Thursday, November 10, 2011

How do you forget?

CWGC cemetery in Etaples, France, Copyright Melanie Wills

Although the war is over when Book 3 of my Muskoka Novels begins, it lingers for many of my characters. It’s perhaps hard for us to imagine trying to rebuild lives shattered in trenches or aerial combat, and to carry on without friends, husbands, and sweethearts when life is just supposed to be beginning. Little wonder that became known as the “lost generation”.

War veterans were reluctant to talk about their horrific experiences, especially to those who weren’t there and so couldn’t really understand. Many couldn’t readjust to civilian life or were haunted by unforgettable experiences, including their own participation in the brutality. How does a young man, brought up to believe in the sanctity of life, reconcile that with his requirement to kill? The survivors often felt guilty that they didn’t lie alongside their comrades.

A few eventually wrote memoirs or thinly-disguised fiction, possibly to help exorcise the demons, leaving us with valuable insight. There’s a somewhat shocking line in Cecil Lewis’s memoir, Sagittarius Rising. As an aviator with the Royal Flying Corp (which became the RAF in 1918), he had lots of thrilling and harrowing experiences in that dangerous job where life expectancy on the front lines was about three weeks. At the end of the war, he wonders what to do with himself, saying, “I was twenty years old.”

This photo of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) cemetery at Etaples on the north coast of France can’t even begin to convey the enormity of the site or the profound sadness that you feel when walking among the nearly11,000 graves. Seeing the ages on the tombstones is heartbreaking - they are mostly young men and a few women - a Canadian nurse lies on the front right - who never had much of a chance at life. Many in Britain felt they had lost their finest young minds and potential leaders. Back home was a generation of “superfluous” women, who, outnumbering the men, would never marry and so, had to make careers for themselves. For some, the war was never really over.

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