The Armistice, 100 years on

November 19, 2018

 

At 11 am on 11 November, I joined a hundred or so others at the Cenotaph in the main street of Lilydale, a small town east of the Victorian capital, Melbourne. 

 

Young and old from near and far were part of a respectful gathering of fireys, coppers, students, local officials and pollies marking the day the guns went silent. We stood surrounded by hundreds of blood red woollen poppies knitted by local residents and planted in the earth about us.

 

Lest we forget.

 

Local dignitaries read their speeches and school students recited poignant wartime poems. But none were – I suggest – as relevant today as that by the current British poet laureate, Dame Carol Ann Duffy, a sonnet read at low tide on British and Irish beaches on November 11, 2018. 

 

Her poem is called The Wound in Time:

 

"It is the wound in Time. The century’s tides, 

chanting their bitter psalms, cannot heal it. 

Not the war to end all wars; death’s birthing place; 

the earth nursing its ticking metal eggs, hatching 

new carnage. But how could you know, brave 

as belief as you boarded the boats, singing? 

The end of God in the poisonous, shrapnelled air. 

Poetry gargling its own blood. We sense it was love 

you gave your world for; the town squares silent, 

awaiting their cenotaphs. What happened next? 

War. And after that? War. And now? War. War. 

History might as well be water, chastising this shore; 

for we learn nothing from your endless sacrifice. 

Your faces drowning in the pages of the sea."

 

Now that the expensive and extensive centenary commemorations are past, I wonder whether we will continue to value with the same intensity the lessons that WW1 has bequeathed us.

As I wrote in a speech to my old school last year:

'War has changed so much over a hundred years. Conventional-guerilla-nuclear-the ‘war on terror’ and drone warfare. No longer do we recruit, train or deploy young men in the same way, or in the same numbers, and throw them into the meat grinder. And I suspect that these Centenary years represent the high-water mark for general interest in World War One. More recent, contemporary stories from subsequent wars will prevail.' (Read it here)

And as if to underline that thought, at the Lilydale service I noticed well-armed police keeping careful watch, not so much participating in the ceremony, but on the alert for any act of violence that might ruin it. 

 

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