Conventional wisdom holds that memory is like a serial recording device like a computer diskette. In reality, memory is dynamic—not static—like a paper on which new texts (or new versions of the same text) will be continuously recorded, thanks to the power of posterior information. Nassim Nicholas Taleb ‘The Black Swan’

I recently read Martin Gilbert’s The First World War – A Complete History. The book attempts to consolidate all the nuances of the war. Movement of troops here, defeat there. Gully taken. Gully lost. Another new front, another piece of new technology – gas, grenades, tanks. Another country a part of the war. Another secret deal. Another boat sunk by a submarine. Death, death and more death. Gilbert intermingles this all with accounts from major players in the war, such as Churchill, and minor players, such as Wittgenstein. In the end, I was left with the question though, how do we make sense of or even understand something as complex as the First World War?

In Australia, Laurence Binyon’s poem For the Fallen is used as a part of commemorative services. This is ended with a response:

We will remember them
Lest we forget

This makes me wonder, what does it actually mean to remember World War One or even know?

Is it through film? For example, 1917 captures a particular moment of a long war where two soldiers cross enemy land to deliver a message to stop 1600 men being slaughtered. The two cross through no-man’s land, survey the way in which the German army retreated, as well as life in a town near the fronts. Through their journey they capture many facets of life at the time.

Is it through documentary? For example, They Shall Not Grow Old ties together voices from British survivors with archival film and images given new life by director, Peter Jackson. Similar to 1917, it brings together different facets of war, from enlisting, life in the trenches and returning home, a create narrative about the western front that seemingly existed for so many, but for no-one individual in particular.

Is it through primary sources? For example, 1914-1918: Voices and Images of the Great War by Lyn MacDonald, collects together a range sources from newspapers, magazines, letters, diaries and photographs from the time. The book balances between different perspectives, whether it be those in command and on the ground often touch on the human level. Although there is some editorialising in collecting and ordering these various insights, it is still the task of the reader to connect the dots and progressively zoom out to form a wider picture.

Is it through fiction? For example, with All Quiet on the Western Front and The Road Back, Erich Maria Remarque explores the German soldiers’ extreme physical and mental trauma during the war as well as the detachment from civilian life felt by many upon returning home from the war. In a similar way to 1917, Remarque uses narrative to take us inside the thoughts and feelings of what it must have felt like.

Is it through poetry? For example, the Penguin Book of First World War Poetry captures the imagination, feelings and experiences from a range of difference voices. According to Jon Silkin, they represent a conscious desire for change. As he suggests in his introduction to the anthology:

It’s no good, that is, hiding the actions of murder behind pity; only by showing forth the actions clearly do we stand a chance of understanding them, and changing ourselves.

Source: ‘Introduction’ to Penguin Book of First World War Poetry edited by Jon Silken

Is it by podcast? For example, in the Hardcore History series Blueprint for Armageddon, Dan Carlin zooms in and out to carve out all the extremities of World War One from beginning to end. He marries history and narrative suspense in his choices as a storyteller, as well as providing various insights throughout into the everyday to help the listener appreciate what it may have be been like.

Is it through painting? For example, Arthur Streeton’s paintings of the Western Front from 1918 help capture the life during wartime that serve to add depth to the burgeoning world of photography. Whether it be the scarred landscape or the changes in technology, such as the huge siege guns, these images provide a level of colour and detail that helps the viewer remember the war in a different light.

Is it through physical commemorations? For example, the Shrine of Remembrance was built to honour those who served in World War 1. It contains an inner sanctuary in which light passes once a year on the 11th of November at 11am. Alternatively, there are many towns in Australia with an Avenue of Honour, a memorial avenue of trees, with each tree symbolising a particular person.


In The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb suggests that memory is dynamic and continually recorded:

Conventional wisdom holds that memory is like a serial recording device like a computer diskette. In reality, memory is dynamic—not static—like a paper on which new texts (or new versions of the same text) will be continuously recorded, thanks to the power of posterior information.

Source: The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

With this in mind maybe ‘remembering’ is simply doing something to maintain the legacy or else it gets overlay with some other piece of information?


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Lest We Forget – On Remembering World War One by Aaron Davis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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