Thursday, 28 June 2018

When this lousy war is over...

Yesterday, I wrote about why The Glorious Dead was written as a novel, rather than a history.

Today - again in answer to questions I'm getting asked - I'm going to briefly explain why I believe this three year post-war period should, in fact, be better known and further studied.

In wars from Korea to Afghanistan - 'modern' war,s to be precise - there is no such thing as a post-bellum period where the army remains mobilised, clears the battlefields and soldiers - rather than civilian contractors - dig graves and bury the dead by the thousand.

There may never have been, in any other war.

Furthermore, in the past, the nature of travel and the distance involved often meant that armies took weeks, months (ten years, in the case of Odysseus on his return from Troy!) to return home.

So this three-year post-Great War interlude is possibly unique in the history of conflict. And there might be much we can learn from it.

First, whereas today's injured service personnel can be whisked home on an aircraft within hours of being injured and combat troops can be home on leave after a couple of flights, it took time for the men of the Great War to come home.

More time was spent in travel, obviously. But aside from geographical and physical necessity, there were military and political reasons keeping these men in France and Flanders for a period weeks, months and - in some cases, years.

Following the Armistice in 1918 the British and Imperial Armies remained on a war footing - at least until the outcome of the Paris Peace Conference. There may have been no fighting. But the war - officially - wasn't over.

And when the guns fell silent in November 1918 there were still over 150,000 bodies unburied on the Western Front. Three years later 918 British War Cemeteries containing 580,000 named and 180,000 unnamed graves had been created, largely by British Army.

Today, of course, that job would almost certainly be farmed out to civilian contractors. Soldiers fight, and when there's no war, they no longer need to be there. But in 1918 the Army Directorate of Graves Registration and Enquiries was to remain responsible - for the next three years - for finding and burying its own.

Civilian workers were involved, of course. The Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission had been established by Royal Charter in 1917, building memorials and establishing a permanent resting place for the dead - a job it continues to do to this day.

But this three year period following the end of the fighting undoubtedly contributed to the way the war was seen, to how those who had fought it dealt with their experience, to their adjustment to civilian life. I believe some of the men who chose to stay on did so as a way of assuaging their own guilt (survivors guilt), dealing with the ghosts of their own past, finishing a job they couldn't leave to others, all sorts of reasons that simply don't occur to the modern soldier, if only through lack of opportunity.

And I feel passionately that it's a period in our history that needs remembering, celebrating, commemorating... a job I hope I've done, in a modest way, in The Glorious Dead.

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