Wednesday, July 27, 2016

War and Memory: The Example of Fromelles

An excellent piece on the War on the Rocks blog this week offers some interesting comments on the social and cultural rationales for war memorials.

Fought on 19 July, 1916, Fromelles was the first major action by Australian troops on the Western Front.   What was intended to be an attack in support of the British Somme offensive turned out to be a costly and pointless disaster.   Over 5,500 Australian soldiers were killed, wounded or captured in one day, the bloodiest in Australian history.

Australian Army memorial service at Fromelles.

As Joan Beaumont notes in her article, it wasn't until the 1990s that Fromelles became well known to Australians, and significant and expensive efforts to identify the dead began, including a dedicated Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery (the first in 50 years) and DNA tests on exhumed remains to identify living descendants in Australia.

Here is a passage from Beaumont's article that I found highly interesting.

No one questioned why many millions of dollars was spent on this exercise. No one, at least publicly, debated the precedent of using DNA to identify the missing. Nor did any one query whether “closure” was needed for relatives who had never known the missing of Fromelles, nor truly experienced grief.

The missing of Fromelles, it seems, spoke to phenomena that have fueled the growth of war memory globally in recent decades: the explosion of genealogy and the desire to locate family stories in bigger, more universal narratives of the past. The new rituals of Fromelles also testified to the continuing salience of the implied contract between citizen and state that underpins a voluntary system of enlistment for military service. In a liberal democracy, where the rights of the individual are a core value, those who choose or are required to die in the defense of the state are considered entitled to be honored individually. This was the ideal that informed the work of the Imperial War Graves Commission in the years after World War I, one of the first mass conflicts in which rank-and-file soldiers were granted their own grave and headstone carrying their name, age, and date of death.

It is a message that still resonates in a society that, for all its individualism and intolerance for the death of the young, requires some individuals at least to be willing to die for the collective good in defense of the nation. Be that service in Afghanistan, Iraq, or United Nations humanitarian interventions, these men and women must be assured that their deaths will be honored, as were those of the men who served before them. Hence, press accounts of the reburials at Fromelles invoked the high diction of war (devotion and honor) and spoke to the need for “a proper send-off” and “a fitting farewell at last” for the “fallen sons” who “can finally be laid to rest with honour.”

What I find striking here is the absence of reflection on religion and spirituality in this analysis.  While the Christian cross continues to be used on the graves and monuments, a holdover from the religiosity that influenced the establishment of War Cemeteries and monuments after the Great War,
the emphasis now, as Beaumont sees it, is on personal meaning (genealogy) and the social contract between the liberal state and its present and future soldier volunteers which offers the consolation of a fitting memorial to any potential sacrifice that may be asked of them.  

Troops of the Australian 53rd Battalion wait for the order to attack at Fromelles.  Only three of the men shown here survived the battle

Having matured beyond the ethos of God, King and Country that motivated the volunteers of 1914-1918,  the increasingly secular, independent countries of the former British Empire today must find their own rationales for commemorating the past.   For Australians, like Canadians, the fallen of that war may embody the price that our nations had to pay to win their independence from the paternalism of the imperial era.

I recently had a conversation with a retired Canadian military chaplain, a Newfoundlander, about Beaumont-Hamel, a Somme battlefield where the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, part of the British Army, was essentially destroyed in an hour.  Beaumont-Hamel was essentially the Newfoundland equivalent of |Fromelles, on a smaller scale.   As elsewhere on Day One of the Somme, the Newfoundlanders were ordered into interlocking zones of machine gun according to a plan that, in hindsight, was criminally flawed.  According to my Newfoundlander friend, Beaumont-Hamel exposed the colonial nature of the war, in which British generals and politicians were willing to sacrifice colonial troops just as readily as their own.  It became harder for Newfoundlanders and others to be willing junior partners in the imperial project after the First World War, and the Second World War finalized the dissolution of imperial ties.

This July Canadian soldiers visited Beaumont-Hamel and other parts of the Somme battlefields for ceremonies marking the hundredth anniversary.   For these young soldiers, those resting in the war cemeteries of Europe are honoured national ancestors, and in some cases, as with another chaplain friend of mine, an actual great uncle who never came home to Newfoundland.   For the officers, one hopes that these cemeteries are salutary lessons of how great a responsibility they have to learn their craft and learn it well, for in war mistakes are paid for in lives.  For all of us these places should be, as Beaumont notes, reminders of the social contracts we make with volunteer militaries, and of the care we should take in deliberation before we call on them to make more sacrifices.


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Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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