In Delville Wood

Asch01a3521_01Neal Acherson at the London Review of Books:

All cults, in the Bronze Age or today, change emphasis and practice over time. In the later monuments, the early language of ‘supreme sacrifice’ or ‘they died that we might live’ falls away. The delayed wave of war memoirs, poetry and fiction which appeared after about 1928 (Remarque, Sassoon, Edmund Blunden among many others) may have sobered the memorial designers. God also retreats several paces from the iconography, although the graves of the unidentified dead are still marked ‘Known to God’ and the families still write: ‘May God protect you: One of the Best.’

Change has also come to the huge South African shrine at Delville Wood, much of it completed in the apartheid years. There is a new flag, new tablets remembering the Africans who died in Pretoria’s service. More than three thousand white soldiers went into this wood in 1916, and a few days later just over six hundred were still alive and on their feet. The wood, smashed to black spikes, was replanted but its floor is still a crazy pattern of shell-holes.

A Jan Smuts quotation is set in bronze. ‘I do sincerely believe that we are struggling for the preservation, against terrible odds, of what is most precious in our civilisation.’ Few of the women bringing poppy crosses, or the young teachers trying to explain the Thiepval monument to their teenagers, would swallow that, or even understand it. All the same, opinion about the Great War hasn’t moved in a straight line.

more here.