My Essay on WWI Commemoration in Books and Culture

"Lest We Forget" poster in the churchyard of St Paul's Cathedral
One example of the “Lest We Forget” theme, posted in the churchyard of St Paul’s Cathedral

Regular readers know both that World War I is one of my favorite topics and Books & Culture one of my favorite publications. So it was a joy to write the essay that went up on the B&C website this morning, “We Will Remember Them.”

The title comes from one of the war’s most-quoted poems, and refers back to the frequency with which the phrase “Lest We Forget” shows up on the biennial WWI travel course that Sam Mulberry and I teach in Europe:

At first glance, the phrase can seem rote, unnecessary. Surely a world war—fought by 65 million people and involving far more—cannot pass from the memory of anyone who experienced it, or heard about its glories and horrors second hand. Nor from the collective memory of a community broken, defined, or otherwise affected by it.

And yet, we forget. Time marches forward, carrying our attention with it. The complicated riches of contemplating the past don’t stack up against the urgent needs of the present and the terrifying anxieties or tantalizing possibilities of the future.

So like the poet Laurence Binyon, watching the first Tommies cross the English Channel in 1914, people for a hundred years have pledged themselves against their nature:

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.

Referring back to several of the memorials we visit in Europe (including London’s Cenotaph, German cemeteries in Belgium and northern France, and the new Ring of Remembrance), I offer some observations about the challenge of publicly commemorating the Great War — on the eve of the announcement of the design for the new National World War I Memorial.

Read the full essay here. And if you’re interested in this topic, you can peruse my collection of earlier posts on WWI commemoration in Europe and Minnesota.

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