I'm not really sure how to describe this book. It's not memoir, not history, not travelogue, not literary criticism, although it contains elements of all of those things. If I had to describe it as anything it would be as the written tracings of one man's interior meditation on the Great War, a personal elegy, of sorts.
Beautifully written, this is a book about war and memory and how we remember; or perhaps it would be more appropriate to write, how we approach Remembrance with the intention of remembering. It meanders from Armistice Day and the Cenotaph to the Great War cemeteries, winding all along the old line of the Western Front, Thiepval and Vimy Ridge and Tyne Cot. Drawing on Sassoon, Owen and Remarque along the way, Dyer dwells on how we can adequately remember something that cannot be explained or expressed, how anyone can remember something that only the dead experienced - the true silence at the heart of Remembrance.
Dyer has taken a fairly original and refreshing angle on the Great War, and although this was first published 23 years ago, it still retains all the fresh and powerful qualities it had back in 94. Dyer explains some of the background and lead up to WWI by alluding to Cpt Scott’s disastrous Antarctic expedition, describing, “A memorial service for one of the most inefficient of polar expeditions, and one of the worst of polar expeditions.” Going onto say that Scott’s failure took its place alongside Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar at St Paul’s as a triumphant expression of the British spirit. “The story of Scott anticipates the larger heroic calamity of the Great War.” Citing a sermon that celebrated “the glory of self-sacrifice, the blessing of failure.”
He explores the effects of various gases on troops, showing us a reproduction of Sargent’s “Gassed” which still haunts a century later. He sums up the use of gas, saying, “The pattern for the century had been set: the warrior of tradition becomes little more than a guinea pig in the warring experiments of factories and laboratories.” He explains the reasons why not much footage or photography emerged from the allied side of the conflict, and after viewing much film, he concludes, “One thing emerges plainly from all this footage: war, for the ordinary soldier, was a continuation of labouring by other means. The battlefield was a vast open-air factory where hours were long, unions not permitted and safety standards routinely flouted.”
Dyer gives us plenty of interesting insight into much of the commemorative work done by the likes of Edwin Lutyens and Charles Sargeant Jagger, whose statues and cenotaphs packed a particular emotional punch, much of their work is reproduced here to enhance the feel and weight of the commentary. He also covers the written side of the conflict, as well as the war poets, he reflects on the biographical and semi-biographical accounts from Remarque and Graves etc, and the more recent fictional additions from Sebastian Faulks and Pat Barker.
This is another fine piece of writing from Dyer, his research and knowledge has translated well into a pleasing mix of art and reflection, all told by a well measured degree of restraint, craft and sensitivity that really builds a well rounded and informed picture.