I recently read an article in The Daily Telegraph under the headline “We should hold on to the shock value of history” by Juliet Samuel. She had visited World War One cemeteries in Belgium at the age of fourteen, and she remembers how shocked she had been when she first saw them “and their countless, tidy rows of white crosses, everywhere as far as the eye could see.” She recalls how certain facts had made an impression. “In particular, a number: on one day during the war, I’d read, there were 57,000 casualties. Fifty-seven thousand! It had jumped out of my textbook like a ghost whose meaning I couldn’t understand, but which transfixed me.”
Over three or four days, the young girl’s party visited nearly a dozen cemeteries, “or that’s how it felt,” she says. “As their numbers mounted, their shock value diminished.” But the shock that was not diminished was when she saw both the huge expanse of white crosses and the dreadful image presented by an actual number. She goes on: “It was the only instant when history became real, filled with the bodies of real people. Fifty-seven thousand! Here’s what that sort of battle looks like, I thought.” The shock made her realise that those who suffered and died were real people “not some remote, long-extinct breed of historical characters. This doesn’t provide a simple lesson or narrative,” she says. “It comes with flashes of revelation, then fades. But with the Great War’s veterans gone, and many of their children too, it is now all that is left.”
When I visited a World War Two cemetery in France, I nearly wept when I saw the acres and acres of white crosses, with here and there a Star of David, and two words – Oh God, Oh God! – drove all other words from my mind. I recently tried to find out the numbers killed in each of the World Wars. This was not easy, because there are so many different opinions. The best I can do is quote Wikipedia, which states that all quotations of fatalities can only be approximate. The number of dead in World War One is given as 15 million, and in World War Two it is around 58 million, on all sides and over the whole world. That makes 73 million people killed in both wars – more than the population of the whole United Kingdom today. Even allowing for differences of opinion, the figures are overwhelming – and shocking. But with repetition the mind becomes inured to shock. I have mentioned before reading of a young woman, a prisoner in Auschwitz. She was lying on the grass enjoying the sunshine, a few yards from a long building. She knew what the building was – that people were herded into it at one end, and containers of ash and bone came out at the other, but her mind protected her sanity by excluding it from her consciousness, as she lay in the sun.
We can’t be in a state of shock all the time: our minds couldn’t contain it and perform the ordinary, essential acts of our daily life, so our consciousness has a natural self-defensive tendency to skin over and not feel a persistent stimulus. When Juliet Samuel, in her party of teenagers, reached this point in their tour of cemeteries, she says, “We dragged ourselves off the coaches yawning and whining. We grew bored and fractious. We grumbled. Why we visited so many I’ll never know.”
But know – and remember – we must, or we shall have to learn the hard way all over again. It must never happen again. So at special times we let the shock hit us; and we must see to it that our children’s children are shocked, too. That is why dreadful places like Auschwitz, Belsen and Buchenwald are preserved, and, like the bloody battlefields with overwhelming lists and lists and lists of the names of ordinary people – most of them little more than boys – are remembered by us at special times on special days, like the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, year after hopeful year. I will never forget one dreadful number – eight hundred and eighty-eight thousand, two hundred and forty-six ceramic poppies, each one representing a priceless British and Colonial soldier in “The blood-swept lands and seas of red” – the great stream of blood-red poppies surging down out of the “Weeping Window”, covering the ground and beating against the walls of the Tower of London on the 2014 centenary of the Great War. Oh God. Yes. Oh God!