All Quiet

Ask Them Why They Died


While my schools old pals battalion was solemnly having a plaque to our glorious dead placed at the  Menem Gate, I was elsewhere. South Devon to be precise, walking the impressive, heroic and at times exhausting coastal path between Bigbury on Sea and Noss Mayo.(The name  comes from Mathew’s Nose)

The owners of the bed  and breakfast used to run an antiques shop in  Windsor but when ,ten years ago,the bottom fell out of the “brown  furniture market” they cashed in most of their antique clocks and  moved to Noss Mayo. The b&b is a success and Jane Barnett likes to play a game with the guests, guessing what they do. She got my companion’s legal career correctly but strangely had me down as a doctor. My calm manner, my steady hand, my reassuring twinkle, the expert way I cut my sausage. ? No it was the dependability of the corduroy trousers I wore in the evening. Non verbal communication, you cant beat it.

Anyway as we walked along the path we saw sign to Ringmore. The village where RC Sherriff retired to write his  still played Journeys End. In fact the 13th  century  pub has changed its name to its most important guest’s claim to fame. When the play was first performed in 1928 it stared the 21 year old Laurence Olivier.

Sherriff was a proud son of Kingston Grammar(where Putney’s Gibbon also went briefly). Several of my neighbiyrs children have  also gone. Sherriff wrote 18 plays of which Journey’s  End was the most successful and allowed him to become a full time writer. And prolific he was. As well as the plays there were 15 film scripts and ten novels. Between 1921-36 he wrote 11 plays, five film scripts and three books. Born in 1896 he died in 1975.

He wrote one play just to finance his school’s boat club which still bears his name.

His most famous films were Dam Busters and Goodbye Mr Chips.

But his most famous play was carved out of his own experience. He served from 1914 through all the major battles on the Western front, earning an MC, becoming a captain and eventually being invalided home after Passchendaele in 1917. In case you don’t know the play is about  how the glory of war turns into cynical drunkenness etc.

Meanwhile my school party of 20 placed its wreath and saw its plaque go up among the 100s of others in the Chapel. Every day hundreds come to observe the Last Post at Lutyens great monument to those whose bodies were never found.  No more glorious regiment of the dead.

The school party ended up at the grave of one old boy who died aged 19. Apparently his father wrote to the headmaster that during his short war he was never without a copy of the school magazine. It makes you weep.

Arch jingoist Kipling wrote of his own son’s death in the War,

If any question why we died/Tell them because our fathers lied.


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One Response to All Quiet

  1. As one who was there at the MENIN Gate for the ceremony referred to, and after a visit to Tyne Cot cemetery, I now read your piece and I am left to wonder how many fathers in the UK and all our dominions (then) did so – lied? I can understand Kipling’s bitterness on losing his only son in the Great War; equally the words in poems by Sassoon, or Wilfred Owen recount opinions on the futility of war. The trouble is – as Mr Putin demonstrates now, there are those who use it as a means for their own ends. We disarm at our peril. You might also have quoted other, equally controversial lines, to some readers, of the poem:
    I could not look on death, which being known, Men took me to him, blindfold and alone.
    Revisionist politicians decided much later to pardon every man shot for ‘cowardice in the face of the enemy’. Who exactly did that help?
    I wrote a poem that may appear in the school’s magazine at some point this year – I wrote the words two days before I went to Belgium. In it, I wrote –

    ‘Comfortable, there are those who question why we fought.
    Our solemn answer – we met our nation’s need. Let that be understood.’

    Duty now is for others, it seems.
    I wrote the piece imagining ‘The Glorious Dead’ looking down on those who visited the Menin Gate and all the memorials in Flanders. They were wondering why we/they do so.
    The majority of the fallen, those that returned, and their families took a different view of that war. That many suffered at the hands of their government upon their return, disturbed (not shell shocked), wounded or maimed, is quite another story and one that I am writing about and researching. The world they had once known and sought to defend had moved on while they were at the front; attitudes changed; work was not there for them when the men returned….and so on.
    Jan Vivian (pen-name of Johan Vivian VAN DIJK).

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