Memories, Consolations, and Truths

Last Sunday being Remembrance Day, there was a gathering at the Animals in War Memorial in Park Lane, London, a few hours after the grander ceremony in Whitehall a short distance away. A service of hymns, prayers, and readings was conducted by ministers from the Anglican Society for Animal Welfare, and modest wreaths were laid against the great stone walls. Not that the Memorial was conceived as a specifically Christian place (though Heaven knows, Park Lane could do with a holy landmark of some description to offset the worship of money and cars which is daily practised there with fanatical devotion). In fact the Memorial is not really a spiritual conception at all: it’s a plain, life-sized representation of the animal species which have been induced into human wars, with just the simplest visionary touch where a horse and dog escape through the wall and into a freedom beyond. There is not even, I would say, the consolation of beauty, except in so far as animals themselves, and therefore faithful images of them also, are inherently beautiful. It’s just a plain and highly visible statement: this is what we’ve done (and are doing).

memorial wall

I noticed a few purple poppies at the ceremony, as well as red ones, in the wreaths or on lapels. This token of remembrance was introduced by Animal Aid some years ago, as a way of bringing the animals into proper attention at the same time as the human casualties of war. It corresponds, of course, to the British Legion’s red poppy, a token of remembrance that was inspired by John McCrae’s poem ‘In Flanders Fields’. That’s a fine poem, but its message is that the dead should be honoured by the finishing of their work: “Take up our quarrel with the foe.” Go on with the war, in short. It’s a very understandable demand for a poet to have made on behalf of his killed comrades in 1915, but not one well suited to remembrance in peace-time. Therefore nowadays it’s Laurence Binyon’s more philosophical poem ‘For the Fallen’ which is usually recalled; indeed, some lines from it are read at most or all remembrance services across the land (including the one in Park Lane). And it’s a poem which can’t be heard without a thrill of emotion, for it assuages our painful debt to the war-dead by generously immortalizing their heroic youth:

            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.

This I take to be the sort of memory symbolized by the red poppy – bereavement qualified by pride and admiration, as summarized in Binyon’s phrase “a glory that shines upon our tears”.

War Memorial Horse

And naturally enough the purple poppies have become assimilated to that consolatory version of war-memory. The making and distribution of them is nowadays managed by the War Horse Memorial, which gives the proceeds to various horse-related charities. As its name suggests, the WHM’s first cause was the making of a memorial, which can now be seen near the race-course at Ascot. This impressive and touching monument, created by the Sculptor Susan Leyland, is a more traditional image than the Park Lane one: the horse stands on a plinth high above the observer, nobly waiting to serve. And this is indeed how the WHM views the animal part in war, speaking on its web-site of “the nobility, courage, unyielding loyalty and immeasurable contribution these animals played in giving us the freedom of democracy we all enjoy today”.

The purple poppies have been recommended in similar terms to those dog-lovers who use the services of Hugo and Hudson, suppliers of fashionable collars, leads, coats, and other accessories of dog-ownership (though not the poppies themselves, of course). The firm’s blog says that the poppies “come in a variety of styles” (which will you choose?), but that they “all show solidarity in allowing us to remember fallen heroes whether they be human or animal.” It’s surely a sincere sentiment (and I should mention that Hugo and Hudson don’t seem to use leather in their products). It has, in fact, something of the same magnanimous purpose to it that prompts Binyon’s poem and all such efforts to repay the debts of war with extravagant praise. Well, it’s the least we can do.

But even during the First War itself, the poet Siegfried Sassoon (himself a notably courageous soldier) was famously mocking such “laurelled memories”, and juxtaposing them with ignobler realities of scene and conduct. And of course there have always been the best and the worst of humanity on show in wars; humans are free, in so far as their personalities permit the freedom, to feature anywhere on that moral spectrum. But other animals are in a different case. They may indeed have often shown a most moving and beautiful loyalty to particular riders, handlers, or others whom they “served and died alongside”, to use the consolatory words of the Animals in War Memorial. But mostly there has been no such opportunity for them: not so much conscripts as living equipment, they have not so much “served” as been put to use in whatever theatre of war chance and species characteristics have chosen for them. That includes, of course, the wholly unglorious defence-research laboratory, where serving and dying are completely stripped of thanks and laurels, indeed of remembrance of any kind. All this, we know, still goes on.

Therefore Animal Aid dissociated itself from the purple poppy in 2015. As its director at that time, the much-missed Andrew Tyler, said, Animal Aid’s original purpose had been

to make it clear that animals used in warfare are indeed victims, not heroes. They do not give their lives; their lives are taken from them. But too often, the narrative promoted by the media has been one of animals as the valiant servants of people in violent conflict. This is precisely the opposite message to that which we intended . . . the dominant narrative (animal victims of war are heroes who died for us) is so deeply embedded that only a huge effort (costly in every way) can uproot it and lay down something that will benefit the animals.

I think that the Animals in War Memorial does not quite make up its mind what attitude to take. The imposed suffering, the herding, the careless profligacy, and the force (“They had no choice”, it rightly announces) are well expressed. But then so also is the patience, amounting to willingness. This may well be true to actual life, but it’s not true in the moral and spiritual dimensions. No animal knowingly agrees to death in war or to war itself, nor should any animal be tricked into participating. It’s here that the Memorial falls short, fine and moving as it is. Some sculptural equivalent of Pablo Picasso’s great indignant painting from the Spanish Civil War, Guernica, is needed; look at the horse and the bull in that painting, for instance. Or something modelled on the woodcuts of Sue Coe (as shown elsewhere in this blog).

memorial night-view

Still, we should be grateful for the Memorial, presenting its conspicuous message, day and night, to passers-by in central London. And that remembrance ceremony itself on Sunday, with none of the ordered brilliance and massed emotion of the Whitehall show, was just right: informal, slightly ragged, nearly drowned out by the din of Park Lane’s insane momentum, an occasion where not glory, but sorrow, awkwardness, and even shame, could be properly felt.

Notes and references:

The Animals in War Memorial was designed by David Backhouse, and inaugurated in 2004. More about it can be found on its own web-site, which also features the night-time photograph: see Other aspects of the Memorial and of remembrance are discussed in this blog on previous November anniversaries.

The War Horse Memorial itself, and the work of the organisation, are described and illustrated on its web-site here: The photograph shown above is from the same source.

Hugo and Hudson’s blog is quoted from their web-site here:

Siegfried Sassoon’s phrase “laurelled memories” is quoted from his poem ‘Glory of Women’.

Andrew Tyler’s statement on the discontinuation of the purple poppy is on Animal Aid’s web-site here:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s