Remembrance, on the wane or evolving?

By Clyde Sanger

The Charge

November 11. We (or the calendar makers) call it Remembrance Day. We crowd around the War Memorial to hear some prayers, watch top people and a Silver Cross mother lay wreaths, marvel at a children’s choir, lay poppies on the Unknown Soldier’s tomb. We think perhaps of some uncle, or great-uncle, killed in a far-off war, and greet a few veterans of Korea and Afghanistan.

Has Remembrance changed to an autumnal formula, even a holiday outing? Do the two world wars, in which more than 110,000 Canadian men and women gave their lives, mean anything to younger generations? My father, Gerald Sanger, who served with the Royal Marine Artillery in France in 1917-19, was so haunted by the slaughter and its futility that over 25 years he wrote more than 50 poems, gathered in a book he entitled The Wane of Remembrance. Five of his poems are published in this issue.

When the German thrust for Paris in 1914 was thwarted at the Marne, their target became the channel ports of Calais and Dunkirk. British and Canadian troops held the Ypres Salient, commanding the coastal approaches, with appalling losses through three battles, the last around Passchendaele in 1917.

In the presence of history

Although Gerald Sanger ultimately called his collection of 53 poems, written between 1918 and 1965, The Wane of Remembrance, he had earlier thought of entitling it The Eternal Subaltern, since he was a Lieutenant and the observation officer for a 15-inch howitzer that fired shells onto the German lines up to eight miles away. These were unforgettable months, though he, like many colleagues, preferred not to reminisce. There was, nevertheless, a slow evolution in his reactions to the two massive wars in which he had risked his life and poured his energies. He called anyone listening to the verse he wrote every November, for the British Movietone News, to never forget the sacrifices of his and the next generation.

Part of the evolution was reflected in a name change. The anniversary verses he wrote as editor of British Movietone News were commentaries all on Armistice Day, so called right up to 1938. The 1918 war ended with that Armistice, which the Germans accepted as simply a pause in a deadly contest to reshape Europe. My father described his personal evolution as reacting to “the modification of public sentiments. Thus, while the ideal of Remembrance inspired the yearning for the preservation of Peace in the period before the Second World War, yet it also reinforced the patriotic resolve of proving worthy of our predecessors of the First World War when the Second War had squarely begun; and ultimately it blended with the universal dismay caused by the threat to all humanity from the lethal invention of the atom bomb.”

These five poems trace his own evolution. In 1922, life for the survivors was a time of finding hectic pleasure – or new exploits like tackling Everest – as antidote to recent horrors. He wrote “The Charge” as from the grave to give perspective for young people doing the Charleston or starting on a career. Ten years later, Gerry journeyed to the Ypres battlefields, where he had picked his way for miles on duckboards over deep mud and shellholes, to the observation pillbox in Sanctuary Wood to try to spot where the howitzer shells landed. “Carnage committed for naught” it seemed and the dead were simply “The Foam of Destiny”.


Foam of Destiny

There was a war. The nations were angry and fought
Four years – a bit more.
They attacked and they counter-attacked.
And now it appears it was carnage committed for naught.

There are men still in France
who have never, will never, come home.
It was fate… it was chance
That they died, but alas! It is fact.
And destiny’s river flows on. They were only the foam.

November 1932

Gerald Sanger

Gerald Sanger, seated in the middle row, second from left was one of the Royal Marine Artillery Battery, photographed near Amiens, France in December 1918.
Photo: Sagner Archives

By 1934, as Hitler started his rise to power, there was an urge to dig out “War Letters,” preserved by hundreds of mothers and a general nostalgia for the valiant yet fearful days of fighting “the war to end all wars.”

But by 1938 and 1939, the “Unthinkable” had come. In July 1940, the Germans were at the Channel ports they never captured in the earlier war and the Battle of Britain was building with clouds of bombers overhead. Into the Home Guard this time, spending nights in a sandpit hut waiting for German paratroopers with the village cobbler and the blacksmith and all realizing that they were “In the Presence of History.” And for the first time the millions of civilians killed outnumbered the totals of military deaths. Remembrance had moved along a dark road from the days of Armistice.

On one point I differ from my father. He wrote in his preface: “It is very probable that the Atom Bomb was mainly responsible for accelerating the waning influence of Remembrance on all our lives.” Not so. Hiroshima Day on August 6 is not marked so publicly as November 11, but all generations carry that dreadful image of the mushroom cloud in their heads, while few know that the Canadian First Division stood fast against the onslaught of chlorine gas at Ypres, a 1,000-metre wall, on April 24, 1915.

In the four decades our family has lived in Ottawa, the observance of Remembrance has grown enormously. I remember, one November in the 1970s, I had slipped into the media group standing close to the east side of the War Memorial. The laying of wreaths had been completed, it seemed; but there were several wreaths lying nearby still unplaced and I (of tidy mind? or ashamed of absent diplomats?) stepped forward to take the Irish wreath forward. Today the whole square is thick with citizens of all ages and poppies cover the tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Technology has bounded into new wars. In 1944-45 our little Surrey village was on the path to London of the V1 unmanned bomber, the “doodle bug” and more than a dozen fell short and dropped into farmers’ fields and a housing estate. It was a last ugly throw by the Nazi war machine. Today the American drones guided from Colorado fly across oceans and seek out Taliban groups in northern Pakistan. Like the doodle bugs, the drones kill women and children, too.

My father did not live to deplore such technology. He died in 1981 and is “a friendly wraith” charging us to remember – and fear. That will be my thought on November 11.

Clyde Sanger has long been an active contributor of the Glebe Report.


War Letters

Preserve your war letters and read them again,
As sub-conscious memory stirs in the brain
And blunted impressions acutely revive
Of palpable wonder and being alive.

Secure nowadays in a war-won protection,
Old doubts have become just a poignant reflection –
Each morning that certain uneasy misgiving
If evening would find this young subaltern living.

Remember the walk up to Sanctuary Wood,
Where the two-storied pill-box in ’17 stood?
As daily I traveled that venturesome track,
I canvassed the prospect of not coming back.

Was fear the impression which sticks in my head?
Or rather amazement at not being dead –
The feeling of being too favoured of fate
For bullet or shell to resist coming straight.

Vague qualms on the duckboards! I, barely a man –
A young boy at school when the slaughter began –
Speculating, if spared by the war’s grim caprice,
What the world would be like if there ever was peace.

It is all in the letters – that blend of astonishment
At merciful chance with reflective admonishment;
Applied in this age, a reminder and measure
Of destiny’s bounty, divinity’s pleasure.

September 1934


Unthinkable

Unthinkable, and yet the thing occurred.
“Unthinkable”. We overworked the word –
Even as the cause of peace was plainly sinking –
“Unthinkable”. Yes, that was wishful thinking.

War is still bloody, brutal, vile and cursed;
Insane; of all man’s ravages the worst.
Though bravery and glory it embellish
And martyrdom transcend it, war is hellish.

But not unthinkable.

November 1939

Gerald Sanger

Gerald Sanger
Photo: Sagner Archives


In the Presence of History

We live in the presence of history,
We breathe and give destiny shape;
From the things that we at this present
The future admits no escape.

Are we keyed to the moment of hazard?
Are we geared to the impact of speed?
One second off guard may be fatal
To us, and the whole of our breed.

Will we fight to the death for our freedom?
Stand, starve or be killed, but still stand?
That the world may be saved for our children
And our sons may inherit the land.

July 1940

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