Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Armistice Day

As the 91st Armistice Day passes - the first without any surviving First World War veterans in attendance at the UK commemorations, and on a day in which I was rehousing some of Gurney's war correspondence, the war has been on my mind. The scenes from Edwin Lutyens's Cenotaph and from the grave of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey make me think of an article I have yet to complete on Gurney's work at the time of the unveiling of the Cenotaph and the return of the Unknown Warrior (the above picture is of the Unknown Warrior's cortege passing the newly unveiled memorial), at which time Gurney was composing the War Elegy for orchestra - a work that cannot but have been influenced by the great attention that was being paid to the acts of commemoration of November 1920. The fact that Gurney's conception of the work gradually altered during its writing, from its original title of 'Funeral March', through consideration of 'March Elegy' to the more pertinent 'War Elegy', is perhaps testament to this.

There are a couple of unpublished poems by Gurney entitled 'Armistice Day', written in 1923, although as I write this I cannot lay my hands on my transcription (which of the numerous poetry transcription documents I have on my computer is it in?!). The poem to which I return when thinking of the reaction to the Armistice is Gurney's as yet unpublished 'The Bugle', written in late 1918/early 1919.

This poem tells of the feeling of victory that hangs over London, with sounds of the bugle 'embronz[ing] the air', repeating its cry of triumph. Gurney tells the thoughts of the soldiers who have returned and are hearing these victory calls, soldiers who do not share the same sense of rejoicing: as they pass through the streets the former soldiers see that business goes on, bartering, chattering, with 'Men los[ing] their souls in care of business' as though 'men had not been mown / Like corn swathes East of Ypres or the Somme'. They are apparently heedless of what has passed, Gurney expecting some more reverential, subdued atmosphere perhaps, honouring and respecting the lives given in order to maintain that freedom to barter and chatter. Finally, Gurney voices the fear of all returning soldiers:
'O Town, O Town
In soldiers[’] faces one might see the fear
That once again they should be called to bear
Arms, and to save England from her own.'

The below film is the 1920 Pathe News footage of the Armistice Day commemorations, with the transport and arrival of the Unknown Warrior and the unveiling of the Cenotaph. The flowers heaped around the Cenotaph, and the public scenes - thousands of people standing in total silence - demonstrate the importance of that 1920 commemoration, particularly with the return of the warrior - a symbol of 'Everyman', having been selected at random from a selection of unidentified soldiers from all of the main battlefields of France and Belgium. It could be any mother's son who had been lost without trace, and hence all could claim it as theirs - an important gesture following the decision not to repatriate the dead.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


You might be interested to know that Claude Choles, a British veteran of WWI and WWII is still alive in Australia:

We Yanks have one left also, Frank Buckles, and so do the Canadians (John Babcock):

My German-American great-granduncle died in 1918 fighting against the German Empire and I enjoy your blog.