On a brief break in Brittany at the moment. Today I attended the Remembrance Ceremony at our local town. Yes, today. In France, Remembrance Day always happens on November 11th, which is a public holiday. Maybe that’s because France suffered much greater losses than anyone else in the First World War. Each village, each hamlet has a memorial with a roll call of ‘nos enfants’ (our children) who died for France. We have had a house in this village long enough to recognise the surnames on the granite slabs, the Duchenes and Perrochets whose ancestors and families still work the land hereabouts. And then there are the multiple names, brothers or cousins none of whom returned. After the mayor had said a few words in front of the war memorial, and laid the wreaths, we walked across the square to the other side of the parish church and a different memorial. Here we remembered the deportees, members of the local township who were taken away as slave labour or as hostages, and who died in Mathausen concentration camp.
The British attitude to the day is worth discussing. Over here in France, the emigré Brits turn out with poppies and bared heads in some numbers, but in the UK one wonders. There things are always arranged on a Sunday, so as not to interfere with economic activity. There was an attempt a few years ago to have a moment’s silence in shops at 11.00 am, but it came to nothing. My worry is that the whole thing is melting into a bog of sentimentality and jingoism. When an old man died alone in a home in Lancashire this week, publicity brought hundreds to his funeral, because he was a technician who serviced the planes of the Dambusters. The press call him a forgotten hero. I am sure he was as patriotic as you or me, but heroism requires more than screwing up a carburettor. Any serviceman who dies, young or old, is now a hero, just as any youngster killed in a fight or accident is a brilliant student. In reality, life is more complex and sad than that and it is the sadness and the complexity that we should remember as we stand in the soft Breton rain.
What will happen next year, on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War ? Graham Greene said patriotism lost its appeal at Passchendaele, but not, one fears, for politicians and jingoes. Cameron has brainlessly compared the anniversary of the start of the First World War (UK deaths – 880,000; world deaths 21 millions) as an event that the nation can celebrate like the Queen’s Jubilee.
A footnote: in a world in which almost everyone is called a hero, how can we reclaim the word ? What does heroism involve ? I would propose three criteria. Firstly, it must be voluntary. A hero has the chance to keep their head down and avoid trouble, and chooses not to. Jean Moulin could have lived through the German occupation of France as a comfortable civil servant, but he made the choice to resist. Rosa Parks could have sat, quiet but angry, in the back of the bus. Secondly, there must be danger and risk. This need not necessarily be physical danger – it could be someone who risks their career or prosperity or public respect in order to do good things. An example might be Semmelweis, fighting the medical establishment to make childbirth safe, and losing. But a wartime hero (see above) must risk injury. The third criterion involves moral worth. A hero must be undertaking actions to make a better world. U-boat crews were all volunteers (criterion 1) and more than half of them died (criterion 2), but they did so in an effort to starve into submission the last democracy in Europe. Not heroes then. Nor, on a much more common level, would I include people like Evel Knievel who willingly undertake dangerous things (criteria 1 & 2) but for commercial or self-publicising reasons.
Hope that’s clear now.