I blame Philip Larkin, and the weather.
August 1914 was in the words of the meteorological office, ‘warm, dry and sunny.’ The first eight days were changeable, and war was declared on the 3rd. The latter three weeks was real summer with temperatures hitting 86 degrees.
So the pictures of those standing in line to enlist are bathed in summer sun. And in those pictures, evoked by Larkin in his poem MCMXIV (1914), the poet was able to see innocence – an innocence shattered by the forthcoming war.
Of course there was no innocence.
Some enlisted for the hope of heroism in a romantic war. Many more volunteered to avoid unemployment, the trap of the Poor Law, at the insistence of their employers, or to escape their present life.
In a society where wealth was concentrated in the hands of very few, where the initial stock of industrial housing was already in decay, and where agricultural practices had been revolutionised at the expense of those who had lived on the land.
There was no innocence.
In the eyes of the poet Rupert Brooke there was a moral turpitude. His war sonnets, so often written off as misplaced patriotic buffoonery, are, like his other poems, about transformation:
from a world grown old and cold and weary,
Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
And all the little emptiness of love!
He was seeking transformation, and found it in the purpose and comradeship of war. He did not live to see the defensive weaponry, that nullified the impact of cavalry, create an infantry Armageddon. This war was part of the turpitude, for there was no foresight to prevent the carnage. During these years of death, man was in the thrall of his weapons, and weapons grew and grew in their thunder.
In 1950, after the years of global warfare were over, the United Nations designated 10th December as International Human Rights Day.
The world had spent much of a decade on the subject of human rights and fundamental freedoms, heralded by Franklin Roosevelt’s Rockwell speech in 1941. He said,
‘In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.
The first is freedom of speech and expression – everywhere in the world.
The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way – everywhere in the world.
The third is freedom from want – which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants-everywhere in the world.
The fourth is freedom from fear – which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor – anywhere in the world.’
Since he was speaking near the peak of the rage of the Second World War these were dreams, during a nightmare. Roosevelt dreamt of transformation. And the experience and technological developments of the century allowed him to dream global.
When the United Nations adopted 10th December as International Human Rights Day, their objectives remained global. Their intention was ‘to bring to the attention ‘of the peoples of the world’ the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.
Perhaps they thought the middle of December would be a time of reflection in the build up to winter solstice, and all the religious celebrations associated with that period. They did not foresee the annual explosion of consumption, which looks back to properly pagan times, and obliterates thought, consideration and gratitude.
Gratitude to those who have lived and died for the freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from want and from fear.
There have been many who have championed fundamental freedoms and protected human rights. They have perceived the need for transformation.
And among the purposes of the global wars was the maintenance of liberty, the imaginative perception of freedom, the sense of being free, which is so much more than the licence to do as we like and consume as we choose. We shouldn’t remember futile death, but be grateful for our freedom. There is something about Brooke.
In one corner of a foreign field, David Maxwell Fyfe certainly thought so. He was a Scot, a pupil at George Watson’s School in Edinburgh when the War Sonnets were published in 1915. Writing in 1964 and remembering his English teacher there, HJ Findlay, Fyfe wrote ‘I think that HJ never quite understood why I did, or how I could, prefer the wartime sonnets of Rupert Brooke to those of his hero Wordsworth.’
Maxwell Fyfe was to go on to become one of the champions of human rights in the nascent European assembly, and one of those who drafted the European Convention.
He was driven to this work because of the time he spent as a prosecutor at the Nuremberg ‘War Crimes Trials.’ After his forensic examination of the Nazi ideology, and successful cross examination of its protagonists, he wanted to contribute to an alternative philosophy to transform and make Europe safe.
And to do so he stretched out for his Brooke. As he drew his summarising speech at Nuremberg to a close he wrote:
‘It might be presumptuous of lawyers who did not claim to be more than the cement of society to speculate or even dream of what we wish to see in place of the Nazi spirit, but I give you the faith of a lawyer some things are surely universal: tolerance, decency, kindliness.
When such qualities have been given the chance to flourish in the ground that you have cleared, a great step will have been taken. It will be a step towards the universal recognition that:
‘sights and sounds, dreams happy as her day,
And laughter learnt of friends, and gentleness,
In hearts at peace.’
Are not the prerogative of any one country. They are the inalienable heritage of mankind.’
Like Roosevelt he went global in his dream, although he sought to realise it only for a while, and only in the European corner of the world.
There never was, and never will be, innocence – a blest time freed from the frailties of mankind. Material development and technological advance change the mirror, but the reflection remains the same.
There remains however liberty as a catalyst to transformation. There should be a constant babble about our rights and freedoms, how they mutate with passing time, and how they conflict and irritate while doing their job of making our lives a little less worse. All conducted against a background of gratitude that they are there at all.
At present there is silence, interrupted by barks of dissatisfaction. A wall of silence outside the isolated shield of metal that is the European Court, where there is no attempt to educate or enthuse, an uneasy shuffling silence when I talk to others about this simple piece of history, and the bleak silence of those whose material interests will be undermined by the freedom of others .
It’s time to make some noise.
To read the War Sonnets of Rupert Brooke click here
To listen to Sue Casson's settings of the sonnets, click here