In 2014, some at least of the seventy-two nations who took part in the Great War of 1914-1918 will be commemorating the sacrifice – in both meanings of the word – of the ten million it killed. No one alive today would have known any of the combattants and civilians who lost their lives in that terrible modern innovation we call a World War. But every city, town and village in France, for example, has a World War 1 memorial, “lest we forget” them. We cannot really forget people we never knew. But the abominable massacre which killed them we feel must never be forgottten. “La der des ders”, “the Very Last War”, “the War to End All Wars”, wasn’t.
It is good that we think of relatives who may have died in that conflict, but also of the strangers who were forced (apart from the 313,000 Australian volunteers) to fight and who died on the battlefield. But a recent French best-selling book reminds us that we should also remember the veterans who were not killed, many of whom suffered a fate literally worse than death as survivors, destitute, disfigured or both. The book, Pierre Lemaitre’s Au Revoir Là-Haut, won the prestigious 2013 Goncourt prize. Readers will never forget two of the survivors, the cynical, maliciously enterprising, ficticious anti-heroes of this brilliant indictment of both the war and its sequel, when they and their comrades were forgotten after 1918 by those for whose life and liberty they – officially – had fought.
I will conclude with a personal note. I have in my back-garden a fragment of a discarded, broken tombstone of an Anzac, an Australian “Digger” who died in the Battle of the Somme. His name has been lost and the inscription is truncated but the remaining words graven in the stone are still visible : “… but not forgotten”. We know there is no point in praying for the dead, though many people still do. But the victims of war, the dead but also the “lucky” survivors, should never be forgotten, if only to make sure – if that were possible – that history not repeat itself. When will we ever learn ?