Friday, May 06, 2011

On "living memorials."

This is Harry Patch, remembered at the time of his death in July 2009 as the last surviving veteran of the First World War to have fought on the Western Front. Mr. Patch was one of a handful of centenarians who achived notoriety in recent years as 'the last of the last,' the final survivors out of the many millions who fought in the First World War. With the death yesterday of Claude Choules, the true last of the last has disappeared: there is now no one alive who can speak firsthand of the experience of combat during 'the war to end all wars.'

In interviews, the last of the last typically insisted that they were ordinary men who did nothing particularly heroic; most of them would affirm that war is a terrible thing and that they were lucky to have survived. What made the last of the last so extraordinary was simply the fact that they were the last people alive who could tell us what fighting in the First World War was really like. Memoirists like Ernst Jünger and poets like Wilfred Owen may have provided more eloquent testimony to the horrors of war, but men like Claude Choules and Harry Patch ultimately had the final word. Like Ishmael at the end of Moby-Dick, they could claim the words of Job as their own: "And I only am escaped alone to tell thee."

One of the first published tributes offered to the last of the last on the occasion of Claude Choules' passing was this essay by Guardian reporter Stephen Moss, who reflects on the experience of interviewing several of the Great War's last living veterans:
The interviews were memorable, but not because of what they remembered about the war. History had caught up with them too late for that. They had become living memorials. [Harry] Patch was fantastic, but perhaps too fantastic. He had his script off pat: "That German coming towards me, I thought why should I murder him? He may have a mother. He may have brothers and sisters. He may be married, bringing up a young family. I can't kill him. And I didn't kill him. I shot him above the ankle and above the knee, and brought him down."

. . .

To this day I have no idea whether what Patch said was true. Can you be that precise in the heat of battle?

The oral testimonies gathered in the last years of the veterans' lives had little practical value, because they had spent a lifetime smoothing out their narratives. The real story of the first world war lay with the dead, not the living. Historians give more credence to what soldiers wrote at the time than to anything said afterwards. Letters and diaries count for more than fallible memories.

When I heard Claude Choules describing, in the radio interviews replayed on Thursday, how he hated war, how all soldiers were the same beneath the uniform, I heard again the authentic voice of the survivor, telling the moral tale he knew we wanted to hear.

Too much was being asked of these last survivors: we were willing them to be consciences of a brutal century and they were gamely playing the role allotted to them.
Moss concludes his reflections on the "living memorials" that he interviewed with these poignant yet provocative paragraphs:
The interview I enjoyed most in 2001 was with 103-year-old Douglas Thomson. His principal wartime memory was of a latrine blowing up when hit by a mortar. The rest was largely forgotten – the war was a hell of a long time ago. But he talked of a trip around Scotland he had made with his son in the early 1960s as if it were yesterday; of battles he had had with his employer in the 1950s that still seemed to grate; of friends he had made in his care home but who had too swiftly departed.

For Thomson, war was a faded, fragile memory; it was the life lived since that mattered. We had turned them into symbols, but were in danger of forgetting they were people. As they told their stories for the umpteenth time, they must have wondered if the lottery of longevity was really a prize worth winning.

We should salute Choules, but not worry overmuch that the final link has gone. That linkage was always a media fiction, a publisher's dream.
Moss' recollections of his interview with Douglas Thomson reminded me of the time a local World War I veteran addressed a Memorial Day assembly at my junior high school. Still lucid in his early nineties, Benjamin Dexter still fit into his green AEF uniform and was physically agile enough to get up and down the steps to the auditorium stage without assistance. Mr. Dexter offered some vivid anecdotes of his war service, but he became most animated when he spoke about his boyhood and recited from memory a poem that he had been required to learn by heart in elementary school. The Great War may have been an important part of Mr. Dexter's long life, but it seemed clear that other memories had done much more to define him.

Stephen Moss may be right in holding that "the final link" represented by the last of the last was fictitious. Nevertheless, I still believe that we have much to mourn with the passing of the last generation able to recall a conflict that decisively shaped the course of the twentieth century. May the last of the last rest in peace, and may their memory be eternal. AMDG.


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