Laurence 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 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."
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
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
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
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."