It is already November 11 here in Australia (just), which means a couple of things. Firstly, it’s Friyay; but it is also a date of memory, and it holds a two minute period of quiet grace. For two whole minutes, most of us manage to quiet our tongues, our brains and our social media, and stop. Because today is the date on which in 1918, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh month, the constant booming roar of the Western Front’s big guns fell silent after more than four years of continuous conflict.
Today is the day we bring out our dead, and promise that at the going down of the sun, and in the morning –
– we will remember them.
November 11 is Armistice Day. It is also, more evocatively, Remembrance Day for Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and other Commonwealth nations, South Africa and non-Commonwealth countries such as France. For Americans, of course, it is Veterans’ Day, which doesn’t have quite the same connotations – although of equal stature and meaning – as it is intended to honour all who have served or are serving, the living and the dead.
Today, we will stop, wherever we are, whatever we are doing, at eleven o’clock, and be silent, the booming of life laid still. For two whole minutes, we will just stop.
Last year I was in Collins Street in Melbourne when eleven o’clock rolled around, my little red paper poppy firmly attached to my shirt. I was catching up with – I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say an old comrade in arms, after going across to interview someone, so it was singularly appropriate to be with them on this, of all days.
For those who don’t know Melbourne (the best coffee in Australia. Sorry Perth, but you know it just as well as I), Collins Street is mahoosive. It is part of the central business district, it has trams, buses, taxis, idiots, and possibly Wally or Waldo depending on your nationality. It is loud and yammery and full of chaff, and I love it.
At eleven o’clock, it was frozen. For two minutes, that entire great long street – 1.6 kilometres, very nearly a mile – was a snapshot in time. A stretch of city, people standing in respect, standing to attention in some cases (me for one), mounted police, tram drivers, corporate warriors… you name it, they quietened their brains and opened their hearts to memory, and loss, and a wish for future peace.
That is, all except for the two muppets three tables behind us, who continued their conversation throughout the two-minute silence – the two minutes given to remembering the potentially 13 million dead of the First World War, a third of them with no known grave.
I tried not to think about them and their bullshittery and rudeness, and open my heart to the stillness. Two minutes is a blink in the scheme of things, after all. But then, afterwards, I kept looking at it from the perspective of the soldiers facing the agony of humdrum followed by short bursts of adrenaline, up to their armpits in fear, sweat, mud, lice, trench foot, fleas, gangrene and dead bodies in the trenches of the Somme, of Passchendaele, of Verdun.
Think about it. One hundred and twenty seconds, breathing in and out, waiting to go over the top, were the difference between dying – or not.
It’s hard to imagine being at home in 1916, one hundred years ago, waiting for news of fathers, sons, husbands, fiancés, brothers, away at ‘the War’. If I were here, where I am now, in Perth, chances are my husband would have been serving in the 25th Light Horse Regiment somewhere in Palestine or the Sinai, a proud Sandgroper representing state, country and Crown. And me – well, in theory, I would have been at home, keeping the campfires burning, writing long letters to the Front, and dreaming of the day he came home to me, safe and sound.
Somehow, I feel the reality would have been a lot more real.
Women are not a feature when we talk of World War One. Neither, for that matter, are war correspondents and photographers. And yet in different ways, their drive and determination to support, to give aid, and be present, to support the truth of the conflict, played an essential role in telling the story of the 38 million dead and injured in the four year span of the Great War.
In a tiny handful of cases, the twain met.
Women are remembered as nurses in the Women’s Hospital Corps, as V.A.D. ambulance drivers, as administrative staff in the newly formed Women’s Royal Navy Service (WRNS) – but ask if any women were war correspondents in World War One, and chances are you’ll draw a blank. Ask someone to name a man who performed the same function, or a war photographer, and admittedly, with the exception in Australia perhaps of Keith Murdoch (Rupert’s father), and C.W. Bean, you would get the same reaction.
And yet these were the pioneers of frontline reportage. They were prepared, in the case of Phillip Gibbs, for example, to risk imprisonment to get the real story of the war. Lord Kitchener didn’t want people at home knowing about reasonable wastage, or boys of eighteen hanging half-dead in a parody of crucifixion on the barbed wire of No Man’s Land, waiting for a sympathetic sniper to finish them off. Censorship was rife, and the few ‘official’ correspondents who managed to get anywhere near the Front had the blue pencil ruthlessly deployed on their despatches home.
Yet the images tell us the reality, and so too, do the words written mostly after the fact by those same correspondents. For those who broke barriers and rules, it seems an indignity, now, when those who came after them – war correspondents and photojournalists such as Anderson Cooper, Horst Faas, Martha Gellhorn, Ernest Hemingway, Neil Davis, Dan Rather, Christiane Amanpour, Marie Colvin, John Steinbeck, Arturo Pérez-Reverte, to name a tiny handful of my personal heroes – are the stuff of legend.
Mary Roberts Rhinehart was amongst the first American – not women, American correspondents – to reach the Front in 1915. Writing for the Saturday Evening Post, her enormous popularity ‘back home’ ensured she got within 180 metres of enemy lines, further than most male journalists from any country.
Peggy Hull (Henrietta Deuell) of the ‘Trib’ – the Chicago Tribune – a reporter since 1901, went to the battle-lines of Europe in 1917 to give her readers a view of everyday life for those in the trenches, after covering General John ‘Black Jack’ Pershing and his chase of Pancho Villa.
She became the first officially accredited female war correspondent with the U.S. War Department, in 1918.
Would I have been able to make my mark as a war correspondent in World War One? Could I have been reporting back to the Daily Missionfor my faithful readers, who had until now been eager followers of my household tips and stories of women supporting their men, on the rot setting in across Europe?
I want to think so. I am certainly a big enough troublemaker.
The men who came back from that war to end all wars would never be the same. The slaughter, the gas, the endless, ceaseless thud, thud, thud of the Howitzers and Mörsers as they blew boys to smithereens is the stuff of which eternal insomnia and nightmares is made.
And yet we wouldn’t know half of their internal struggles if it weren’t for those who stepped up, and said “we need to not sugarcoat this. People deserve to know the truth”. We wouldn’t know about the fiasco of Gallipoli, for example, if Keith Murdoch hadn’t written his scathing indictment of Britain’s military mismanagement, now part of the UNESCO Heritage Register. Both he and Charles Bean refused to bow to the jingoism and euphemistic truth-hiding of the British.
They too, deserve a place in our silence today, as the keepers of memory and history. They are our link with the past, and with the chance to see events not as we wish to remember them, but as they actually occurred.
And even though the majority of them returned home safely, they are owed the respect of officialdom, for I think in what they experienced, a part of them died with those millions of soldiers.
There, on Flanders fields.