The Great War began 100 years ago, but it still feels like part of our world. First, because the outcome of that war shaped the rest of the twentieth century, and framed many of our current obsessions. But also because most of us are only once-removed from the action. I was born relatively late in the twentieth century, yet I met and was photographed with a great-grandfather who fought on the Western Front. Many of us will have spoken to relatives who remember the conflict (even if they were not combatants).
The centenary of the war is a landmark moment that prompts me to ponder how history is like a concertina. Sometimes, events feel very close; at other times, they are incredibly far away. We often get a shock when we realise that an event we think of as quite recent is actually ‘history’ (today, for example, Twitter is in shock that ‘Everybody Want To Rule The World’ by Tears For Fears is thirty years old).
— Robert Sharp रॉबट शारप (@robertsharp59) November 10, 2014
A while back, Jason Kottke stuck a pin in this quirk of psychology when he coined the term ‘Timeline Twins‘:
When I was a kid, “oldies” music and movies seemed ancient. Even though I’m now in my 30s, the entertainment that I watched and listened to in my youth still feels pretty recent to me. Raiders of the Lost Ark wasn’t all that long ago, right? But comparing my distorted recall of childhood favorites to the oldies of the time jogs my memory in unpleasant ways.
Jason goes on to point out that listening to Thriller (released 1982) in the present day—well, 2008 when he wrote the post—is like listening to Elivs Presley’s first album (1956) at the time of Thriller’s release. And loads more examples from film and TV.
Well, you know what two events are timeline twins? The Great War 1914-18, and the War of the Seventh Coalition, of which the famous and much celebrated Battle of Waterloo was the decisive moment. That happened in 1815. So, talking about the Frist World War in 2014 is like talking about the Battle of Waterloo at outbreak of the First World War.
You could play this parlour game all day with any two historial or cultural happenings. But these thoughts divert my attention when I remember Seigfried Sassoon’s wonderful poem ‘Aftermath‘:
But the past is just the same—and War’s a bloody game…
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.
The last time I wrote about the poem, in 2008, there were still men alive who had fought in the Great War. Not anymore, they’re all gone now.
We hear these words and we stand for two minutes to remember our dead soldiers and we promise not to forget. And yet, we perform no such memorial for the Battle of Waterloo (or indeed, for Trafalgar, 1805). There is no regular remembrance for the men who died on those battle fields, in a part of Europe not too far from the great, catastrophic battles of the First World War. Waterloo is spoken about exclusively as a strategic victory for the Duke of Wellington over Napoleon, a military curiosity.
Is this because there was actually less at stake during the Battle of Waterloo? Or because that campaign was far less disruptive for the ordinary people of Britain? Or is it that the half-life on our attention span for remembering our war dead is about a century?