They Shall Not Grow Old

They Shall Not

For the Fallen

BY LAURENCE BINYON

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children, 

England mourns for her dead across the sea. 

Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit, 

Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill; Death august and royal 

Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres, 

There is music in the midst of desolation 

And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young, 

Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow. 

They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted; 

They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: 

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. 

At the going down of the sun and in the morning 

We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again; 

They sit no more at familiar tables of home; 

They have no lot in our labour of the day-time; 

They sleep beyond England’s foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound, 

Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight, 

To the innermost heart of their own land they are known 

As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust, 

Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain; 

As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness, 

To the end, to the end, they remain.

Source: The London Times (1914)

Peter Jackson, perhaps best known for his brilliant work on The Lord of the Rings, has produced a stunning documentary using remastered film from World War I. He was given privy to hundreds and hundreds of hours of old films from that era along with a mandate to create something stunning, different. His final product, They Young Shall Not Grow Old, is a moving homage to the young men who so gallantly volunteered to fight in a war that they so little understood. It boldly demonstrates their bravery and their innocence in heartbreaking scenes that remind us of the treasures that are lost when we send our youth off to war.

Jackson had to first create a unified story from the millions of images that he found in the archives of the Imperial War Museum. He chose to focus on the stories from British men who had told of their personal experiences during World War I in an oral history project created in the nineteen sixties. Using only their voices and actual footage from the time of the war Jackson paints a portrait of bravery and fear as we follow the young men who began as naive innocents in support of their country only to learn how horrific battle can actually be.

Jackson’s challenge was to make the old footage more modern and easy to watch. Most of the film was in terrible shape, almost unusable in many instances. It was too dark or too light, blotchy and prone to appear jumpy. Using modern techniques Jackson and his team were able to adjust the speed, add appropriate colors and even create sound. The result was a stunning portrait of real individuals who brought the feelings associated with that war to life.

Jackson’s own grandfather participated in World War I and so his film was a labor of love for a man who in many ways became broken as a result of his participation in that awful chapter of history. The documentary demonstrates the humanity of the ordeal in the faces and voices of real people. Many of the men appear to be barely within reach of adulthood and yet they were to endure unbelievable horror in days spent in the trenches and the battles. Jackson pictures one group staring at the camera with obvious fear in their eyes and later notes that virtually all of them would die. It would be the last image of them alive.

Jackson brilliantly brings both the glory and the brutal reality of war to life in a way that no amount of acting is able to do. It is a stunning feat that will not soon leave my mind. Sadly the documentary will only be shown twice in December, at least at this point in time. I believe that it is such an important work that it will eventually become available to a wider audience. It is a film that every one of us should view.

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Only Time Will Tell

33750316_1843978448978317_6669086996591280128_nThere was a time when I believed that the first twenty years of the twentieth century were boring, a bit of a snooze. I have since become wildly fascinated with that time in history because it was responsible for perpetuating so many changes and problems that are affecting us even to this very day. Learning more about my grandparents has also enlivened my interest in this particular time because it ultimately had such a profound influence on me.

As children all four of my grandparents grew up in homes without plumbing or electricity. Neither of my grandmothers had enough education to know how to either read or write. At the dawn of the twentieth century they were both still wearing long dresses that modestly covered their legs, and women in the United States did not yet have the right to vote.

My European grandparents were subject to the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a conglomerate so vast and diverse that ruling it was unwieldy, leading to laws that prohibited the use of their native tongue and culture. Life in Slovakia was difficult but moving to the United Sates of America brought the promise of possibilities. Thus my grandfather bought a one way ticket to Galveston, Texas on a steamer that he boarded in Hamburg, Germany only a couple of years before the outbreak of World War II. What an adventure that must have been!

After working on all sorts of odd jobs, scrimping and saving every penny, and living all alone in a boarding house near present day Minute Maid Park in downtown Houston he was able to send for my grandmother. The two of them worked in the fields of a farm near the Houston Ship Channel and in the wooded forests near Beaumont just as oil was being discovered.

The little country of the United States that was still somewhat of a joke to the powers in Europe was on the move with an industrial revolution and an inventive spirit that thrust the United States into the modern era. Towns were being lit by Mr. Edison’s marvel known as electricity and two brothers had flown a plane for the first time in North Carolina. Mr. Ford was making cars affordable for the common man and people were marveling at having running water and working toilets inside their homes. It was an exciting time when the sleepy giant known as America was waking up and stretching its limbs.

My paternal grandparents were both working in Oklahoma where oil and almost free land was luring people from all parts. They would meet each other in a boarding house crowded with people seeking a living and, if lucky, even riches. Wild and crazy places like Tulsa and Houston were booming at a time when everyone seemed to be on the move in search of something.

Back in Europe the winds of war and revolution were blowing ominously in ways that would ultimately change the face of not just that country but places as far away as the Middle East and Africa as well. By 1914, everyone was honoring alliances and choosing sides in a battle that was supposed to end all battles once and for all. Modern warfare reared its ugly head producing weapons more terrible than anything ever before seen.

In the middle of it all the Communist revolution unseated the Czar of Russia and locked the world into an idealogical and political battle between Communism and Capitalism that continues to this day. My Slovakian grandfather was said to have been eternally grateful to be safe in Texas rather than locked into a lifestyle that would have limited his options and those of his children had he stayed in his native country. 

In 1918, the world experienced one of the worst outbreaks of influenza in history. Research into the disease did not lead to a cure in time to save the millions who died, but would create a better understanding of how such diseases are spread and lead to the discovery of antibiotics that would help to stem the tide of future outbreaks.

By 1920, women in the United States finally had gained the right to vote. Along with this victory came short skirts and other once unimaginable freedoms. Their homes began to fill with modern conveniences and appliances that made daily routines easier to perform. Radios provided instant news from the world and travel became available to even the common man and woman thanks to Mr. Ford.

In the meantime the treaty agreed upon at the end of World War I created unresolved problems across the globe that still echo in places like Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, not to mention much of Europe. The United States was seen as less of a backwater nation and more of a possible partner in world affairs, and the spirit of innovation accelerated along with an emphasis on more universal education for both men and women.

The stage was being set in motion for my parents to be born and to live far more prosperous lives than their parents had ever known. The city of Houston continued to attract men and women with a pioneering spirit and a willingness to take audacious risks. It was not the boring and quaint time that I once imagined it to be, but in fact was exciting and bursting with some of the most important changes that humankind had ever known.

We often hear the men and women of the World War II era being called “the greatest generation” but there is great evidence that those who navigated the first two decades of the twentieth century like my grandparents may well have been even better. They were members of the transitional forces that led the way to modernity, unafraid to enter brave new worlds.

My Grandpa Little often spoke of experiencing the wonders of that era firsthand. He recalls seeing a city lit up with lights for the very first time. He remembers the first radio broadcast that he ever heard. He brags that he went from a tiny home with no plumbing and no electricity to using a television in the comfort of his home to view a man walking  on the moon. He did this all in a single lifetime. 

I sometimes wonder if the first twenty years of the present century will bring the same sense of awe to future generations. What is happening now that will still have an impact on the world in a hundred years and will we be remembered for being creative and courageous? Sometimes I fear that we are guided more by a tendency to cling to the past than a willingness to imagine the future. Only time will tell if we possess the same can do spirit that so defined the first years of the modern age .

Letters To Elsie

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A faulty hot water heater wreaked havoc in my home about a month ago. Several rooms were affected by the damage necessitating a general overhaul of many of my belongings. As I have moved things around to make room for the repairs I have used the opportunity to do a bit of spring cleaning and organizing. In the process I once again found a packet of letters that had been sitting untouched and unread in a cedar chest for many years. I came upon the missives when I was unable to move the chest to paint a room and replace the water logged carpet. I had to remove many of the items that I had stored inside compartment so that it moved more easily. That’s when I came upon those long forgotten correspondences.

They had been written to my husband’s aunt during and just after World War II. Aunt Elsie was originally from Great Britain but had moved to Houston from England in the early part of the twentieth century. She had kept in contact with relatives over time and even sent little care packages now and again. The notes that I found were striking in their honesty and the portrait of life in a war torn country. I realized that they told a tale of privation and uncertainty that continued well into the post war years. They were fascinating to say the least, and so for today here is one of them just as it was written so long ago.

26/12/44

Dear Elsie

You couldn’t have timed your letter and parcel better, for they arrived on Christmas Day. It is kind of you and we do appreciate it. We drank to your health with the tea and gave you good wishes when tasting the cake. It is ages since we had any currants, peel or almonds (we have had raisins, sultanas and other dried fruits) and so we appreciated the flavor very much. We do pretty well really but rationing does cramp one’s taste. Everyone is remarkably healthy and the children are wonderful so the diet must do us good.

I was interested to know about Wig’s visit. Olga does hope he is on his way home again. You will have all our news, I suppose. Well I got home from the nursing home on the day before Christmas Eve and I have a new daughter who is called Stella, so now I have a nice family, 2 boys and 2 girls. Beryl is delighted with her sister and just loves her. The boys too are very pleased with her so she is going to have a good time. I think 4 is a large number but 7 deserves a medal, although I believe Grandma N was a grandmother at the same age and she had 7 children.

One doesn’t know how long this war has lasted until one finds schoolboys in 1939 are married and in the Forces now. We have been free from raids and getting to think they were things of the past until the second night I was home when we had our first experience of flying bombs. I was glad I was home and not helplessly tied to bed. The lights do make a difference. Beryl and most other young children went to view the lights when they first came on. These children have never known anything but blackout and though the lights are dim it makes a great difference to see lights from houses and buses etc.

We are well except for slight colds but our weather is so variable and has been so wet since August that one can’t expect anything else. Mother is bit better but still has to take care.

I am glad to hear of Robert Q and that he is all right. What a big slice of these boys’ lives is being spent in strange places, and what hard times they are having.

Give my best wishes to all other members of the family for 1945. May it bring peace to the world though I am afraid the aftermath of the war will take more settling than the fighting has done.

My love to you all and again many thanks.

Yours affectionately

Edna

Edna was living in Cottingham at the time she wrote this letter. I was struck by the quietly resigned manner in which she spoke of the hardships that she and others so impacted by the war were experiencing. Hers is a tiny portrait of a time in history when all of Europe was struggling to carry on while life continued to play out with births, children and family traditions. She wants to be brave but her fears peek through the brave front that her words attempt to imply. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been. At the same time Elsie must have been beside herself with concern knowing that members of her British family were enduring so much hardship. Elsie’s brothers were doing their part as American troops, so she was no doubt worried about them as well. It was a time of uncertainty and sacrifice the world over and the letters that travelled across the ocean must have provided a kind of life line between loved ones. How admirable the everyday people had to be. 

 

The Children Will Lead Us

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Back in the late nineteen sixties many members of my generation became actively involved in protests against the Vietnam War. We voiced our concerns by taking to the streets and marching to draw attention to the cause. On one occasion there was a rally that was described in an article in our local newspaper as a gathering of long haired hippies. My husband reacted by sending a letter to the editor in which he suggested that it might have been more fruitful to listen to the arguments of the protestors instead of focusing on superficialities like appearance. A few weeks later he received a response in the mail from a rather famous older man who had written a single question, “What’s wrong with a little conformity?” Obviously this individual had missed the point of my spouse’s argument which had been that perhaps it was time to consider what the young people of the country had to say.

Ultimately the Vietnam War came to a close and over time the evidence supported the view that the government had known from almost the outset that the conflict was unwinnable, and yet they had continued to draft young men and send many of them to their deaths. It was only after there was no way to hide the realities that the United States withdrew, leaving South Vietnam to deal with the North on their own. It was the first time that the United States was forced to admit defeat.

Today we have a new generation of young people marching for the cause of gun control, and once again many who are older are choosing to either ignore or make fun of their efforts. I see a number of posts on Facebook and Twitter that are derogatory and insult both the students’ behavior and their intelligence. They are accused of being spoiled and arrogant while also knowing little about the government and how it actually works. Instead of just listening to what they have to say, opponents of the protestors have reverted to name calling and mockery. Perhaps it would better serve us all if they would instead calmly sit down and hear what the kids have to say. After all, just as it was the youth who fought in the jungles of Vietnam with the strong possibility of dying, so too is it the children and teens who are being killed inside schools. They have a legitimate stake in the discussion and we older folk would do well to consider their ideas.

I remember a time when President Nixon felt frustrated by the anti-war protestors. He learned that many of them were having a sit in near the Lincoln Memorial, and so he decided to go talk with them. Sadly instead of attempting to learn what they were thinking he spent most of his time arguing with them. I always thought of how different things might have been if instead he had actively listened to them and then attempted to incorporate some of their beliefs with his. Perhaps he would have become a revered leader. Instead he only became more and more paranoid about those who disagreed with him and ended up breaking the law because of his insecurities.

I think that the students who marched across America this past weekend sincerely wish to make a positive difference even if some of their ideas are a bit over simplified. It would have been incredibly positive if all of our lawmakers had joined the ranks of the protestors not so much in agreement, but with an eye to letting our young know that all of us are proud of their activism and really do understand that they have concerns. This was a grand opportunity to hear rather than talk, and to find areas of agreement, for surely it is apparent that we must attempt to find answers that will make our schools safer than they presently are. At the same time I would suggest to the students that they be open to ideas as well. It is counterproductive to insult entire groups of people with foul language or to indict leaders who are attempting to find solutions that may be different.

Right after the shootings in Florida many of the leaders of the current movement appeared on the Dr. Phil Show. A wonderful discussion ensued, but Dr. Phil advised the students to take care in how they presented their arguments. He noted that people will tune out anyone who yells at them or insinuates that they are somehow bad people. He agreed that the kids have a very worthy cause and he expressed his deep admiration for their courage while coaching them in the best methods of persuasion. Some of them appear to have followed his advice while others have veered into a more argumentative posture which probably won’t be particularly successful in changing minds.

Many of our Founding Fathers who created the foundations of this country were very young at the time that independence was declared. Alexander Hamilton was only twenty one. James Madison was a mere eighteen. Sometimes it take the adventurous spirit of the young to show us all a better way to live. Preventing gun violence is a worthy goal, and we should be quite proud that some of our young are willing to take on such a complex topic. They are attempting to find answers to questions that are long past due. If we are to demonstrate our own maturity we should be willing to model the kind of respect that everyone with a stake in the debate deserves. I’d like to think that we are capable of helping them to forge an agreement that will have meaning for everyone. Let’s cheer for them rather than casting aspersions. What they are doing is noble indeed.

Hard Choices

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On New Year’s Eve my husband Mike and I went to see the movie The Darkest Hour which is a presentation of the early days of Winston Churchill’s tenure as Prime Minister of Great Britain. It was May of 1940, and Adolf Hitler was marching across Europe seemingly with ease. One country after another had fallen under his conquest and it appeared as though he was unstoppable. Many in Great Britain were certain that the only logical choice for the empire was to broker a peace deal that would allow them to maintain independence while acceding to German influence. There was much talk that Britain had neither the manpower nor the stomach to endure a war with the superior German forces. It almost seemed inevitable that the country would fall just as so many European nations had already done. It was indeed one of the darkest hours in the history of the country.

Winston Churchill had only recently replaced Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister. The government had lost confidence in Chamberlain and his efforts to maintain peace with the Germans appeared to be appeasement rather than diplomacy. He was being blamed by some for the fall of so many of Britain’s allies and Churchill was reluctantly chosen to replace him as head of the government even though many believed that his tenure would be short-lived. He had not particularly distinguished himself in either World War I or his other forays into governing. Many thought that he would soon be replaced by Lord Halifax who was viewed as a more reasoned leader. Furthermore there was great concern about Churchill’s unwillingness to consider a peace accord with Hitler, whom he considered to be a despicable despot unworthy of deference of any kind. 

At the time the entire British army of 300,000 troops was hopelessly trapped by German troops in Dunkirk and seemingly on the verge of total destruction leaving Britain completely unprotected. In a desperate move Churchill commanded one of his admirals to distract the Germans so that civilian sailors might employ their crafts to rescue the stranded troops. It was a daring plan that many thought was dangerously foolhardy. Churchill understood that it was instead the country’s last hope, and he was joined by the King in believing that any peace deal with the Germans was unacceptable. He did not believe that Britain would really be allowed to be independent of Nazi rule, and he could not imagine being able to accept the sight of Nazi flags flying over Buckingham Palace. He remained firm in his resolve to fight off the invading German army one way or another.

Churchill ultimately garnered the support of the government as well as the people of Great Britain when he delivered a stirring speech in which he insisted that Britain would fight to the last man, and if that was not successful then they would rely on being rescued by the other nations of the commonwealth and the people of the new world. His unflinching challenge captured the imagination of his countrymen, and as Lord Halifax noted Churchill had commandeered the English language into the battle.

We know of course what the rest of history was. The United States entered the fray a year and half later, and Hitler split his forces and resources by embarking on a new front of war with Russia. Ultimately he was defeated and Britain never came under his rule. But for the courage of Winston Churchill many historians argue that Europe may have been dominated by Germany and been changed in ways that would have had even more horrific consequences for mankind than they did.

The Darkest Hour was a captivating movie and Gary Oldman did a yeoman’s job of portraying Winston Churchill. More importantly was its story which made clear the dire situation of the world in 1940. I learned many things that I had never before known and they gave me a better perspective of what it must have been like to live during that era, particularly in Europe. This truly is a movie that everyone should take the time to see, but sadly the audience on the day that I went was almost totally comprised of individuals either my age or older. I only saw three young men in the entire crowd which is truly a shame because I doubt that most of today’s millennials have any idea of how dangerous the world situation was back then. I hear so many people today complaining that this is the most menacing time in history, and while there is certainly a grain of merit in such pronouncements I also have to wonder if our present situation even compares to what was happening in the spring of 1940 when the very face of Europe and Asia was changing so rapidly that it appeared that there would be no way to stop the autocratic land grabs. It chills me to even consider what the world might have become without the courage and determination of Great Britain and its eventual allies in the fight against fascism and fanaticism.

There is a popular series on Amazon called The Man In High Castle that considers what the world would be like if Hitler had succeeded in his goal of world domination. It is a dark look at the possibilities that were actually closer to fruition than most of us ever thought. The United States was still little more than a second rate nation at the beginning of that war, totally ill prepared for the battles to come. In the first weeks of the conflict they were utterly befuddled and defeated, but somehow just as with the citizens of Great Britain the American people maintained their resolve to defeat the evil of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party. With the combined efforts of some brilliant military men, the bravery of the troops, and the luck of bad decisions by Adolf Hitler good ultimately triumphed over evil, but it is horrifying nonetheless to even imagine how things might have been had the Germans actually won.

If you have not yet gone to see The Darkest Hour or have yet to even consider viewing it, I highly recommend that you do so. Be sure to take your middle school and high school age children with you as well as the young adults in your family. We learn from our history and the story outlined in the film is one that is probably not familiar to most of us when it should be. We face our own tyrants in today’s world and we need to consider the lessons learned in the past as we make important decisions. We also must ask ourselves just how willing we will be to look the other way when we see monsters denying people the human rights that we all deserve. When do we compromise with them and when is it time to draw a line. We need to know these things because the time may come when such hard choices will have to be made.