18 Jun Sassoon, Turner, and McCrae on the Paradox of Remembering and Forgetting the First World War, By Eden Plater
Although it may at first appear contradictory to suggest that remembering inherently involves forgetting, upon second consideration this paradoxical statement proves to be legitimate. The quotation, “Only what one has remembered can actively be forgotten” (König), provides a clear premise with which to approach the paradox. In other words, remembering does not necessarily mean that certain details have not been or never will be forgotten. Questions arise from this premise as to whether different levels of remembrance—namely, individual or collective—result in different levels and consequences of forgetting. Siegfried Sassoon’s “To One Who Was with Me in the War”, Walter Turner’s “Men Fade Like Rocks”, and John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” are poems that offer insight into these questions by considering remembrance of the first world war. Sassoon, Turner, and McCrae’s texts present the paradox that remembering requires forgetting and suggest that, while forgetting on an individual level can produce positive consequences, forgetting on a collective level presents dangers such as the promotion of propagandistic messages.
Sassoon’s poem “To One Who Was with Me in the War” suggests that remembering the war inherently involves erasure. It also suggests that this erasure is potentially necessary and positive on an individual level because it allows healing to occur. The poem’s narrative perspective follows a former soldier reminiscing with another former soldier about the war, both of them viewing their experiences through a temporally distant and retrospective lens. While this temporal distance provides a more comfortable and positive perspective through which their memories can be examined, it also promotes forgetting through the act of remembering. Contradictory statements scattered throughout the poem, such as “we call it back in visual fragments” (2), “all the living presences who haunt us” (11) and “Remembering, we forget” (13), allude to this paradox. The paradox is fully revealed when the soldiers do not acknowledge their experiences’ uncomfortable and frightening details:
To share again
All but the actual wetness of the flare-lit rain,
All but the gloom patrolling eyes.
Remembering, we forget
Much that was monstrous, much that clogged our souls with clay. (9-14)
When the soldiers reminisce on their past experiences, they note the uncomfortable sensory details, such as the wetness of the rain and the darkness of the night patrol. However, they reminisce from different conditions than the ones in which they experienced these details, and therefore do not have access to the same physical sensations. To reminisce on agonizing conditions from a place of comfort does not produce identical impressions. The temporal distance between them and the war parallels the distance between their memories of the war and the true reality—the sensory experience—of the war.
Later in the poem, the speaker states that the soldiers choose to not acknowledge their memories’ emotional details, as seen in the statement, “We forget our fear” (18). However, by referencing these supposedly forgotten emotional details, the speaker acknowledges and remembers them while claiming to forget. This new paradox suggests that regardless of whether the individual soldiers remember or choose to acknowledge certain details of the war, the reality of their experiences still lives on in written accounts—such as war poetry and memoirs.
Furthermore, although the soldiers may not remember or choose to acknowledge sensory details of the war, it remains probable that their ability to understand the futility of the war is fully intact. The quotation, “We’ll peer across dim craters; joke with jaded men / Whose names we’ve long forgotten (Stoop low there; it’s the place / the sniper enfilades” (30-2) depicts a harmless and potentially positive memory of the war interrupted by a harsh reminder of the war’s violent nature. As if by muscle memory, the soldiers have an awareness of the violence they endured and can recall the violent and futile nature of the war regardless of whether they can recall sensory details from their experiences in the war. The poem presents the paradox that remembering requires forgetting as a positive and healthy thing as it occurs on an individual level and does not affect the soldiers’ ability to understand the violence and futility of the war.
Like “To One Who Was with Me in the War”, Turner’s “Men Fade Like Rocks” considers the paradox that remembering requires forgetting but comes to the conclusion that collective remembrance, as represented by public monuments of the war, can lead to collective forgetting and the erasure of society’s memory of individual soldiers. Repetition throughout the poem emphasizes themes of death and forgetting, and the imagery of consistent actions conjures a slow and gradual rhythm: “Fade, fade in time” (2), “Slow chime on chime” (4) and “Dimmed, water-worn / Worn of the day and night” (10-11). The poem shows the effects of time: as the clock repetitively chimes, water erodes its surroundings. The speaker compares this slow but sure erosion to collective forgetting and how society gradually forgets war and the lives that were lost to it.
The paradox in the poem’s title—“Men Fade Like Rocks”—reflects a similar gradual process. Although they appear solid and unchanging, rocks erode and lose detail over a long period of time. Therefore, I posit that the title’s paradox and the poem overall is a metaphor for a nation’s collective memory of men who fought and died in the war. One’s ability to remember the soldiers gradually decreases over time as details become smoother and less perceptible.
The speaker builds on this idea with the acknowledgement that the sensory nature of monuments and memorial services, which are represented by chimes and stones, is a force that significantly wears away at the memory of the soldiers. Rather than honouring the soldiers’ sacrifices by promoting commemoration through experiential accuracy, the monuments and memorial services erode the authenticity of collective memory. The line “Slow chime on chime” (4) embodies memorial services’ repetitive nature, and the description, “Rock-like the souls of men” (1) dually describes the monuments’ solidness and stagnant symbolism. Memory is not a sensory or material thing; by attempting to represent the collective memory of the soldiers through physical monuments, a breach in translation and erosion of accurate memory is unavoidable. Furthermore, although monuments are meant to promote a collective remembrance of the war, they are not inherently tied to the soldiers or the war. By fixating collective attention on symbols standing in for the soldiers—rather than on the futility of the soldiers’ sacrifices, the war, and the soldiers’ memories’ accuracy—collective memory becomes stagnant and eroded. As such, the paradox that remembering requires forgetting takes on a different meaning in this poem: the construction of monuments and memorial services accelerates the erosion of collective memory and draws attention away from individual soldiers and the war’s futility and violence.
John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” also features the paradox of remembrance. However, unlike “To One Who Was with Me in the War” and “Men Fade Like Rocks”, an analysis of the poem exposes the potential for glorified and sentimentalized collective remembering and forgetting to promote propagandistic messages. Throughout the poem, one who forgets is classified as one who dishonours or breaks faith with the lost soldiers, which is seen in the lines, “If ye break faith with us who die / We shall not sleep” (13-14). The speaker blames the soldiers’ inability to find peace on this act of “breaking faith”. The threat of being blamed is inconspicuously used to convince people to not only remember the lost soldiers, but to follow the propagandistic message of believing in and joining the war effort.
The speaker appropriates the dead soldiers’ voices in order to strengthen this threat, meaning that this message distorts the dead soldiers’ images. By urging remembrance for the lost soldiers using their voices, the speaker creates an awesome and glorified image of the lost soldiers as a collective, and somewhat ethereal, group that detracts from a perception of the soldiers as real, individual people.
Elevated symbolism further glorifies the soldiers and the war. Symbols in the poem present poetic and unrealistic versions of that which they are representing which means that the erasure of realistic details, and the consequent forgetting of these erased details, is inevitable. The speaker introduces poppies as symbols of honour for the fallen soldiers, as seen in the lines, “In Flanders fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses, row on row” (1-2). The poppies’ beauty glosses over the soldiers’ violent deaths and their sacrifice’s futility; although they are symbols of remembrance, the poppies result in the war’s devastating nature being forgotten.
Similarly, the lines, “The larks, still bravely singing, fly / Scare heard amid the guns below” (4-5) use larks as a symbol to glorify the idea of patriotism and hope. The speaker suggests that in order to reclaim the lost ideal and pastoral world of the singing larks, one must continue to fight and endure the battles of war. Once again, this patriotic and hopeful message overwhelms the war’s gruesome and violent nature that “the guns below” refers to.
Later in the poem, the war’s glorification that has been established through the appropriation of the soldiers’ voices and the use of romantic symbolism culminates in an urgent statement from the speaker: “Take up our quarrel with the foe: / To you from failing hands we throw / The torch; be yours to hold it high” (11-12). Readers are directly implicated with the duty of carrying on the war effort and the threat that not doing so may result in breaking faith with the soldiers lingers. The poem’s ideological and inspiring tone ensures that the propagandistic message it now promotes is well received. While the poem promotes collective memory and sentimentality towards the war, it does so in a way that also promotes propaganda and a glorified view of the war. “In Flanders Fields” embodies the potential for collective remembrance to endorse symbolic and sentimental representation of the war and ensure that the war’s violent and futile nature is forgotten.
Implications arise when considering how remembrance of the war should be pursued if forgetting is an integral part of the process. By analyzing the works of Sassoon, Turner, and McCrae, it appears that forgetting on an individual level presents less of a threat of losing sight of the war’s violent and futile nature than forgetting on a collective level, which can lead to altered and glorified presentations of the war. Because the first world war is now viewed through a post-memory perspective, it is prudent to consider primary sources such as war poetry and memoirs as providing the most accurate accounts of the war (albeit pro-war exceptions, such as “In Flanders Fields”, do present different perspectives from that time period). Observing multiple subjective accounts and conducting individual research allows one’s perception of the war to be well rounded and less likely to be subjected to solely glorified or romanticized accounts of the war. Remembrance ceremonies and memorials, on the other hand, present the possible erosion of collective memory. Efforts must be made, both on individual and collective levels, to prevent the erosion of memory and maintain focus on the soldiers’ sacrifices and the war’s violent and futile nature.
König, Karin. “Paradoxes of Memory.” Osteuropa, Eurozine, 2011. www.eurozine.com/paradoxes-of-memory, Accessed 18 Dec. 2020.
McCrae, John. “In Flanders Fields.” 1915. Penguin Book of First World War Poetry, Ed. George Walter, Penguin, 2006, pp. 155.
Sassoon, Siegfried. “To One Who Was with Me in the War.” 1926. Memorial Tablet, 2006.
Turner, Walter. “Men Fade Like Rocks.” 1921. Penguin Book of First World War Poetry, Ed. George Walter, Penguin, 2006, pp. 256.