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Lost Generation
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Going down of the sunLaurence Binyon's famous poem was first published in The Times just before the bloody Battle of Loos in March 1915.

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

The poem is now very much part of the Remembrance Day ceremonies in Britain, and elsewhere, and has taken on almost religious significance. Over the years it has played its part in developing that mystical belief that there was something very special about those young men who died in the Great War. The feeling that those men who died were the finest of their generation, and that the fact of their dying somehow proved their wasted excellence, became very common in post-war writing.

Hugh Dalton 1916
Hugh Dalton 1915

Hugh Dalton, who was Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1945 Labour government had been a friend of Rupert Brooke at Cambridge; in his autobiography Call Back Yesterday (1953) he wrote:

"With his passing, a bright light seemed to go out of my life, and a bright hope out of the future, for I had confidently expected that he would write prose and plays, and more poems too, which would be wonderful and deathless, and that through long years the influence of his unique personality would run wide and deep among those lucky enough to meet it."

Winston Churchill was another admirer of Brooke:"Joyous, fearless, versatile, deeply instructed, with classic symmetry of mind and body, he was all that one would wish England's noblest sons to be."

Rupert Brooke
Rupert Brooke

Whether Brooke, whose death in Greece from blood-poisoning, meant he never had the chance to become a war poet of the status of Sassoon and Owen, would have achieved great things is debatable. But some of the continuing fascination for the Great War does come from the belief that it swept away all that was noble and great and replaced it with drabness, disillusion and strife.

A sermon preached in Cambridge in November 1932 demonstrates how deeply ingrained the notion was becoming: "Our true leaders, as well in literature and the arts as in public life - but most of all, I think, in public life - our true leaders were taken from our head now nearly twenty years ago: when a generation was not decimated but decapitated, not mauled at mere haphazard, but shorn precisely of its grace and glory, of its most ardent, its most generous, its most brave ... Our born leaders are dead."

And E.L.Woodward wrote in his book A Short Journey: "Amongst the men I knew, either personally or by repute, the numbers killed included a very high proportion indeed of those whom I would have singled out for ability, strength of will, and fineness of mind. These men were found more often than others in places of danger."

Alan Bennett
Alan Bennett

In Writing Home published in 1994, the playwright Alan Bennett writes both amusingly and movingly about his Uncle Clarence who died in Flanders when he was only twenty:

"He was always twenty all through my childhood, because of the photograph on the piano at my grandmother's house in Leeds. He was her only son. He sits in his uniform and puttees in Mr Lonnergan's studio down Woodsley Road.

.... In his picture Uncle Clarence is on embarkation leave from the King's Royal Rifles ... When Uncle Clarence's name comes up it is generally in connection with the undisputed nobility of his character."

Whatever the reality, belief that a dead comrade or relative had died heroically gave more meaning to that person's death, made it seem less of a waste. The danger was that those who had survived would feel guilty that they were still alive, and begin to believe that they were less heroic and less noble than their dead friends.

The myth of the lost generation took hold particularly in the "cultured" upper classes, and the parents and teachers of these brilliant young men imagined the deaths of their sons and pupils in terms that transformed those brutal, bloody moments into moments of beauty. They said, and they began to believe that the men who were dying on the field were lucky, and they, who were compelled to stay behind and honour the dead, had the hard and tragic fate.

Robert Graves 1916
Robert Graves 1916

Death may or not have been lucky, but it was certainly often more a matter of luck than anything else. For all the thousands who perished in set-piece disasters like the first day of the Somme, many more thousands died simply because they were in the wrong trench at the wrong time when a shell exploded.

Life and death on the Western front had little to do with purity or nobility, although it's likely that the better nourished and stronger men from the affluent classes would have a better chance of surviving rigours of climate, and trench hardships in general.

The real, unglamorous and unromantic truth was that many soldiers were killed simply because they were too tired to take cover or too wet and miserable to care whether they lived or died. Robert Graves shocked people at a memorial service by telling them that "the men who fell were not particularly virtuous or wicked but just average soldiers."

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Wednesday 22 February 2006