November 11, Armistice day, and Brits and Canucks are wearing poppies. There’s no similar semi-religious observance in France or Germany; the brilliant symbolism of the poppy has a lot to do with this.
Last month I visited the colossal British WWI memorial at Thiépval on the Somme, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens. The inspiration for the Vietnam memorial wall in Washington, it carries the names of 72,000 British and colonial soldiers killed in the pointless and incompetent 1916 offensive. These were just the missing, whose bodies were buried anonymously or never found.
Their names stand there to attention, engraved on the sides of 16 huge squat pillars holding up a high but disproportionately narrow arch, in stiff parade-ground order: regiment by regiment, in descending ranks from colonel to private. (The generals were safe, but at battalion level there was a certain equality in death.) The Vietnam memorial’s informal, date-order democracy would have been socially unthinkable as well as impracticable given the rate of casualties on the Somme.
Lutyens’ design is a bit awkward, but it’s still an impressive expression of an important principle. Every dead soldier was once, and for believers still is, a person with a name.
When did this happen? I mean, when did common soldiers gain the expectation of a rudimentary individual memorial? Shakespeare is surely true to tradition when his victorious Henry V reads the casualty report after Agincourt:
Where is the number of our English dead?
(Herald shows him another paper)
Edward the Duke of York, the Earl of Suffolk,
Sir Richard Ketly, Davy Gam, esquire:
None else of name; and of all other men
But five and twenty.
Bardolph and Pistol, Shakespeare’s squaddies, would not have rated a mention had they got unlucky. I suppose Henry’s dead common soldiers, like Leicester’s, Wellington’s and Napoleon’s, would in fact have been tumbled into a large pit without a gravestone. When did the change happen? All the combatant countries in WWI felt the need, except I suppose for Russia, where revolution and civil war made the question moot. But did the change happen earlier, perhaps after the American Civil War, or the Franco-Prussian War of 1870?