Monday 11 August 2014

Medals, memory and reputations

The Welsh mainstream media is in a pretty sorry state, but the Welsh blogosphere is alive and well with all sorts of players on the field. One of the stranger entrants is a site called Wales Eye which was set up in 2013. It sees itself as a kind of Welsh Private Eye, dedicated to a mix of investigative journalism and satire, with the noble aim of holding the establishment to account.

Wales Eye usually puts out one story a day. If there is any satire, Cneifiwr has so far failed to spot it, but every so often there are pieces which could fairly be described as investigative journalism, dealing with subjects such as fat cat academics and possibly fraudulent practices in the rollout of high speed broadband in Wales.

Those occasional nuggets aside, the staple offering of Wales Eye is a daily dose of stories quoting unnamed but invariably "senior" sources and unsubstantiated claims that something or other has sparked a major row - rows so major that nobody outside the febrile bubble inhabited by Wales Eye has heard of them.

Friday's piece, entitled "Beyond the Bard", is a case in point. It begins by claiming in its rather grating tabloid style that "serious questions have been raised about the veneration of a bard who died during the first world war", and goes on to take a swipe at the National Eisteddfod, suggesting that its "honours system" is not up to the job because it awarded the Chair at the 1917 National Eisteddfod to Hedd Wyn, rather than a soldier from Llanelli who was awarded the Victoria Cross for killing lots of Germans in the same year.

It is not entirely clear who is raising these "serious" questions, but it would appear to be Rod Richards, the former Tory MP and Assembly Member now turned Ukip. Many adjectives could be used to describe Mr Richards, but serious is not one of them.

Richards tells Wales Eye that he has read Hedd Wyn's work, and "it is pretty mediocre stuff".

Of course, Rod Richards is entitled to his literary opinion, but Hedd Wyn is one of the best loved Welsh poets, and his poems are still popular a century after his death at the Battle of Passchendaele in July 1917. Somehow it seems unlikely that anyone will be reading Rod Richards' collected speeches 100 years from now.

But that's enough about Rod Richards. A much more interesting question is why we remember Hedd Wyn, but have forgotten someone who was awarded the Victoria Cross. Come to think of it, how many recipients of the Victoria Cross can most of us name? Unless you are a military historian or relative, not one in all likelihood.

This is not to sully the memory of Ivor Rees, who was awarded his VC for a very bloody action in which he killed seven men during the Battle of Passchendaele. It is estimated that over half a million men lost their lives in that catastrophic event, with many, many more wounded and maimed for life.

Ivor Rees died in 1967 and so cannot speak for himself, but all of us will have known or met men who served in the two world wars and took part in horrific events. Many veterans never talk about their experiences, and if they do, they tend to talk about things they saw rather than the things they did.

Their message to us is the waste, inhumanity, misery and mad destruction of war, not glory or heroics.

A former Royal Navy seaman remembered how his ship had been strafed by German fighter aircraft as it sailed though the Mediterranean. Men who had been working in the metal scaffolding on the bow of the ship designed to protect it from mines had been killed, and their mangled remains could not be retrieved until it docked at Alexandria, by which time the whole ship stank of rotting flesh in the searing heat.

The point of military medals such as the Victoria Cross is not so much to reward individuals, but to set an example, encourage and sanctify what are often bloody suicidal acts.

Hedd Wyn went to war not because he wanted to, but because his farming family was ordered to send one of their sons to the army, and Hedd Wyn, whose baptismal name was Ellis Humphrey Evans, opted to go instead of his brother.

On Saturday, Radio Four's early morning Farming Today programme looked at the impact the First World War had on farming families, and the system of exemptions from conscription in particular. By chance, a complete set of records has survived for the county of Wiltshire, and they show how by 1916 the earlier patriotic euphoria had evaporated and been replaced with increasing reluctance to enter military service. One cowman wrote to the conscription panel that they would have to catch him first, and it seems they never did. The programme, available here for a few more days, helps to put the Evans family into a wider context.

Hedd Wyn won no medals or awards from the British state, but through the Gorsedd, the Welsh "honours system" so contemptuously derided by Rod Richards and Wales Eye, and on the merits of his poetry (submitted anonymously, of course), he won an enduring place in the hearts and minds of the people of Wales.

In one of his best known poems, Rhyfel ("War"), Hedd Wyn describes the war as a time in which God had withdrawn from the world like an ebb tide, leaving it to man and his "ugly authority" to fill the void, with the roar of battle casting its shadow on poor homes.

He does this and more in the space of a few, taut and spare lines.  

Awdurdod hell.

Ugly authority - two words which conjur a picture of bemedalled royals, bishops, generals, faceless bureaucrats, barking sergeant majors and conscription panels.

Another Welsh poet who is just as loved, and who incidentally never won the Chair at a National Eisteddfod, was Waldo Williams, Quaker, pacifist, nationalist and school teacher. No CBEs or knighthoods for him, thank God. Instead he was sent to prison for refusing to pay income tax in a protest against the Korean War.

Waldo wrote:

Daw dydd y bydd mawr y rhai bychain
Daw dydd ni bydd mwy y rhai mawr

Very roughly this means that a day will come when the lowly shall be great. A day will come when the powerful shall be diminished.

As a Christian, Waldo was probably thinking about the life to come, but what both Hedd Wyn and Waldo show us is that history and the fundamentally democratic nature of collective memory decide who we remember and why. Tony Blair may never face a court of justice, but the court of public opinion has already delivered its verdict. And in the long run all titles, medals and honours are consigned to oblivion.

It is a very good thing that we should remember Hedd Wyn. May Ivor Rees rest in peace.


Anonymous said...

Sorry, but I thought the Wales Eye article rather good. Spot on, in fact.

The longer I live the more confused I become over our revisionist Welsh history. And as for the language, well .................

Anonymous said...

An interesting piece but I feel you are in danger of allowing your very anti British attitude to colour your thoughts.

Mr Evans was not awarded a VC for "killing seven men". The VC was awarded for extreme bravery which resulted in the saving of British lives.

In 1914 Britain declared war it seems to me, as an absolute last resort. Diplomacy failed of course but there is no doubt that a German dominated continent would have throttled the United Kingdom.

Similarly in 1938 a dominant Germany caused a war and it fell to men and women from all over the world to defeat them.

To be a pacifist is to be brave. There is no doubt about that, but as a pacifist you necessarily leave your own defence, and that of your family, to others who are prepared to bear arms.In my view that is morally indefensible.

In relation to Rod Richards, he was I suppose merely discussing whether the Bardic award should have been presented to a Welshman who saved lives of British Soldiers in battle or a Welshman who wrote a poem. You can probably guess on which side of that argument I would fall.

Jac o' the North, said...

What really irks me about these thinly-disguised celebrations of Britishness (which will tail off one the Scottish referendum is over) is that we are asked to commemorate the dead of a conflict that was totally unnecessary.

There was no great issue at stake, no terrible evil to confront (as in 1939), and by the end of WWI Europe had lost many of its brightest and best and, to cap it all, was now in hock to the USA. The lasting memory - and what we should be remembering now - is the sheer waste of life and the culpability of those responsible.

But no, the victims are being dragged back to serve blatantly political purposes and used to deflect questioning of the conflict. ('Never mind the whys and wherefores, people, just count the headstones'.) Used and abused in death as they were in life. What hypocrisy!

Yes, let's remember Ivor Rees VC; but let's also remember that the world would have been a better and happier place if neither he, nor the Germans he killed, had ever met. And had there been no WW1 then the Nazis wouldn't have been able to capitalise on it and Versailles to give us WWII.

Though it's no surprise to hear this 'count the headstones' line trotted out by WalesEye and the man who couldn't even get on the Ukip list headed by Nathan Gill! (You can guess at the quality of the other three.)

Jac o' the North, said...

Anon 11:33 You were so determined to make your anti-Welsh point that you overlooked the fact that the bardic chair is awarded for poetry. Why comment to this post if you are so ignorant of the subject?

Oh, yes, and the VC's name was Rees, not Evans, but I suppose we all look the same to you.

Anonymous said...

I do realise that the prize is given for poetry but the thrust of this argument surely is that a welsh poet was honoured above the memory of a true war hero (whose name I confused sorry)

I think you may need to re-visit your history. WW1 was very necessary unfortunately and it fell to the likes of Mr Rees and "Hedd Wynn" to fight it.

It must be very comforting to be able to rewrite history and come up with your own conclusions about what was right and wrong but the fact of the matter is that this country was under real threat in 1939 and it took good men and women throughout the world to fight the evil that was Nazism. Were it not for them Welsh would be long forgotten language and I doubt very much whether we would be able to exchange political views like this.

Get real for gods sake !!!

Cneifiwr said...

Anon @11.33 I think you missed the point - actually several points. If you substituted Iron Cross, Medal of Honor(US)or any other national award for military valour, the result would be the same.

There must have been countless similar acts by German, French, US, Russian and other soldiers in WW1, and nobody remembers them either.

What we remember is that millions of poor sods died for nothing, and not the "glory" and heroics that the state would like us to remember.

Anonymous said...

Not to mention the seven million civilians who died in WW1. In fact, no-one does mention them. We only glorify those sent to do the killing.

Anonymous said...

Both in 1914 and again in 1939 the UK found itself standing against tyrannical regimes that would have enslaved us for generations. I think you deliberately mis understand a perfectly reasonable argument.

Clearly there were hundreds of thousands of patriotic men and women from around the globe who stood up to these threats and defeated them.

Obviously there were brave acts on both sides but I prefer to revere the gallantry of the Welsh soldier who died protecting my freedom rather than a German soldier who died trying to do the opposite.

Nobody in their right minds thinks that the slaughter in war is a good thing but to remember and revere our own war dead is not a bad thing. You make it sound like anti social behaviour to do so.

Anonymous said...

Cneifiwr, what on earth are you talking about?

Of course these people are remembered. And remembered as true heroes who saved this and other lands from invasion by a common enemy.

It is the likes of you and yours that no-one will bother to remember.

Jac o' the North, said...

Anon 15:34 Please explain why "WW1 was very necessary".

And maybe I should have added that in addition to the pointless slaughter and enriching the USA, WW1 also gave us communist Russia.

Anonymous said...

No anonymous @ 16.04 it is not glorifying killing it is thinking of the courage of young men and women who went to the aid of other nations.
No one could ever say war is glorious it is just a case of remembering soldiers known and unknown to us.Thank god for them particularly in the second world war when the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime might have reached these shores.We should never forget the part played by some German families trying to shelter the oppressed.There is no glory.

Bored of Labour said...

The Wales Eye and Daily Wales websites have both disappointed me with their 'coverage' sine they were launched.

Wales is in dire need of better political and current affairs coverage, not an extension of the anti Welsh and anti devolution main stream welsh and UK media on Wales Eye or an echo chamber for Plaid Cymru and the welsh language lobby from the Daily Wales.

As for glorying and waging war and holding up 'heroes' for us plebs to worship that's all the the British Government and establishment has ever done.

Cneifiwr said...

Anon@16.12 - I doubt that you remember each individual. Most of us - those under 80 - remember collectively.

More worryingly several of the comments here show a complete misunderstanding of WW1.

Britain declared war on Germany (not the other way round), and Germany in 1914 was not a tyranny - it had universal male suffrage (unlike Britain where a great many working class people did not have the vote), and it had a much more developed social security system.

That's not to say that pre-1914 Germany was perfect - it certainly wasn't. A good introduction is Heinrich Mann's "Man of Straw" (Der Untertan), a satirical novel in which the 'hero' is a fawning, bone-headed monarchist who diverts money from an orphanage to build a military statue (hang on, that sounds a bit like modern Britain!).

Germany's war aims in 1914 were unclear and have been the subject of a great deal of debate, but of one thing we can be sure: they did not include the invasion, occupation or colonisation of Britain, and they weren't even contemplating grabbing British colonies, many of which Britain had grabbed in the previous 30 years.

Whatever Britain was fighting for in 1914, it was not freedom (ask the Irish, the Iraqis and the Palestinians to name but a few).

Anonymous said...

Are you seriously saying that a European continent totally dominated by Germany would not have been a threat to the UK. You talk utter nonsense - of course the war was necessary to prevent the strangulation of this country.

There are many things wrong with the world. War pestilence and religious fundamentalism all take a massive toll but rubbishing the sacrifice given by young men and women who fought and died for this country is despicable.

You seem to dismiss others opinions as worthless - referring to an obscure German book for your reference to the causes of WW1 just epitomises why you are wrong.

As a matter of interest - Do you recognise the principal of just cause. Would you volunteer for a cause if the need arose ?

As regards the commemorations recently I personally think that all governments have gone out of their way to show that the losses in WW1 were across the board and suffered by all classes of society. Witness the welcoming of the German Chancellor to the major commemoration in France etc etc.

Cneifiwr said...

Anon@8.45 - I think you may need to read what I wrote again. I was not rubbishing the terrible price paid by millions of people, just the attempt to try to dress it all up as something noble and heroic.

Just because you have never heard of him does not mean that Heinrich Mann is obscure. The novel I referred to (available in English translation) is one of the greatest satirical novels of the 20th century.

I suspect that you probably also have a problem with Wilfred Owen, come to think of it.

People have been arguing about the causes of WW1 for the last 100 years, and so we won't settle that debate here, but whereas you seem to think that it was all part of some Teutonic conspiracy, it seems to me much more likely that the warring parties simply blundered into it.

Richard Powell said...

Re Waldo Williams' tax protest: if there had not been the Korean War - that is, if the US and the Allies had not pushed back against the invading North Korean forces - the whole of the Korean peninsula would now be in the hands of the Kim dynasty. Not a happy outcome, except for the Kims of course.

I'm sure this is not what Waldo Williams would have wanted. But if everyone in the free world had acted as he did, it was what would have happened.

Anonymous said...

You have not answered my question.

Do you believe in just cause. Would you volunteer for such a cause ?

Cneifiwr said...

Anon@11.54 This is getting tiresome, but yes, I would and have. Let's end that discussion now. I don't think we would ever agree on what is a just cause, so I'll get back to my blog and you can get on with reading the Daily Mail.

Cneifiwr said...

Anon@11.54 Publishing your comments is starting to feel like self-abuse, and the last tirade bit the dust. Can I politely suggest that you start a blog of your own? If reading this one makes you so incandescent, why not stop for the sake of your health?

Anonymous said...

Until everyone follows Waldo's way of thinking there will never be a 'free world' - just a world imprisoned by war and hatred, staggering from one 'ceasefire' to another, a world where vast sums of money which could and should be used to make a proper attempt to come up with a cure for cancer (which is killing two very dear members of my family now) is misspent on weapons to kill people. Eventually, one of two things will happen: either a) mankind - perhaps centuries from now - will become civilised anough to recognise the utter futility of war, or b) there will be a nuclear war which will destroy the planet - because if you have nukes, someone will eventually use them. In other words, will it be Waldo's way, or the other way?

Richard Powell said...

Anonymous at 16:59: at the moment it looks more likely to be the other way. If everyone in this country saw things Waldo's way, that would become even more likely. Yes it would be lovely if evil could disappear from the world, but it's unlikely to happen. Utopian dreaming has generally ended badly. We have to work with the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. Sentimental posturing is at best a hindrance, at worst a real danger.