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Lucinda and Zara spoke movingly about the significance of Remembrance Day at our Principal’s Assembly on Tuesday.
“What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.”
Written during the First World War, poet Wilfred Owen’s profound sentiments contain potent moral lessons. His words provoke us to reflect on the common humanity that both unites us and acts as a powerful indictment against the perpetuation of dehumanised and divisive narratives. To Owen, human suffering, devastation and mistaken pursuits of glory and power are a shared human experience.
This message of common humanity is critical to the current and ongoing memorialisation of Remembrance Day celebrations. On this day, we commemorate the fact that it is 101 years since World War 1 ended on the Western Front. We commemorate a war that for the first time, wholly consumed all nations and penetrated all facets of societies. From an Australian perspective, it is important that we appreciate this message in order to remember the sacrifice of the 60,000 soldiers who gave their lives for our country.
On 11 November 1918, the warfare of the preceding four years stopped, but the social and political impact continued to be felt for many years afterwards. This included the psychological implications for those who witnessed the atrocities of war, but also for those at home who were grieving and adjusting to a profoundly different way of life.
The experiences of individual soldiers are often overlooked when it comes to the collective memory of this event. Instead, the focus seems to be on the heroic and glorified nature of this war. As time goes by, commemorative celebrations in nations including Australia, choose solely to remember the heroic, noble and moral character of soldiers, in order to foster a sense of nationalism. As such, the metanarrative does not focus on the horrifying experiences that individual soldiers suffered.
A more all-encompassing narrative can be gained by reading the work of prominent war poets like Wilfred Owen. Such writings are particularly illuminating in their depiction of vivid and terrifying experiences of World War 1. As outlined in ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, Owen laments the fate of young soldiers, equating their loss of life to the slaughter of animals.
Instead of the romanticised narratives of war, Owen exposed its harsh and dehumanising reality. The scale of its immorality caused him to reject his religion. Owen’s war poems are a powerful testament to the ability of literature to encapsulate an individual’s feelings at a time of great psychological and emotional upheaval.
The sentiments that Owen expresses transcend their 20th century context and are just as applicable today. In the 21st century, we have seen the rise of right-wing extremism, which advocates for the perpetuation of divisive and isolated identities, along with the challenging of dominant historical narratives.
Thus, Owen’s words illustrate the need to appreciate history, not just as an educational discipline, but as a way in which to decipher the profound questions of life that affect our present, and our future.
As Owen articulated in his poems, human suffering is a universal human experience, irrespective of our national identities. This appreciation of our shared experiences allows for a reconciling of past events and the progression of societies united in their ability to form a collective memory.
It is only by appreciating the shared humanity between us, that we can truly understand the irrationality of war. It is important therefore, that we focus on the individual experiences of the men and women who gave their lives, in order to better understand and commemorate their suffering and their sacrifice.
As the years go by, we must not distance ourselves from the events of World War 1 by referring only to the statistics of those who died. Instead, we must engage in a process of historical commemoration and appreciate the fragility of human life. We must commemorate the humanity of those who witnessed the deepest horrors imaginable and sacrificed their lives for us.
Lest we forget.
Lucinda and Zara (Year 12)