The Great War and the words we mustn't forget

Poets and soldiers recorded the horror of the Great War in writing that has affected generations. But as English evolves in the digital age, will their powerful words soon stop making sense?

Robert Fisk

11 November 2009


Why has the Great War of 1914-18 remained so central to our lives? The Second World War produced its crops of names, easy to remember, like punctuation marks: Dunkirk, the fall of France, the Battle of Britain, el-Alamein, Stalingrad, Normandy, Dresden, Hiroshima. But somehow those earlier 1914-18 slaughters, their geographical location so scarred into our historical conscience, are wounds that will not close. Or wounds whose terrible consequences cannot be erased. Ypres, Verdun, the Somme have a doom-like quality that have fully retained their semantic origins. The very name of the Somme has an assonance which still fills us with despair. Just as Passchendaele seems to include the very word "passion" in English and French, the Somme is like "sombre", the funereal mood of the graveyard.

Here, for example, is Frederic Manning's truly sinister account of British troops moving up to the Somme at night, marching through a tiny French village, to the sadness and consternation of the few French men and women still awake:

Doors suddenly opened and light fell through the doorways, and voices asked the soldiers where they were going.




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