Fierce Imaginings: The Great War, ritual memory and God
Church Times Bookshop £11.70
MANY publications exist about the military strategies and battles of the Great War. Rachel Mann’s outstanding book eschews the narrative style in favour of what she describes as an “extended” meditation. Her imaginative approach is well-informed, theologically aware, and beautifully composed.
The chapter titles invite the reader to visualise, for example, a chapel, a wallet, wounds; and each pithy subtitle defines a searching question or theme to ponder. The author skilfully grounds these reflections with family references (her grandfathers fought in that war), and with battles and wounds of her own life-journey. These enrich a moving consideration of “identity” and the unavoidable symbols and rituals of memory we use to shape it.
Some pages make uncomfortable reading, not least for the Church of England in respect to the part that it played as recruiting sergeant for destruction: a Barnsley vicar’s claim to have enlisted 2000 men was trumped by the Bishop of London’s boast of adding 10,000 (for which he got a KCVO). And, shockingly, on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, the black South African soldiers are omitted.
But, although incisive questions are posed about the culture and meaning of Remembrance, with all its ironies and clichés, the purpose is never to undermine. Rather, there is an insistence that the ordinary soldiers and their families, “the voiceless ones”, do justify our remembrance rituals of naming and honouring. There is also an urgent plea for us to reflect deeply on the war in order to search seriously for what makes us human. And there is a profound emphasis on the presence of God with those who are in “no-man’s land” to this day.
This valuable quarry of ideas will be an asset for preachers at Remembrance services, and for many others. There is a wealth of references and quotations from theatre, film and literature, especially poetry (though Edward Thomas and Ivor Gurney are omitted). And there are memorable turns of phrase from the author (herself a poet) as she teases out compellingly the importance of “land”, “home”, and “England” as metaphors of identity.
In his foreword, Rowan Williams says that Rachel Mann has written “the most searching and original book I have read about the impact of the First World War on the faith and the myths of this country”. That is an accolade that, I think, few, if any, readers of Fierce Imaginings will deny.
The Rt Revd Nigel McCulloch is Head of Remembrance at the Royal British Legion and a former Bishop of Manchester.