Even now, over 100 years later, the words Battle of the Somme send a cold shiver down the spine. Though any war is brutal and casualties can be heavy, the battle between the British and French troops against the Germans in northern France is infamous for the horrific loss of life. More than three million men fought in the battle and one million men were wounded or killed, making it one of the bloodiest battles in human history. To mark 100 years since the end of the First World War, 72,396 shrouded figures have been laid out in rows, shoulder to shoulder covering an area over 4,000 square metres across the South Park Lawn in the Olympic Park, best known for being a pivotal part of the 2012 Olympics. Each figure represents a British serviceman killed at The Battle of the Somme who has no known grave, many of whose bodies were never recovered from the battlefields. The Shrouds of the Somme is a poignant tribute.
This is the spectacular installation at the Tower of London, commemorating 100 years since Armastice Day. There are 10,000 flames, which represent not just the soldiers who lost their lives, but all those who were bereaved or affected by the war. Each flame is ceremonially lit, creating a circle of light around the tower as a powerful symbol of remembrance. The lighting takes 4–50 minutes and the flames remain lit for around four hours. I really recommend you see this post from a previous commemoration.
After seeing the superb Dunkirk last week, it got me thinking about what other depictions there had been of World War 2. There are some pretty famous ones I’ve left out, which you’re more than welcome to mention in the comments section. I wanted a wide range that covered different aspects of the war. Fighting on the ground, being under attack under water, aerial warfare, resistance fighters and the struggle within concentration camps among them. See how many you can get. A bonus point if you can guess my favourite among them.
War, children, it’s just a shot away
Taken from the song Gimme Shelter by The Rolling Stones from Let it Bleed (1969). One of the best known anti-war songs, it also features one of my favourite opening guitar riffs. If you’re a fan of The Rolling Stones, you might also like this previous post.
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed.
“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.”
That very controversial American President Richard Nixon once said: “No event in American history is more misunderstood than the Vietnam War. It was misreported then, and it is mis-remembered now.” However you feel about the war itself, and what it represented, it has been fascinatingly portrayed on the big screen. See how well you can do at working out the six films below.
Edmund Blackadder: All right. Fire away, Baldrick.
Baldrick: Hear the words I sing / War’s a horrid thing / So i sing sing sing / Ding a Ling a Ling.
George: (clapping) Oh, bravo, yes
Edmund Blackadder Well it started off badly, it tailed off a little in the middle, and the less said about the end, the better. But, apart from that, excellent!
Rowan Atkinson, Tony Robinson and Hugh Laurie in Blackadder (1983 – 1989)
There have been so many classic war novels, covering all the multifarious method and madness the genre inspires in its writers, that it takes something pretty special to stand out from the crowd, let alone revolutionise the genre.
In his Pultizer Prize nominated sixth novel The Things They Carried, Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien, raised all kinds of questions about the legacy of war on those whose lives it had come into, pushing the boundaries of metafiction. Published in 1990, it continues to enthrall.
With 22 different short stories working as a loose structure, O’Brien examines the lives of the soldiers of Alpha Company, looking at the influence their past lives have on their experiences of war. There is an unusual energy to the stories with O’Brien performing the difficult feat of keeping a reader engaged in a text with no unifying linear narrative, partly through the device of recurring characters. The continuing plight of vulnerable Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, Kiowa with his unshakable faith as well as our reflective author himself, who appears as a character, ensure that our fascination with the book never wavers.
The title is inspired by the unifying idea that each soldier takes something precious with him to war. From the mosquito repellent and pocket knives they all have to more personal belongings, such as a Bible, tranquilisers or a memento from a girl. And then there are things they didn’t know they were carrying; fear, naivety and loneliness.
The focus on the essential vulnerability of the men is explored with more depth in stories such as “Love” and “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong”. We are reminded of the polarisation within characters required to kill yet full of youthful romantic innocence and how the two can never be reconciled. With “Enemies” and “Friends” and then with “The Man I killed” and “Ambush” O’Brien goes on to give a powerful war narrative before going on to look at the same events from different perspectives.
And it is through this that we really get to the heart of things. Though O’Brien is an undoubted specialist in writing about Vietnam, what he achieves here is something unlike any of his other works. By playing around with the structure, narrative, tone and character involvement we are able to see the horror of war on different levels. How regular thought is impossible, how guilt mixes with practicality when dealing with a comrade’s death, the conflicting emotions felt when coming across any enemy corpse and how though they are all together they are in effect on their own.
And as with all the literary greats, the ending is just as provocative and evocative as you would expect. O’Brien goes right back to a time which has nothing to do with war, focusing instead on a childhood memory. O’Brien knows that life is never as simple as war and peace, for those who have been through a war the two are, and will forever be, entangled.