bed while the girls pressed his coat and his boys polished his buttons and badge. When it was time to leave once more, he suddenly turned to his wife and said: “After what I’ve seen, I’ll get at least one German before I die.” His family never saw him again.1 This poignant memory, collected from the son of one of those children (who would himself experience the beginning of the Blitz in the same East End of London his grandfather had left) is a perfect touchstone for the received view of World War One as a futile, purposeless bloodbath in which an entire generation, mostly the poor, were mindlessly and mechanically exterminated until — on November 11th 1918 — it ended as suddenly and pointlessly as it had begun, four years earlier.
This grim and ironic view (so typical of our day) has been shaped to a great extent by what came afterwards, especially the experience of World War Two — made almost inevitable by the circumstances of the ﬁrst war’s end. There is truth in it, to be sure, as well as circumstances making World War One a singularly horriﬁc conﬂict; but it has almost completely been forgotten that, for those who fought it, the First World War was “The Great War” and “The War to End All Wars:” most soldiers went into — and many came through — battle believing in its justice and value (no small number remaining convinced in the subsequent peace). It was not only the Anglican Bishop of London who believed This nation [has] never done a more Christ-like thing than when it went to war in August 1914…the world [has] been redeemed again by the precious blood shed on the side of righteousness 2 — words spoken after two and a half years of war which included the battles of the Marne, Ypres, Gallipoli, Verdun, Jutland, and the Somme.
After being exposed to some of the evidence recently, an English columnist wrote Contrary to the idea that the nation was overwhelmed by cynical disgust (as in a later view represented by Oh! What a Lovely War), there was at the time a widespread conviction that Servicemen were following in the footsteps of Christ, who laid down his life, and that the fallen would be welcomed into Paradise.3 The War Shrine Movement is an almost completely forgotten social phenomenon of the conﬂict whose origin and initial growth came from the poor of London’s East End, where the ﬁrst was constructed in 1916; the idea spread nationally after HM Queen Mary paid a visit to several in the area a year later. The shrines, usually built on the street by the women left behind, were local, intensely personal, and therefore various in design — but the central motif was the Roll of Honor listing those men from the neighborhood who were serving and those who had fallen in battle; most contained a cross or cruciﬁx and a Union Jack; and they were kept constantly decorated with fresh ﬂowers.
The Great War came as Anglocatholicism was approaching its period of greatest inﬂuence on both sides of the Atlantic (ten years after the Armistice the Church of England would vote to amend the Book of Common Prayer to include many Catholic beliefs and practices…only to see their changes rejected by Parliament). It had been associated with the impoverished East End from earliest days; indeed the desire of the “slum Priests’” to restore the Beauty of Holiness to worship was intimately connected with a concern for bringing that Beauty to the lives of the poor. The war shrines’ resemblance to wayside shrines common in Catholic lands — as well as their spiritual and emotive power — were not lost on the PROTESTANT TRUTH SOCIETY and other defenders of the Thirty-Nine Articles’ prohibitions against prayers for the dead: they were viliﬁed as “affectations of Ritualism” and “Popish superstition.” The people would have them, however; and the movement’s culmination arrived in August 1918 with the unveiling of the Great War Shine in Hyde Park, visited by 100,000 people who left more than 200,000 ﬂoral offerings over the course of ten days.
At war’s end these scenes were recapitulated at the ﬁrst Cenotaph, a temporary lath-and-plaster structure built for London’s Victory Parade in July 1919: Hour after hour, day after day, week after week they come; the men bareheaded and silent, the women wiping away quiet tears or just standing as though in prayer. And each brings an offering of ﬂowers to that bank of blossoms which, rising from the base all round, has grown a foot high, two feet, three feet, four…each is a deﬁnite word to some man who will never come back. “To dear Daddy, from Little Charles,” shows a hand that has held few pens. “To my brother —, in memory and pride,” is writ brave as the words. One black-edged card bears the names of “My two dear sons.” Silver lettering telling of titles and great deeds lies with an ordinary luggage label scrawled over by a few pencilled words…wondering children bring tight, dying handfuls for “Daddy’s grave.”4 This description was written when such scenes had stretched on for a quarter of a year, by which time public pressure impelled the government to reconsider: on October 23rd it was announced a permanent copy of the Cenotaph, exact in every detail, would be erected. The Cenotaph was very different from the wartime shrines — intentionally so: it was a creation of Government designed by a professional; it was explicitly impersonal and overtly secular.
The unveiling of the second version on November 11th 1920 — linked with the interment of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey which (after a fashion) supplied what it lacked — resulted in national catharsis: after laying his wreath on the cofﬁn a sovereign saluted for the ﬁrst (and only) time in history; at the eleventh hour all England came to a halt, remaining completely silent for two minutes; for four days Whitehall was so jammed by those visiting the Cenotaph it was unusable for any other purpose; 40,000 visited the Unknown Warrior’s grave on the ﬁrst day alone; by the time it was sealed on November 18th a million and a quarter had done; its site was piled with ﬂowers and other offerings for many months thereafter.
The following year America would bring her own Unknown Soldier back from France and bury him with similar honors in Arlington Cemetery. War is a great, if sometimes necessary, evil; those it touches (if they survive) are forever changed; in it the extremes of human experience, both sublime and horriﬁc, are encountered. Beyond this — if so far — generalization is worthless and (at least potentially) a good deal worse, not least because war is one of the most complex of experiences both in itself and as it touches the individual…and it has touched so many. Thus Conrad Aiken in THE WARS AND THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER: The history of war / is the history of mankind. / So many dead: / look at them there in the dark, look at them going, / the longest parade of all, the parade of the dead: / between then and now, seven thousand million dead: / dead on the ﬁeld of battle… Sometimes when confronted by an overwhelming experience, paradoxically, it is only by concentrating on individual instances the Truth of the Whole can be grasped; something of this intuition may well have prompted a number of the Great War’s combatants to exhume a single unidentiﬁable soldier and accord him their nation’s highest honors.
Christianity is unique among religions in the stress it places on the individual; Catholicism is notable for its insistence on the importance of free will, teaching that individual moral choice is of the greatest importance when considering a given act and its circumstances. This brief essay began with a personal experience of the loss and seeming futility of war; let it end with more of Aiken’s poem and his distillation of the moral truth facing all who go to war, as he addresses the chosen representatives of millions on both sides of the Atlantic:
In the new city of marble and bright stone, the city named for a captain :
in the capital: under the solemn echoing dome, in the still tomb, lies an unknown soldier.
(Concord : Valley Forge : the Wilderness : Antietam : Gettysburg : Shiloh)
In the brown city, old and shabby, by the muddy Thames,
in the gaunt avenue where Romans blessed with Latin the oyster and the primrose,
the stone shaft speaks of another.
Those who pass bare their heads in the rain, pausing to listen.
(Hastings : Blenheim : Waterloo : Trafalgar : Balaklava : Gallipoli)
… And you, the soldier: you who are dead: is it not so with you?
Love : devotion : sacrifice : death:
can we call you unknown, you who knew what you did?
The soldier is crystal: crystal of man: clear heart, clear duty, clear purpose.
No soldier can be unknown. Only he is unknown who is unknown to himself.
— Kevin McDermott : November 2014
Of your charity, pray for the souls of Alfred Henry Bowyer, Private No. 17699, 13 Battalion, the Essex Regiment and Corporal Frederick Fellows Jillson, Serial No. 1467023, Battery F, 130th Field Artillery, 35th Division, American Expeditionary Force, to whose memory this small work is dedicated. Both were casualties of the Great War’s new technologies of death. Private Bowyer died at Cambrai, the world’s ﬁrst tank battle; his body was never found. Corporal Jillson returned from France to be killed, two decades later, by the effects of repeated inhalation of mustard gas; he lies buried in his native place. May God grant them, and the souls of all the Faithful departed, eternal rest. © 2014, Kevin McDermott. The author has asserted his moral rights.
1: Bissell, Andrew: London’s East End Survivors: Voices of the Blitz Generation. ISBN 978-1-907680-00-7; Centenar, Bournemouth, 2010
2: Bishop Arthur Winnington-Ingram: address at the dedication of Prestons Road Estate war shrine, Poplar, East London. EAST LONDON OBSERVER, December 23, 1916
3: Howse, Christopher: Shrines Built While the First World War Went On, [London] TELEGRAPH June 19, 2009 4: Lancaster, GB: “The Glorious Dead.”ASHBURTON [New Zealand] GUARDIAN, Vol XL, Issue 9146, October 31, 1919