How should we commemorate the Great War ?


Commemoration of the Great War is a communal, corporate and often formal act, when together we bring to mind and give thanks for the courage and sacrifice of those men who left behind their daily lives and their families, and went to fight for their country. These commemorations may often be suffused with personal and individual reflections as family remembrance of a grandfather, great-grandfather or great-uncle is rehearsed and renewed, and the bitter-sweet mix of grief and pride tasted once more.

In such moments, and given the passing of time and of the generations that actually experienced that war, enmity and hatred may seem less important and relegated to the distant background. We focus on those who gave up their lives or sanity. It is possible now to admit that these stories may be shared by families in those countries against whom we fought. We understand, dimly perhaps, that however heinous the acts which led to the war, those failures were not those of especially heinous people, but rather the failings which exist on all sides of a conflict by virtue of our common humanity. And so we begin silently to let go, to forgive each other.

'Lest we forget' - the sacrifice is certainly not forgotten. But maybe, as a subconscious act of self-defence, we forget the appalling realities of war, and thereby risk repeating them. Regrettably, the Great War failed to live up to its billing as 'the war to end all wars'. Our nature seems to be such that wars continue to be fought, with the same unspeakable consequences each time.

Through the arts, our minds and senses can be sharpened again to these horrors, whether by reading poems such as Wilfred Owen's Dulce et decorum est, by listening to music of Vaughan Williams' Dona nobis pacem, or by contemplating Picasso's painting Guernica. These remind us that our commemorations, our salutes to bravery, should never congeal into nostalgia or de-sensitize us to war's realities. 

Engaging with the pain of those who suffer the ravages of war today - refugees and orphans for instance - and feeling remorse for our shared failures to prevent it, are perhaps essential ingredients in the commemorative acts of a healthy society, a momentary reminder of the world outside our bubble.

Such true remembrance, though profoundly uncomfortable, may become possible, or at least easier, when placed in a greater context by a narrative such as Penthos that proclaims forgiveness and hope, and asserts (in the Agnus Dei, for instance) that Owen's despairing spin on sacrifice is not necessarily the whole story.



Further Armistice centenary commemoration events:

With St Peter’s Singers:

23rd September at St. Chads  -'Light perpetual' - Faure's Requiem and war poetry with Trio Literati

25th November in Leeds Town Hall - 'War Horse' - with Michael Morpurgo and the Orchestra of Opera North

18th February in Leeds Town Hall - 'Grant us peace' - Vaughan Williams 5 Mystical Songs & Dona nobis pacem


Around the city:

1 July - 17 November 2018 at Leeds Minster: ‘There but not there’ - an exhibition commemorating lives lived and lost in the Great War