HistoryJournal.org

A generation passed away

Posted in European, War by Alex L. on February 9, 2012
Photos of the last veterans of World War I

From left to right: Florence Green (d. 2012; UK), Claude Choules (d. 2011; UK), Frank Buckles (d. 2011; US), and Erich Kästner (d. 2008; Germany)

The last surviving veteran of World War I, Florence Green, died last Saturday. The last American to have served in the war, Frank Buckles, as well as the last veteran to have actually seen combat, Claude Choules, died last year. Their generation saw the accumulation of European culture and technology–the hope of the world–burn for four years on the pyre of war. Theirs was also the first generation to sweep away the ashes and sculpt new strains of Western culture. But almost everything that they (and others after them) wrote, painted, said, and filmed bore the mark of the trauma of World War I.

With the death of these last veterans, we have lost the eyewitnesses to these events. All data now about that time will be secondhand. And collective memory fades quicker when individual memories are stored on hard drives, manuscripts, and film than in human heads.

But there are important lessons to be learned from the experiences this generation recorded. These lessons are best not forgotten, as the men and women would once have told us, who witnessed the radiant procession of humanity in the brilliant summer of 1914 unwittingly march to their oblivion.

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2 Responses

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  1. Loving Language said, on February 9, 2012 at 10:02 am

    Why do you think memory fades quicker on hard drives than human heads? It seems the other way around, since hard drives are outlasting all kinds of human heads–except when they crash.

    Is it because one can only make sense of memory when it’s in your head?

  2. Alex L. said, on February 9, 2012 at 10:46 am

    One bright morning, a British soldier rounded a corner in the trenches to find a group of men gathered around where an artillery shell had just struck. The British soldier saw what remained: his brother, who was making coffee for him a few minutes ago, was turned to pulp and blood that hung on the earthen walls. Imagine what drinking a cup of coffee for the rest of your life after that would feel like.

    Or how sunsets would for all time be perceived if for four uninterrupted years you only saw one when your infantry company was ordered every evening to peek their heads out of the trenches–hands frozen to their guns–for painfully long minutes in anticipation of a dusk attack.

    These are different types of memories from what we can store digitally. They are the most powerful deterrents against war. We can’t fully experience what these veterans did, but I think that through stories we can attain a certain level of empathy for their pain. Even a fictional story (like Vysotsky’s song “He Didn’t Return from Battle”) can have this effect.

    The two stories above are from “The Great War and Modern Memory”, a book that really made me think. Thanks for making me think through this topic too, Rich!


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