Editorial

By Chippindale, Cristopher | Antiquity, September 1997 | Go to article overview

Editorial


Chippindale, Cristopher, Antiquity


An unkind (as I felt) correspondent - when I remarked in an editorial on the standing archaeology of the Second World War, as still concretely visible on the Normany beaches - told me that the Editor's holidays are none of ANTIQUITY readers' business or interest. When this July I went down part of the 1000 kilometres of the Western Front that run from the North Sea at Zeebrugge to the Swiss border, it was a matter of business and editorial obligation.

My grandfather fought in a European war (the Great War of 1914-18, on the Western Front, and won an MC and was gassed and never wholly recovered from the gassing); my father fought in a European war (outside Europe, and it changed him); I have not, and am now of an age I likely would not; my children, well-informed young people, are perfectly aware of the facts of two European and world wars - yet they find it hard to grasp there being such a degree of national acrimony within western Europe that it could lead to a war. (Aware of the other European war of this century that has had Sarajevo as a key, they like me have never felt they understood the ancient base of cruel animosities or their modern exploitation that has fired the wars of the collapsing wreck of Yugoslavia - or the endless tragedy of divided Ireland.)

This summer has been the 81st anniversary of the largest of the Battles of the Somme, which opened 1 July 1916. The time is nearly passed for personal memories. So there will be no more books, like above all MARTIN MIDDLEBROOK's, written with benefit of first-hand memory.(1) We now have the documentary record and the physical remains.

This was the infamous mud of Flanders, chalk turned to clay, with the very streams blocked by the shelling then overtopping their weak banks; here is the Tranchee des Bayonnettes at Verdun, where part of a French regiment were overwhelmed to suffocate or drown when a trench caved in; just their bayonets survived, sticking in disciplined line up and out of the watery earth. What is the physical archaeology of the Western Front as it stands today? What has withstood 80 years of natural healing in a temperate landscape? And how do the memorials of the Great War look today as the material expression of the Great War in modern memory? They were built by brothers, fathers, cousins; now the immediate remembrance of the war is itself moving distant into history, they are becoming impersonal.

Yet the Great War does not diminish in present respect. Rather the reverse. It is many years now that the exact anniversary of the 1918 Armistice - the two minutes' silence at the Eleventh Hour of the Eleventh Day of the Eleventh Month - was shuffled sideways to be remembered instead on the nearest Sunday, whatever date that falls. But the last few years in Britain have seen a hankering to return to the true and exact anniversary, a wish encouraged but not created by the British Legion. Why does this human story, among so many brutalities of a century, carry now a force that is renewing itself?. Is it because it now seems so pointless and its cause so obscure, as a crushing ritual of struggle between old European powers, rather than a war in which one grasps a real element of just morals, of something that was good and something that was evil?

Battles, for the most part, take days or even just hours, so there is often nothing now to see on the ground: instead, the topography may inform - here is the defended crest, there is the valley of advance - when we know how it structured affairs. At Towton, scene of the bloodiest battle on British soil, AD 1461, we do not even know that; and a mass grave encountered there in summer 1996 was re-buried without archaeological study. So the enduring monuments of war are the fixed points, the bases from which mobile forces moved: the armoured submarine pens in western France, and the airfields of the Second World War in southern England reported in the June ANTIQUITY: and the static defences, whether the hillforts of later European prehistory, the showy medieval castles, or the Martello towers of the British coast anticipating Napoleon's invasion, and the pillboxes anticipating Hitler's. …

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