From Parade's End by Ford Madox Ford:
"The war had made a man of him! It had coarsened him and hardened him. There was no other way to look at it. It had made him reach a point at which he would no longer stand unbearable things.”
“In every man there are two minds that work side by side, the one checking the other; thus emotion stands against reason, intellect corrects passion and first impressions act a little, but very little, before quick reflection.”
The 100th anniversary of World War I is approaching, and news about the centenary has been popping up online, particularly in England, as the Imperial War Museum prepares to re-open in London this July 19.
(Yes, that is the same day a certain actor from London celebrates his birthday, a man who, as it happens, is also the grandson of Henry Carlton Cumberbatch, who served as a submarine officer in the Royal Navy during both World Wars.)
Imagine a society on the cusp of tremendous change, yet not really aware that it's happening. Picture people in civilized countries embracing - and yet a bit nervous about - technological and social advances, learning of a political assassination in Sarajevo that shocks them but gives little immediate indication that it will become THE spark that ignited "The Great War," lasting four years and resulting in civilian and military casualties exceeding 37 million.
In this age of technology giving us breaking news every few seconds through smartphone apps and text alerts as we go about our business, history can become hazy, something we learned in school to review, memorize - and then move on. The facts become fuzzy - and fade.
That isn't the case for history lovers, scholars - and observers of society's political patterns, particularly in times of upheaval or instability. For them, the events of an era can be readily brought to mind and called upon when discussing current events. As Cumberbatch noted during an August 2012 BBC 2 interview:
“We’re living through a time where we are fighting wars fostered by politics, admittedly not on the same scale as the First World War, but with equally tragic realities for our soldiers and their families. We are living in a world where financial and political bonds in Europe are just falling apart, we’re living in time of political hypocrisy and there aren’t that many really good people and Christopher (Tietjens - ed.) is just that: a good man."As part of his research process, Benedict turned to the literature and music of the era, as well as recalling his time at Harrow, where students were made "very aware, very conscious of the sacrifices of men our age." Turning to War Horse, Ford's work, and All Quiet on the Western Front, aided him in portraying a man whose view of the world, and its people and its beauty - and his method of navigating in society - were destroyed.
The music Benedict chose as he took on the role of Christopher Tietjens? Maurice Ravel's La Valse
At the 2012 Cheltenham Music Festival's WW1 Piano & Poetry event, Cumberbatch spoke at length of his obsession with World War I, as he prepared to read works from poet and World War I veteran Siegfried Sassoon and Ford, remarking that his novels outlined "why a war could have sacrificed eight million people for the death of two.’ He compared Ford's work to James Joyce's Ulysses, observing the impact of this war on literary and cultural evolution:
"It's still the beginning of a movement in literature coming about partly from an obliteration of life and anything poetic, anything romantic, anything soulful that streaming hot lead and thousands of tons worth of of explosives - and barbed wire - and cholera - and mud - and gas ripped away during the First World War and it...was the death throes of the entire Edwardian era and it marked a real turning point in cultural evolution as well."
"Everything about it has such potency - and its legacy, as well. so it's a great thing to acknowledge through the extraordinary words, especially of the men who were there.Those "extraordinary words" once shared by witnesses are now silent, as Benedict remarked:
"There's a particular potency to the the first World War at the moment because all the survivors are dead. I met the last 3 surviving English servicemen as well. I read at the Cenotaph in 2009 - and again, that was just another bond...to this era."
Those bonds he spoke of are what makes works like War Horse and Parade's End more than just entertainment, and why the re-opening of the Imperial War Museum should be extraordinary.
and - The Journey:
Those "who were there" will speak again, and visitors can share in those moments that, when added all together, damaged, destroyed - and determined the future of "modern" society.
For facts and an analysis of the events leading up to and during World War I, The Guardian devotes a section of its website for history buffs or beginning researchers. For in-depth online archives, people can delve into documents and data at:
First World War: http://www.firstworldwar.com/index.htm
The Great War 1914-1918 (UK): http://www.greatwar.co.uk/index.htm
The National Archives (UK): http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/first-world-war/
http://www.1914-1918-online.net/ (@19141918online) (In progress - Debut Oct. 2014)