The Same Madness by Michael Morpurgo

Posted on 7th November 2016 by Sally Campbell
No modern writer has done more to remind us of the carnage, sacrifice and courage of World War I than Michael Morpurgo. Through his twin masterworks of Private Peaceful and War Horse, generations that might otherwise be ignorant of this man-made global catastrophe continue to learn and understand the lessons of the conflict, the reverberations from which are still being felt today.

Friday November 18th marks one hundred years since the conclusion of the Battle of the Somme, the five-month onslaught which resulted in the wounding or death of over one million men. Michael Morpurgo’s collection Only Remembered is a fitting tribute to many such terrible skirmishes of that war, bringing together a number of voices to form one, unified volume of remembrance.  The book features a luminous assembly of contributors, including Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Cornwall, actors Joanna Lumley and Emma Thompson, authors Jacqueline Wilson, Anthony Beevor, Jilly Cooper, Raymond Briggs and Malorie Blackman and a clutch of other leading lights from the worlds of media and sport. Illustrated by Ian Beck, royalties from the book will be split between the Royal British Legion and projects for soldiers' children and families at SSAFA, the Armed Forces charity.

As Only Remembered shifts into its paperback incarnation, we were honoured by Michael’s offer to provide his thoughts around why a collection like this need exist. Suffice to say, the resulting piece is an extraordinary, vital read.

Who'll sing the anthem, and who will tell the story?
Will the line hold, will it scatter and run? 
Shall we at last be united in glory,
Only remembered for what we have done.

So goes the song which begins and ends The National Theatre's play of War Horse. But why tell a story, why sing an anthem, why make a play about The First World War, why create an anthology of songs and poems, of stories, of memories, now, in 2016, a hundred years after that catastrophic war was fought? And why do all this deliberately for young people, for a family audience?

Well, because a strong thread of connection to our past, to the lives of others who lived and died then, and were often related to us in some way, is essential to our understanding of ourselves, as a people, as a culture, as a country, as part of a world of immense complexity, where conflict and confrontation loom as large as they ever did, and have their roots in our history and in the history and lives of others. We have to know where we have come from if we are ever to know where we should be going.

The seismic shift of the power plates in Europe at the beginning of the First World War have shaped the destiny of our world ever since. It was a titanic clash of Empires that involved the entire world. Millions died, most far from home, in a war that need never have happened. They believed, most of them, that the suffering and endurance and the dying were ultimately for the good of their families, their countries, and the world. Only win this war and this would be the war that would  end all wars. So, the old empires bled themselves almost to death in the trenches, on the barbed wire, in no man's land. But, in the wake of this war, despite the best intentions of many, the conditions were created by those who had won, the losers humiliated, and the world carved up in a way that served to contribute at least in part to the beginning of the next World War twenty years  later, after which the victors squabbled once again over the spoils of war.  And on it has gone ever since. From the Somme to Syria may be a distance in time of a hundred years, but for those involved the suffering is the same. It is the same madness. 

And in all this holocaust of destruction, who does the suffering? It is not only the soldiers at the front, wherever that front is. If they survive they often live lives scarred by terrible wounds of mind and body. If they die, they never grow to be parents and grandparents, to live fulfilled and useful lives.  The grief and anger felt by those who loved them, lives on, corrodes, turns to a thirst for vengeance. And of course it is also those families and children at home - by any standards innocent victims - who are considered legitimate targets. Collatoral damage it is often called. Entire villages, towns and cities are razed, entire peoples wiped out. It could be said that the concept of total war was invented and indeed achieved during The First World War. The means by which to achieve mass killing - gas, machine guns, shelling, tanks, bombing from the air - were not perfected then, that came later and is still in the process of perfection, but we learned, though those  years of horror, to destroy one another with a new and brutal efficiency. 

But who were these people who lived and died in such times? They were our forebears, the forebears of others, of so many nationalities and cultures and religions,  forebears forgotten now. We do not remember any of them.  The passing of the years has seen to that.  We know them only in faded sepia photographs, as names on gravestones and memorials, in our churchyards in this country, and in others, in cemeteries everywhere. 

I think of two such names, one in my village of  Iddesleigh  in deepest Devon, and one  in the village of Alpbach high in the mountains of Austria. Maybe the two soldiers met long ago, an Englishman and an Austrian, saw each other across No Man's Land, or met one another at the end of a bayonet, killed one another. Two men, farm workers maybe, or foresters, who had no quarrel with one another, two men who never came home. 

The only thread of memory we have left now are their stories, true or imagined,  their poems and pictures that tell of the pity and futility, the courage and camaraderie, of the horror and humour and hope, songs that ring on down the years, that tell us how it was, and warn us yet again, not to go to war if it can possibly be avoided, that peace is the great prize the world longs for, they longed for, fought for.

Michael Morpurgo 


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