Today people all over the world will come together to think about World War I and those who fought in it. How could we remember better? And what can we do with remembering? An essay by Andrew Johnston
The driver picked me up from the station at Bailleul, a sleepy town with one of those belfries that doesn’t have a church attached. Northern, I thought. Flemish, he told me. You are in another land here. You are in Flanders.
Flanders Fields, I thought, mechanically. And then the car rounded a corner and a farmyard came into view that was filled by a huge pile of what I took for an instant to be human heads.
The driver noticed me flinch. Mangel-wurzel, he said. Turnips for cattle.
The word did nothing to calm my nerves. It sounded like a machine that ate bodies and left behind the heads. The Mangel-wurzel: A worm, a war worm, that burrowed through decades and swallowed cities.
During my month in Flanders, the Mangel-wurzel came to mean many things, but in the end the the Mangel-wurzel had just one message for me: The war is never over.
What shall we do with this anniversary, this 100 years since the end of World War One? We will remember them, the line from the poem goes.
But we can’t “remember” them in the literal sense of recalling a person. And now the survivors have gone, too. We have passed from “survivor memory” to “cultural memory”.
We’ll have to rake together what scraps we have, our “ghostly imaginings”, as the historian Benedict Anderson calls them. But we dig up these images each year only to bury them again.
What could we do with our remembering? How – because it is 100 years – could we remember better?
I spent my month in Flanders in a big house on a forested hill. Just down the road was the border with Belgium. The house, now a writer’s residence, was originally the stables for a chateau that had been destroyed in the war – the family home of the novelist Marguerite Yourcenar. Signs of the war were everywhere: the front line had ebbed and flowed around the hilltop.
A short walk through straggly forest led to a small, immaculate Commonwealth war cemetery. More than 100 British dead, a couple of Canadians, one Australian. Where the forest opened up, the remnants of many trenches could be traced.
Every afternoon I headed out on a bike. One day, after passing a sign pointing to a Commonwealth cemetery, I began to wonder where the cemetery had gone. Then I came to the entrance and realised I had been riding alongside its high stone wall for hundreds of metres. Lijssenthoek. More than 10,000 graves.
Tyne Cot cemetery, near Passchendaele, I visited in a borrowed car: 11,900 graves. Another day I took my bike on the train to Armentières and rode home past Ploegsteert (“Plugstreet”) cemetery: 11,300 graves.
There are 580,000 named and 180,000 unidentified Commonwealth graves on the Western Front, and a similar number of German graves.
And then there are the French memorials. From where I was staying, a short ride took me to Kemmel, and a French ossuary — a terrifying word. Here the Mangel-wurzel had chewed up 5,237 soldiers and spat out only the bones.
From Kemmel I headed southeast in the vague direction of Messines, following narrow country roads across open ground. I stopped to ask the way in French from a couple of red-faced farm workers harvesting cabbages. They looked at me blankly. I realised I was still in Flemish-speaking Flanders and racked my brains for their word: Mesen.
Like many New Zealanders and other people born on islands, I’ll never get used to borders, still less to borders that also separate languages, so that you can travel down the road and meet someone who doesn’t understand a word you say.
Whatever the question was, I don’t think borders are the answer. Or countries, for that matter – though I know there are all sorts of historical reasons why they are better than what came before. “Country” is a sibling of “contrary”: countries define themselves in opposition to their neighbours. The results run from borders all the way to war. The Mangel-wurzel likes countries.
The Western Front was the ultimate futile border. As I carried on towards Messines, the terrain dipped and I became aware that for several kilometres already, I had been riding through No Man’s Land – that for years this landscape had been a treacherous, septic sea of mud and corpses, “an aching desolation of nothingness”, as the film-maker DW Griffith said after visiting it. “No one can describe it. You might as well try to describe the ocean.”
I stopped at a former mine crater, now filled with water and waterlilies and surrounded by trees and known as the Pool of Peace. Before the Battle of Messines, British coal miners had dug tunnels beneath German lines here and filled them with huge caches of explosives.
The battle began when the mines were set off, at 3.10am on 7 June 1917. The explosions were reportedly heard in London and Dublin. Where I was now standing, ten thousand German soldiers were torn to pieces. I thought of them sleeping or not sleeping or keeping watch when the Mangel-wurzel’s fury ripped up out of the earth – “enormous volumes of scarlet flame […] throwing up high towers of earth and smoke all lighted by the flame, spilling over into fountains of fierce colour.”
Back on the road I took in the even, fenceless fields all around and thought of what must still lie beneath them: bones, bayonets, bullets, shells, shrapnel. The Mangel-wurzel’s hoard.
One evening there was a reception at the house where I was staying. Finding out I was a New Zealander, a local collector approached me and began a furtive conversation about the war memorabilia. He described in a hushed voice the New Zealand military badges he owned – some with ferns, some from the Cyclist Battalion, some of cloth that had survived the years, improbably.
His shiftiness sharpened my curiosity. Do you find these things yourself? I asked. Do you trade them with other collectors? His face grew stern. I have my sources, he muttered, and turned away.
Was he holding on to objects that the law regarded as state property? Was he effectively a grave robber? I was surprised at the strength of my emotions. I felt that such items, like the bodies of the missing, should be venerated when found. Rituals should be observed when they were “pushed to the surface by the slow tidal movement of the soil”, as Geoff Dyer says.
By chance, the road I was on led directly to the Messines Ridge cemetery – and an imposing New Zealand memorial, a great circle of stone that you have to walk around, one way or the other, to get to the rest of the cemetery. It is engraved with the regiments and names of more than 800 soldiers.
After the German lines were blown up on 7 June 1917, allied forces rushed to take Messines itself. The New Zealand Division led the way, and by 7am the town was in their control. The New Zealanders remained in case of a counter-attack. It never came, but German artillery were still close enough to bombard them. By 9 June, 700 had been killed and 3,000 wounded.
I felt foolish, having accidentally come upon a huge memorial to New Zealand forces. I thought I should have known that it was there, that my itinerary should have been carefully planned to reach it.
As those emotions ebbed, however, new feelings replaced them. In other cemeteries, reading the names of the dead, I felt pity. Here I felt pride. Complicated pride – national pride.
Pity or pride. Mourning or politics. A human response to death and suffering, or “a practice bound up with rituals of national identification”. The two main forms of commemorating war, according to the experts.
How differently pity and pride treat the dead: as victims or warriors. And how differently they can make us feel about war itself: as futile slaughter or just cause. Yet most of the time pity and pride are forced into a queasy co-existence, much as the theorists would like to separate them.
Take those 250,000 boys, many of them driven by patriotic zeal, who enlisted in the second half of World War One. Victims or warriors?
My Scottish grandfather was one of them. I have the record of his first attempt. When he was barely 14, he spent six days in the Highland Cyclist Battalion before his father found out and he was discharged. The minimum height requirement was 5 feet 3 inches. His had been recorded as 5 feet 3 ½ inches, and his “apparent age” as 18 years and 17 days.
One failure wasn’t going to stop him. Having added four years to his age the first time round, he doubled down. When he died in 1956, my grandmother sent to Scotland for his birth certificate so she could claim a war pension. It showed that he was born in 1901, not 1893. He’d added eight years so he could go and fight, and stuck with the lie all his life.
As I carried on, I could see the tower of the church in Messines. I thought of an Austrian despatch runner who had been posted somewhere there, behind the lines, around Christmas 1914. The little town was already nothing but “an enormous heap of ash and rubble”, he wrote to his landlord in Munich. In the summer of 1917, not long after the mines had exploded, his regiment was sent back to the area. Messines must have been hardly distinguishable as a place of habitation.
Adolf Hitler – for that was the young Austrian’s name – had already been permanently changed by the war. In October 1914, in only four days of fighting east of Ypres, his regiment’s fighting force had been reduced from 3,600 to 611 men.
Ian Kershaw writes: “Hitler’s initial idealism, he said later, gave way on seeing the thousands killed and injured, to the realization ‘that life is a constant horrible struggle’. From now on, death was a daily companion. It immunized him completely against any sensitivity to human suffering. […] he closed his eyes to sorrow and pity. Struggle, survival, victory: these were all that counted.”
This is where we pick up the Mangel-wurzel’s trail. The corporal rendered oblivious to human suffering by one world war would later become the architect of another, and unimaginable suffering, including the murder in the Holocaust of six million Jews and millions of others.
The Mangel-wurzel, the monster of perpetual war, burrows through skulls and lay its eggs in living brains.
There in No Man’s Land, I thought about where its trail has led, through the mind of that despatch runner, to World War Two, the Cold War and all its hot wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, the Rwandan genocide, the Yugoslav wars, the Congo Wars, Afghanistan again, Iraq.
Whether or not there is such a thing as perpetual war, war has never stopped.
Since I visited Messines, I have thought often about how Hitler, numbed by mass military death in one war, went on to wreak mass murder on civilians in another. Have the last hundred years been more murderous for civilians?
On average, according to the historian William Eckhardt, civilians account for half of the deaths caused by war, and this ratio has remained steady for centuries. Recently, however, civilian deaths have vastly outnumbered military deaths – and they get far less coverage.
From 1999 until 2010, I worked for the International Herald Tribune, where I edited hundreds of thousands of words about an unending string of wars: Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Georgia, Gaza, Somalia. I was constantly struck by how little attention was paid to civilian deaths. Some reports contain estimates of civilian casualties, but when these are added up, they don’t match the human loss recorded on the ground.
The website Iraq Body Count, for example, bases its estimates on media reports, augmented with tallies from hospitals, morgues, non-governmental organisations and government sources. It calculates that 183,000 to 205,000 Iraqi civilians have died because of war since 2003. These enormous numbers are underestimates, Iraq Body Count acknowledges, because of the limitations of basing a toll on media reports.
In 2011, researchers from the United States, Iraq and Canada asked Iraqis themselves who they had lost, by carrying out household surveys right across the country. In 2013 they released their findings: the toll of Iraqi civilians wasn’t 200,000 but 500,000.
The United States lost 4,424 soldiers in the war.
One major reason for such high civilian tolls is that the Mangel-wurzel has taken to the air – and no one seems to want to do anything about it. Airstrikes were the cause of about six in 10 civilian deaths at the hands of coalition forces from 2003 to 2011, Iraq Body Count estimates. During the later Islamic State period, all the civilian deaths caused by coalition forces were from the air.
In Yemen, the coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates has carried out 18,000 airstrikes since 2015 – one every 99 minutes. One-third of them have hit non-military targets, according to the International Rescue Committee. The airstrikes have targeted bridges, markets, factories, fishing boats and even fields, in what looks like a deliberate effort to destroy food production and distribution.
As a result, more than 10,000 Yemeni civilians have been killed in the fighting, 50,000 have starved to death and hundreds have died of cholera. The United Nations says 13 million Yemeni civilians face starvation in what could become “the worst famine in the world in 100 years”. More than 8 million are already severely short of food. As I write, the besieged port city of Hodeidah, entry point for 80% of Yemen’s food imports and relief supplies, is being bombed.
The coalition’s catastrophic tactics have recently come under the international spotlight. Not because of the death of 50,000 Yemenis, however, but because of the murder of one Saudi, the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Despite the diplomatic posturing after the death of Khashoggi, it is likely that Saudi Arabia and its allies will continue to get away with mass murder in Yemen. Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest oil exporter, so it is crucial for global energy security. It also buys more arms than any other country, representing a huge market for the world’s arms manufacturers. It imports twice as many arms as the world’s second-biggest customer, its coalition ally the United Arab Emirates.
Where does the Saudi regime get its weapons from? Half come from the United States – which also provides the coalition with operational, logistical and intelligence support – and significant shares from the United Kingdom and France. Since the war began in the spring of 2015, Britain alone has authorised the sale of $5 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia, according to The Independent.
So this is where the twisted trail has led. The Mangel-wurzel wolfs down oil and money and nests at night in the brain of Prince Mohammed bin Salman. But it is the victors in World War One who are supplying the planes and bombs that are raining famine on millions of Yemeni civilians.
What would it take to rein in the monster, to break the cycle of endless war?
The response after World War Two was to set up the UN Security Council for “the maintenance of international peace and security”. Yet its permanent members and veto holders – the United States, France, China, Russia and the United Kingdom – are now five of the world’s top six arms exporters. The Council “calls upon the parties to a dispute to settle it by peaceful means” even as its permanent members are busy selling the tools of death. And when one of the permanent members decides to use its veto, as Russia has done consistently with resolutions on Syria, there is no way the Council can make a difference.
When the permanent members want to act, the Council can be effective – imposing sanctions, sending in peacekeepers and even authorising the use of force against recalcitrant regimes. But it was set up primarily to prevent conflict between one nation and another; it stumbles when crises take place within nations, even if they are thinly disguised proxy wars. The Yemen war is such a conflict, between forces loyal to the government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi (backed by Saudi Arabia) and the Houthi militia (backed by Iran).
In the final days of October, the US defence secretary and secretary of state, along with the British foreign secretary, called for an end to the conflict. Such statements ring hollow given US and UK support for the Saudi-led coalition: it’s hard not to conclude that if they really cared about ending the war, they could get on the phone to Riyadh.
On November 6, Britain finally urged the Security Council to back a ceasefire. Even presuming this has some effect, it’s three and a half years too late.
How could we bust out of this sickening cycle in which wars effectively happen because the Security Council lets them happen? I can think of two answers.
One is to fix the Security Council, by widening the permanent membership to make it more representative and by limiting or abandoning the use of the veto. Most countries – including Britain, Russia and France – agree on the first idea. The new permanent members most commonly mentioned are Brazil, Germany, India and Japan. But each of those countries faces one or more outspoken rivals. As for the veto, the current permanent members are likely to use their veto to prevent any change to their veto.
Which brings me to the second idea. Perhaps it’s not up to the Security Council. Perhaps it’s up to us.
“I think the Saudis have learned what they can get away with in Yemen — that Western tolerance for pretty bad behaviour is quite high,” the Yemen specialist Peter Salisbury told The New York Times. That may be true of Western governments, but is it true of their citizens? Do we really think it’s OK that crimes against humanity are being perpetrated hourly in Yemen?
Some people just don’t care, and never will. The experts call it moral disengagement, and its current champions seem to be Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. But the vast majority of the public see war as unnecessary. One study showed that only 20% of young people in the United States and 9% in five European countries thought war was necessary.
“There is a disconnect between public opinion and the policies and actions of states and armed groups,” the International Committee of the Red Cross found in 2016 when it surveyed public attitudes to war. “Violations of the laws of war – including the targeting of civilians, humanitarian workers and hospitals – continue. Yet the survey results clearly show that the majority of people understand that these practices are wrong and that civilians and health-care workers and facilities must be protected.”
In February 2003, millions of people took to the streets in Europe and elsewhere to protest against the approaching US-led invasion of Iraq. Whether it means getting out on the streets again, non-violent protest action, letters, petitions or other forms of protest, there is huge scope for a coalition that reconnects governments with public opinion about civilian deaths in war.
Many non-governmental organisations work in Yemen (and every other war zone), and/or report on what is happening there. They speak up and sometimes get governments to take notice, but individually their voices struggle to be heard. Collectively – and tapping into their large number of individual donors – they could shame governments into action.
There is also a need to reconnect public opinion with the facts about civilian deaths in war. A recent poll in Britain showed that 42% of the public didn’t even know about the war in Yemen.
The news media could do a much better job, right from the outset of deadly conflicts. They have a huge advantage: they know how to use stories as well as statistics. “A growing collection of psychological studies show that statistics have a dulling effect, while it is individual stories that move people to act,” write Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn in their book Half the Sky. That’s why Khashoggi’s murder had such a galvanising effect. It woke up media outlets that until then had been drip-feeding Yemen stories that reeked of resignation and inevitability.
We will remember them. Today people all over the world will come together to think about World War I and those who fought in it.
A little pride, a lot of pity. “World War I put an end not just to romantic militarism in the Western mainstream but to the idea that war was in any way desirable or inevitable”, Steven Pinker writes in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature. And yet the Mangel-wurzel, the worm of endless war, survives and even thrives.
How – because it is 100 years – could we remember better? And what can we do with remembering?
What if we were also to commemorate, collectively, the civilians who have died in war? Not only to remember their suffering, imagine their suffering, but also to turn our imaginations to the present, where millions of people are being starved to death because our governments are letting it happen.
“I know families are struggling to get by on the help we provide; they tell me our food packs sometimes don’t last more than two weeks anymore because they are sharing rations with neighbours and loved ones. Their sallow skin and sunken eyes – both signs of malnutrition – are clear indications that the people of Hodeidah and Yemen can’t take much more.
“They ask us to bring more food. But no matter what we do, aid organisations are not designed or equipped to feed an entire nation. Without an end to this war, many more innocent people will die – be it from hunger, like the people I help; from disease, like my wife; or from the bombs and bullets that are edging ever closer to me.”
“survivor memory”, “cultural memory”, Graham Dawson, Commemorating War: The Politics of Memory, Taylor and Francis
“ghostly imaginings”, Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism, Routledge.
“a practice bound up with rituals of national identification”, Graham Dawson, Commemorating War: The Politics of Memory, Taylor and Francis.
“an enormous heap of ash and rubble”, quoted in Thomas Weber, Hitler’s First War, OUP.
“an aching desolation of nothingness”, quoted in Geoff Dyer, The Missing of the Somme, Canongate.
“pushed to the surface by the slow tidal movement of the soil”, Geoff Dyer, The Missing of the Somme, Canongate.
“immunized him completely against any sensitivity to human suffering” Ian Kershaw, Hitler, Penguin.
“civilian deaths in wartime”, William Eckhardt, Bulletin of Peace Proposals, Vol. 20/1, 1989.
“enormous volumes of scarlet flame”, Major & Mrs Holt’s Battlefield Guide to Ypres Salient & Passchendaele, Pen & Sword.
“only 25% of young people in the United States”, WHO
“A growing collection of psychological studies,” Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Half the Sky, Knopf Doubleday.
“World War I put an end not just to romantic militarism …” Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes, Penguin.