In 2014, we will mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, the event that, more than any other, decided the shape of the twentieth century, destabilising empires, redrawing geographic boundaries, changing forever the way we would think about armed conflict. Historians – not just political historians, but historians of music and art – identify the Great War as the true beginning of the twentieth century, the end of the long, glorious Edwardian summer, a collective loss of innocence, a continental coming of age. In the artistic movements that came to define the post-war years – Expressionism, Dadaism, Futurism – we see not just a search for meaning, but a rejection of the possibility of meaning. Europe was reeling; there was nothing left to say.
Drive into any village in France and you will find a Great War memorial, usually larger than the WWII memorial, simply because, when WWII came around, there were fewer men left to die. If the village is large enough to include a church, you can walk in and find a plaque – or two or three, or a whole wall of plaques – bearing the names of soldiers from the parish who fell in each war, and if you live in a village like ours, a village in la France profonde, where families have not moved around much, you will often be able to identify surnames you know. Oh, you’ll say, here’s a possible ancestor of the plumber; there’s the mayor’s great-grandfather.
When I first visited France in 1987, I stayed for about a week at a farm in the Marne region. I was a child; I knew vaguely of the Battle of the Marne, but it meant no more to me than the Battle of Hastings, or the Battles of Agincourt and Blenheim, or the dozens of other European battles about which my parents, in their British-era missionary schools, had had to memorise poems. Of course I knew lots of people, including many in my own family, who had lived through the Second World War and the Japanese Occupation in Malaya. But collective memory, I quickly realised, was a very different beast in the Marne valley. My hosts were a farming family, the parents in their mid-fifties. Logically speaking, they should’ve been further removed from the events of Great War than my parents and uncles and aunts were from the Second, but they spoke of it as though it had happened five years ago. The First World War, for them and others of their generation, was The War. It had been fought on this very soil, in these fields, not in distant jungles, and unlike in Malaysia, where my relatives’ stories revolved around the struggle to live under an invading foreign army – eating tapioca instead of rice, curing scabies with cow urine, singing the Japanese anthem every morning – here in France, every able-bodied man had gone off to fight. People’s photo albums were full of grandfathers and great-uncles who hadn’t returned from the Great War; their land still bore its scars.
One day, my hosts took me to visit a battlefield. I’d been to cemeteries before, so it wasn’t the number of tombstones that shocked me, or brought home the reality of the carnage. I was interested, but unmoved; I walked from plaque to informational plaque, politely reading, waiting while the adults talked. Then, my hosts’ tiny grandniece – barely three years old at the time – found herself standing in front of a crooked tombstone. Against that sharply leaning cross, the child pulled and pulled, bringing herself to her knees in her determination to right it. We all turned and stared. At first we laughed, the adults making the usual sorts of comments about spirited children: This one will rule the world, this one will give us a run for our money! But then, as the little girl stayed there hanging from that stone cross, the chuckling subsided, and a strange sorrow came over all of us who stood there watching. We all felt it, and without needing to discuss it, we knew it was shared. Our breathing slowed; someone sighed.
I sometimes date my obsession with the Great War to that day on the battlefield, and sometimes to a little book of soldiers’ diary excerpts that sat on a bookshelf in my parents’ house, which I’d read several times by the time I was ten for the simple reason that my mother, believing it to be too violent, had discouraged it. Sometimes, in less fanciful moods, I attribute my obsession to the class I took in my junior year of college, during that winter when I was also enrolled in seminars on Nazi Germany and the Black Death, the latter of which occasionally – weather permitting – met at the local cemetery. It was, as you might imagine, a bleak semester; sometimes, at the end of a day filled with these classes, I lay on my bed and wept for the world. But I recognised even then that it is an astonishing thing to be able to weep for a war that took place almost a hundred years ago, in which not one of the thirty-seven million dead was – as far as I know — connected to me by blood; and recognising this, I was, and still am, grateful for it: for the transmission of fact and memory, of atmosphere and nuance, that makes empathy possible at this remove.
This year, I’ll be rereading Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke and Robert Graves, Virginia Woolf and Vera Brittain, and, of course, Erich Maria Remarque. I’ll also be rereading the contemporary WWI novels I love: Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy and her more recent Toby’s Room; A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book; Sebastian Barry’s A Long, Long Way; Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong. But I want to do something more than read about the war this year. By “something more,” I don’t mean that fiction and poetry are inadequate means of understanding a historical moment or generating empathy, only that I have been reading about the Great War for most of my life now, and am looking for additional – but meaningful, non-gimmicky – ways to mark this anniversary. In the best of all possible worlds, I’d return to the Marne for the first time since 1987; I’d visit Verdun and Ypres and the towns of the Somme valley. I would cook from this book for a week or – if my family could bear it – a month. I would read every single contribution to this GuardianWitness initiative. In real life, I don’t know which of these feats I’ll manage, but I look forward to sharing my attempts with my readers here.
[Images: Royal Irish Rifles ration party, Somme, July 1916, from the collections of the Imperial War Museum; Oscar Kokoschka, poster for Murderer, the Hope of Woman; photo by Pascal Rossignol for Reuters; Guardian photo of British and German soldiers at Ploegsteert in Belgium on Christmas Day 1914, from The Art Archive/Alamy; the National Necropolis at Sillery-Bellevue, Marne, at www. cndp.fr; illustration by Lizzy Stewart, from the Folio Society edition of Mrs. Dalloway]