Long Memory: A history of war remembrance on ANZAC day.

Pope Innocentius III excommunicating the Albigensians (left), Massacre against the Albigensians by the crusaders (right) (British Library, Royal 16 G VI f. 374v)
Pope Innocentius III excommunicating the Albigensians (left), Massacre against the Albigensians by the crusaders (right) (British Library, Royal 16 G VI f. 374v)

At war memorials, shrines, churches and RSL clubs, public places and private homes, people around the country will gather together this ANZAC day to remember the men and women of Australia’s armed forces. One thing that they may all hear on April 25 is the fourth stanza of Laurence Binyon’s poem, For the Fallen, which was published in 1914 – ‘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’. For many, this is an especially moving moment in ANZAC ceremonies, as is the playing of ‘The Last Post’, that haunting bugle call that marks the end of the military day, the literal ‘going down of the sun’.

Although contemporary remembrance of war draws on older traditions of commemoration, both religious and secular, both political and emotional, war memory is still mostly understood to be a modern phenomenon. This is because war is often associated with the formation of nationhood in western history. In Australia, ritual observation of ANZAC day has become an increasingly nationalist statement; at Gallipoli, young people drape themselves in the Australian flag in the darkness of the dawn service, sometimes weeping as they hear Binyon’s words, ‘remembering’ and affirming what some think to be the foundational moment in Australian history.

But remembering conflict and finding ways to commemorate fallen soldiers has a much longer history, one that is also emotional, political and culturally rich. In the pre-modern world, before the rise of the nation state and before narratives of war came to be politicised as crucial to national mythologies, fallen soldiers were remembered and rituals of memorial observance were respected. Memorials were constructed and histories were written about the transcendent meaning of war. All these things occurred in very different historical, cultural and political contexts to how they now play out. Yet the existence of war remembrance independent from the defining temporality of modernity invites us – perhaps even on ANZAC day – to reflect on the centuries-old pull of war remembrance and its emotional resonance.

The crusades are a particularly rich source of information for pre-modern remembrance of war, given their longevity, variety of locations and regional diversity of participants. The crusades were also strongly memorial events in themselves: sharing in their collective identification as Christ’s body, crusaders – wherever they travelled and fought – were conducting themselves in imitatio Christi and in memoriam Christi. As holy land territory gained by the crusaders in the early twelfth century slipped out of their hands by the thirteenth century, memory of the success of holy war, remembrance of triumphant crusaders and good Christians, and commemoration of defeats just as much as celebration of victories, became more and more frequent. Indeed, the early thirteenth-century witnesses something of a medieval ‘memory boom’ in relation to the act and meaning of crusading.

War remembrance was often attached to place during this time. Gathering points for memory sprang up around the Mediterranean, sometimes at places where older victories could be celebrated to inspire a new generation of soldier. Lisbon was one such place, where men on their way to the Fifth Crusade in 1217 stopped to remember their fallen brethren of the Second Crusade, which had besieged the city in 1147. Paying their respects at the tomb of Henry of Bonn at São Vicente de Fora, these new crusaders heard of the miracles that had taken place at this crusader’s tomb including the growth of a wondrous palm tree the healing fronds of which could cure all sorts of illness.

Once in the Holy Land itself, members of the crusading army visited holy places, sometimes finding themselves quite overwhelmed – ‘moved with great joy’ in the words of one pilgrim – by the landscape of Christ’s life and death. Others were specifically encouraged to see sites associated with crusading history. Oliver of Paderborn, who both preached and accompanied the Fifth Crusade wrote a Descriptio terre sancte in the middle of that crusade, detailing not just the marvellous sites of biblical history that pilgrims could see in the Holy Land, but also sites of war memory, including the castle of Montreal that was established by the first Frankish king of Jerusalem ‘to protect the land that the Christians had subjugated’. Jerusalem itself was out of reach to Christians from 1187-1225 (although pilgrims could still enter the city), but as crusading played out in more and more diverse locations, other places came to develop into sites of crusading memory.

Fallen soldiers were also central to remembrance. Their bodies or body parts were taken home if possible, and some were laid to rest in family tombs or religious sites associated with their families. Saher IV de Quincy was one of many soldiers who died during the Fifth Crusade at the siege of Damietta in 1219; his organs were cremated while his body was interred at the port city of Acre. He had wanted his ‘heart and vitals’ to be buried at Garendon abbey in England, which had been founded by members of his wife’s family (the earls of Leicester). Those whose remains were not returned were remembered by their families in tombs far away from the battlefields. Count Louis III of Chiny was not brought back to France when he died in 1189, but a memorial inscription to him was erected in the family necropolis at the monastery of Orval, which told the family that although his remains (exuviae) are not ‘in this place’, nevertheless ‘his memory will not perish’.

Such burial places were both locations for mourning and memory, but they were situated in particularly medieval landscape of ancestral accomplishment and family memory. The exploits of heroic former crusaders such as Godefroi of Bouillon, leader of the First Crusade, had entered the realm of romance by this time; but more recent crusaders of the later twelfth and thirteenth centuries were still remembered in familial places, locations of spiritual resonance, dynastic importance and, perhaps, emotional comfort.

Stories of battle told by eyewitnesses and later writers attempted to communicate a transcendent meaning to what were clearly sometimes chaotic and distressing events. Writing of the battle for Damietta during the Fifth Crusade, Jacques de Vitry reported that it was God’s will that the city was captured and lost, while those who fought and died during a siege that claimed the lives of most of the city’s population, ‘wore the martyr’s crown’. Jacques listed the names of his fallen brethren in letters he wrote home from the battlefront, reporting that ‘the pious Lord rewarded them with this consolation [death] because they had abandoned their fathers and mothers, wives and children and their friends for Christ’. He urged his readers to remember the fallen crusaders, who had died for the triumph and spread of Christendom whilst also recording his own emotional frailty after months of observing warfare – ‘I just wish to end my life in peace and quiet’, he wrote in a letter home.

Those on the home front could participate in liturgical rituals which were both commemorative and motivational. At the commemoration of the Triumph of the Holy Cross, which celebrated the 1212 victory of Las Navas de Tolosa in Spain, the entire population of Rome prayed in three different churches, and then made their way in separate processions to the Lateran where the Pope presided over a prayer meeting. En masse, they went to various other churches, including the Basilica of the Holy Cross, where a fragment of the True Cross was held and where they offered prayers for the success of future crusades.

Participating in such rituals of remembrance indicates that war could be a meaningful event for medieval people in many ways. Indeed, remembrance was expressed and communicated through place, ritual, the written word and material culture. These commemorative forms were used to assert the value and ongoing meaning of holy war, and to celebrate victory and explain defeat. Remembrance work was done outside the national frameworks which shape how modern people remember war. But it is clear that medieval people understood that maintaining connection to conflict could serve powerful and dynamic purposes, communicating present sentiment just as much as commemorating the past.

By CHE Associate Investigator Megan Cassidy-Welch.

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