I have found myself more moved by this year’s Remembrance than previous occasions. Perhaps the two anniversaries of the 11th coming on a Friday and my late father’s birthday tomorrow have combined to make it a whole weekend of loss and pride. In any case, I have caught myself reflecting even more deeply on the horrors of war.
One thing which stands out to me above all is the dreadful ignorance of what awaited those who served at the Somme in 1916. There is footage aplenty of young men marching with enthusiasm and smiling faces, believing, as they did, that they would be hastening the end of the war. And although we know now only too well of the atrocities which they faced, and the conditions in which they lived and died are documented and photographed, I wonder how much we reflect on how quickly their earlier expectations must have been reversed – and how the prospect of glory would have been replaced, after over 57,000 casualties on the first day of the battle, by the most incomprehensible fear. This is what has preoccupied me so much. The sheer terror of living through it every minute of every day, as friends or comrades fall beside you, wondering when your time will come.
It is a fear which must have run through every conflict since: that contrast of peace, beauty and optimism our servicemen and women leave behind with the quite unimaginable reality check of a face with death.
I have referred before (‘In Memoriam’, August) to the British composers who fought in the First World War; in doing so, celebrating the pastoral qualities of the music of George Butterworth, who did not survive the battle of the Somme. Another, less well-known contemporary, Ivor Gurney (1890-1930 ), also went to the Front. Although wounded, he returned, was then gassed at Passhendale, and survived the war. He had shown signs of a mental disorder in violent moodswings from his teenage years (his teacher, Stanford, while acknowledging him to be among his very best pupils, also declared him “unteachable”), and he was diagnosed as insane in 1922.
Gurney was a gifted poet and musician, his poetry often conveying precisely the contrast I have dwelt on, and a writer of over 300 songs. One of these, a love song, ‘Down by the Salley Gardens’, set to the words of the Irish poet, W.B.Yeats, captures this beautifully.
It is just a couple of minutes, but an enchanting melody with melancholy at its very core, Gurney skillfully bringing out the sorrow metaphor of the willow (salley). It is tenderly and sensitively sung by one of our great tenors, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, whose own death in 2010 saddened so many, only adding to the poignancy of this account. I know that Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ is almost synonymous with loss and nostalgia; but this innocent song is a fitting summation of a great deal more.