The Red Baron
Volume 57, Number 1, January 2019
Colouring the past FOR those of you who don’t know the song “Green Fields of France” (originally written by Australian Eric Bogle but made famous by Irish band Davey Arthur and the Fureys), I urge you to listen to it and its lyrics if you can. It is written from the perspective of a traveller who sits down by the war grave of one William McBride and starts to ask the soldier some questions about how he died, what his funeral was like, whether he was remembered back home, his attitude to the war, etc. One line asks “are you a stranger without even a name, forever enshrined behind some old glass pane, in an old photograph torn, tattered, and stained and faded to yellow in a brown leather frame” and that line, in particular, always makes me stop to think. The recent services of remembrance were, undoubtedly moving, especially in this Centenary year, but how many people who attended, I wonder, actually thought about specific people from 100 years ago when their heads were bowed at 11.00am? We made this year more about World War I than any other conflict simply because of the centenary, and that’s OK, but of course, few, if any, of us alive today actually remember anyone who died in that war. We may know about them through family history, may have their pictures on display at home, but we never knew them personally and inevitably that affects how we “remember”. Most of us who observed the two minutes’ silence were probably thinking about friends or relatives we actually knew, who died in World War II or later (personally I found myself thinking about the young man who used to live next door to us in Hampshire, Richard Absolon of 3 Para who lost his life on Mount Longdon in June 1982 and won a posthumous MM), or we were thinking not of specific World War I casualties but rather the overall sacrifice that that generation made. Time has given us some distance; we don’t actually “remember” the men who died in World War I as we never knew them (I understand that we may all have known veterans, I did, but there are very few people left today who will remember anyone who died in 1914–18), so instead we pay homage to them and what they gave in a more general way. It is perhaps easy, as historians, to look at the world of the past somewhat dispassionately, to study it objectively and not get too involved; it is easier as well when we are so removed from the events we study by the passage of time. We perhaps feel more personally and directly involved in World War II as our fathers and grandfathers, people we saw regularly, fought in it. World War II war films were the staples of our childhood and “playing soldiers” was a standard way of passing an afternoon. World War I was different, there weren’t that many films about it, we knew it had happened but to old black and white men (did anyone else used to think that the world only became colour around about the 1930s—a kind of Wizard of Oz transformation?) whose faces stared down at us from those brown leather frames or who appeared moving in an odd jerky way in shaky, grainy films. As we got a little older and started being interested in medals the same things still applied—strangely even Victorian men seemed more “alive” to many of us as we were used to seeing colour paintings of Victorian officers, or colour films like Zulu or the Charge of the Light Brigade and colour brings things to life. World War I films and pictures were still black and white, we were still distanced from them, and they were somehow less “real”. This year things changed and if any of you saw director Peter Jackson’s stunning They shall not grow old (yes I know, the misquote irks a little) you will feel, perhaps as I did, that suddenly things were very real indeed. For those of you who don’t know, Mr Jackson (he of Lord of the Rings adaptation fame) has taken original World War I footage and colourised it, transforming it entirely. Suddenly the faces are those of our friends and neighbours, we may even recognise something of ourselves on screen, we can see that the stars of this “new” film are real people, not simply ghosts of the past and our view of them is transformed. Many of us will, I am sure, own old photographs of the recipients of medals now in our collection, and many of those photographs will be black and white. Maybe next time you look at them try and imagine them in colour (or even see if you can get copies of them colourised yourself, there are specialists who do that sort of thing—for a good example see our front cover!) it brings a whole new dimension to things I assure you—and in the meantime listen to the Fureys rendition of “Green Fields of France” and watch Mr Jackson’s documentary if you can. Both are well worth it.
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