Many will recognise this snippet; some will remember the rest of the quotation, used in Siegfried Sassoon’s protest poem. Many, having grown up in the second half of the twentieth century, or even more recently, will have accepted this for the sarcastic comment Owen intended. But should it be?
Today, the thought that it is either sweet or noble to be willing to sacrifice oneself for his society, the perpetuation of his culture and way of life, is very much out-of-tune with the ‘geist’ of the ‘zeit’. The idea that some societies are preferable to others and should, therefore, resist the efforts of those others to control them, is deeply unfashionable. For those to whom our society is the source of all evil and cannot be reformed soon enough, there is little that can be said. But to most reasonable people, the thought has some resonance.
Twice last century, people in Britain faced aggression from the European mainland. Twice, men and women joined together, with others from the Empire, to resist that aggression at incalculable cost to themselves, their family and friends, society and nation. Later, academic historians began to portray the first as unforgivable error and the second as justifiable crusade. To the men and women who fought on the sea, on land, in the air and behind the scenes, both were a burden willingly shouldered, and in doing so they defeated those forces of aggression.
All over Europe, and wider afield, their bodies enrich the tortured soil on which they perished; ‘In that rich earth, a richer dust concealed’, as Rupert Brooke expressed it. Their graves are beautifully maintained to honour their sacrifice, as they lie in a re-created perpetual English garden.
At every cemetery, a Sword of Sacrifice stands proudly. Separately, “one great fair stone of fine proportions, 12 ft. in length, lying raised upon three steps, of which the first and third shall be twice the width of the second;” (Kenyon Report, 24 January 1918, page 10), a war-stone or altar, is situated on the east side of the cemetery with the graves before it, facing east. On each altar stone is inscribed the words, ‘Their name liveth for evermore’.
The truth of that statement, which is also a command, has struck me more forcibly than in previous years. As I stand before graves of men born in the 1880s and 1890s, many of humble origin, I stand before a beautiful gravestone, surrounded by flowering plants, lovingly tended. On each is inscribed their name and regiment, their age and the date of their death, some with a message from their family inscribed below. I am standing at their grave more than a hundred years after they died. Generations to come will be able to do the same and think not just about their death but about what they died to preserve. As we do so, we experience the same sense of wonder, indebtedness and respect.
This honour is accorded to few indeed of their contemporaries. The famous and the especially valorous are commemorated, but the edifices in which they are honoured are noticed, or visited, mostly because the place in which they rest has its own fame. Yet thousands travel each year specifically to visit relations, members of particular regiments, and the especially valorous, whose gravestones neatly line thousands of cemeteries across Europe, and abroad.
As one stands in silence before each grave, to honour and remember, he is acutely conscious that these have attained an earthly immortality impossible for us. Truly, their name liveth for evermore.
To them is granted honour by all of us, for centuries to come, which is a sweet rebuff to Owen’s sarcasm.