Today, 11th November, is Remembrance Day - a memorial day observed in the UK and many other countries.
It’s a tradition that began at the end of the First World War, a moment to remember the men and women who had died in battle as hostilities finally ended on 11th November 1918 - the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month.
The symbol of Remembrance Day is the poppy - the flower that bloomed across the battlefields of Flanders, their brilliant red a powerful reminder of the blood that had been spilled.
War is horrific, but the war to end all wars - as WWI was described at the time - didn’t end war. War seems to be a default setting that we somehow constantly return to, an intrinsic part of human nature that we deplore but somehow can never evolve beyond.
Remembrance Day is also a moment to reflect on the devastation caused by war, to reflect on the men and women whose lives have been cut short because they followed orders. It’s also a time to think about the LGBTQ people who have served in military struggles through the ages - to try and understand what their experience might have been like.
In England, the First World War came at a time soon after homosexual contact of any kind had been outlawed - the penal code was amended to include this prohibition in 1885. It’s been reported that during the First World War, 22 officers and 270 enlisted men from the British army were court-marshalled for homosexuality.
The situation in France was slightly different. The revolution in France had resulted in the repeal of a number of laws which effectively meant that homosexuality was not illegal. However, sexual encounters between men were still widely viewed as immoral.
Adding a bit of drama to the picture is what was happening in Germany. Kaiser Wilhelm II’s cabinet and entourage was caught up in a series of court-martials and libel trials from 1907–1909 in what is now described at the Eulenburg affair. Homosexuality was illegal in Germany at that time. Journalist Maximillian Harden made an accusation of homosexual conduct between Philipp, Prince of Eulenburg-Hertefeld, and General Kuno, Graf von Moltke. The publicity surrounding the accusations included the emergence of the phrase Liebenberg Round Table to describe the circle of gay men that apparently surrounded the Kaiser. While the accusations may have initially been politically motivated, the fall-out saw numerous trials, resignations, arrests, accusations, and blackmail. It ended the career and influence of the moderate Eulenburg - some commentators point to this as being a contributing factor to the outbreak of World War I.
War often inspires great writing, and some of the most powerful work to emerge from World War I came from the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen - both widely recognised as gay men.
Sassoon enlisted in 1914 and served on the Western Front. While studying at Cambridge, Sassoon had had a relationship with David Cuthbert Thomas - Thomas was shot and killed in 1916. Sassoon wrote two poems in his memory - A Letter Home, and The Last Meeting.
I called him, once; then listened: nothing moved:
Only my thumping heart beat out of time.
Whispering his name, I groped from room to room.
Quite empty was that house; it could not hold
His human ghost, remembered in the love That strove in vain to be companioned still.
Sassoon met Owen in 1917, when they were both at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Scotland. Owen had enlisted in 1915. Owen’s celebrated work, Anthem for Doomed Youth, is a result of the time spent with Sassoon at Craiglockhart.
Owen died in action in 1918 in northern France. Sassoon survived the war, later writing:
W’s death was an unhealed wound, and the ache of it has been with me ever since. I wanted him back - not his poems.
But poems and memories are all that we have to celebrate Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Philipp Eulenburg, and the millions of other men and women who have lost their lives in war.
As Wilfred Owen wrote in 1918, in the preface of a collection of poems that he hoped to publish:
My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity.
Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn.