TOWARDS the end of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel Sunset Song, the minister remembering the four local men who died in the First World War says this: “They died for a world that is past, these men, but they did not die for this that we seem to inherit.”

I’ve often wondered about the meaning of that. It suggests it is up to us to make better this world we inherit, and that if the people who died in the war died for something of value – perhaps for what they thought was best in their own lives, what they held most dear and wished to keep vital and available for future generations – they could have no idea about what was coming after them.

Our job, here and now, remembering them, is to keep that edge in mind. This world we inherit is ours to improve, for the sake of the dead, as well as for that of the unborn to come. So it’s worth pausing to consider some of the voices and energies in the words written down at the time.

When I was asked to help organise this event, my friend and colleague at the University of Strathclyde, Dr David Goldie, came up with a selection of material he had arranged for a similar occasion. We agreed on revisions and additions, but David’s selection and the structure of the evening underpin what follows. I’m grateful to him.

Ronald Stevenson’s piercingly lyrical Better A’e Gowden Lyric opens the evening. It recollects a few lines from a Hugh MacDiarmid poem to remind us all that there are other, better things than warfare and conflict: the virtues of the arts are as important in these times as ever. More so, perhaps. “Lest we forget” is one of those phrases numbed by overuse. My sense of it is we should remember not only the dead, but all the arts, and especially music and poetry, the truths they embody, which can be killed off quicker than good reporting by propaganda.

The start of the readings recollects early-war enthusiasm and protest. This is from Charles Murray’s A Sough o’ War” (“sough” simply means “rumour”):

The corn was turnin’, hairst was near,

But lang afore the scythes could start

A sough o’ war gaed through the land

An’ stirred it to its benmost heart.

Nae ours the blame, but when it cam

We couldna pass the challenge by,

For credit o’ our honest name

There could be but the ae reply.

An’ buirdly men, fae strath an’ glen,

An’ shepherds fae the bucht an’ hill,

Will show them a’, whate’er befa’,

Auld Scotland counts for something still.

But what this emotionally charged patriotism overlooked was to be expressed by William Cameron, in his Speak not to me of War! (first published in Forward, August 15, 1914):

Speak not to me of sword or gun,

Of bloody war and strife;

Laud not the inhuman brutes who’ve won

And split their brother’s life.

See yonder bloody corpse-strewn plain,

Where man has butchered man;

Then write upon your scroll of fame:

Write “glorious,” if you can!

The “lonely woman” weeping silent tears “mourns a slaughtered son” and Cameron’s scorn is severe: “Show me the glory there!”

In National Defence (1917), James Ramsay Macdonald wrote this: “Militarism has increased its power enormously within the last century, not because it has been successful but because it has failed. […].

“The truth which I want to drive home is that the nation which trusts to the sword must perish by the sword, because it has committed itself to a system of defence which cannot defend but which must in the end destroy.”

Charles Hamilton Sorley raised this vision into searing poetry: “When you see millions of the mouthless dead / Across your dreams in pale battalions go, / Say not soft things as other men have said, / That you’ll remember. For you need not so.” The dead are deaf to our laments and praises, Sorley’s poem insists. Only death itself has claimed everything, “for evermore.”

Such an impression is overwhelming, yet one of the consequences of war is the polarisation of women and men, and the experience of the Home Front is as vital as that of the trenches. Eunice G Murray argues the feminist question in her Warrior Women: Should Women Fight?: “When one reads of the fate that overtakes the civilian population, more especially the horrors that have taken place in Belgium, the burning of houses, the devastation of the land, the imprisonment of the male population, the ruthless orders given to women to retire to their own houses and leave the doors unlocked. When we realise what these things mean there can be but one hope, and that is that warfare is doomed, and that men as well as women, in the words of Adomnan, the Abbot of Iona, ‘will stop from things of that kind,’ and that reason, not might, will govern the world.”

Soldiering itself, though, was the central topic of many of the writers. Joseph Lee has a four-line poem entitled “The Bullet” that has the lightning effect of what it describes:

Every bullet has its billet;

Many bullets more than one:

God! Perhaps I killed a mother

When I killed a mother’s son.

John Buchan’s novel of the First World War, Mr Standfast (1919), features Richard Hannay but the pacifist Lancelot Wake is a rare example of a positive contemporary depiction of the conscientious objector as a character of integrity. Through his friendship and adventures with Hannay, Wake joins the Army as a non-combatant, still adamant he will not fight. He turns out to be a natural at strategic thinking. This episode recounts his final acts.

“If we can’t retake that ground we’re fairly carted,” I said…

Suddenly I was aware of Wake’s voice. “You had better send me,” he was saying. “There’s only one way – to swim the river a little lower down.”

“That’s too damnably dangerous. I won’t send any man to certain death.”

“But I volunteer,’ he said. ‘That, I believe, is always allowed in war.”

“But you’ll be killed before you can cross.”

“Send a man with me to watch. If I get over, you may be sure I’ll get to General Mitchinson. If not, send somebody else by Loisy. There’s desperate need for hurry, and you see yourself it’s the only way.”

The time was past for argument. I scribbled a line to Mitchinson as his credentials. No more was needed, for Wake knew the position as well as I did. I sent an orderly to accompany him to his starting-place on the bank.

“Goodbye,” he said, as we shook hands. “You’ll see, I’ll come back all right.” His face, I remember, looked singularly happy...

Wake, as I heard later, had swum the river opposite to Mitchinson’s right, and reached the other shore safely, though the current was whipped with bullets. But he had scarcely landed before he was badly hit by shrapnel in the groin. Walking at first with support and then carried on a stretcher, he managed to struggle on to the divisional headquarters, where he gave my message and explained the situation… After that he asked to be sent back to me, and they got him down to Loisy in a crowded ambulance, and then up to us in a returning empty. The MO who looked at his wound saw that the thing was hopeless, and did not expect him to live beyond Loisy. He was bleeding internally and no surgeon on earth could have saved him.

When he reached us he was almost pulseless, but he recovered for a moment and asked for me.

I found him, with blue lips and a face drained of blood, lying on my camp bed. His voice was very small and far away.

“How goes it?” he asked.

“Please God, we’ll pull through…thanks to you, old man.”

“Good,” he said and his eyes shut.

He opened them once again.

“Funny thing life. A year ago I was preaching peace…I’m still preaching it…I’m not sorry.”

I held his hand till two minutes later he died.

Voices of parody were to be heard too. This is from Ewart Allan Mackintosh’s The Charge of the Light Brigade Brought Up to Date:

Cannon to right of them,

Cannon to left of them,

Cannon in front of them,

Volleyed and thundered…

Was there a man dismayed?

Yes, they were damned afraid,

Loathing both shot and shell,

Into the mouth of Hell,

Sticking it pretty well,

Slouched the six hundred.

Charles Murray reminds us of the common end, regardless of rank or class, “Staff” and “six hundred” will come to, in “A Green Yule”:

Dibble them doon, the laird, the loon,

King an’ the cadgin’ caird,

The lady fine beside the queyn,

A’ in the same kirkyaird.

The warst, the best, they a’ get rest;

Ane ’neath a headstane braw,

Wi’ deep-cut text, while owre the next

The wavin’ grass is a’.

And after all, there is remembering.

JB Salmond writes in Twenty Years Ago:

The boy is dead in all of us, and War’s an ugly thing,

And the pacifist is right no doubt, and the service man is ex.,

And “Tipperary” nowadays is no great song to sing,

And there isn’t much romance about shell-shock and nervous wrecks.

But still we hear the music across the poppied corn,

Across a world of sorrow the ghostly pipers blow.

And thank God we went soldiering, a-soldiering, a-soldiering

With that boy that went a-soldiering twenty years ago!

Hugh MacDiarmid was Christopher Murray Grieve before he was Hugh MacDiarmid and it was as CM Grieve that he published his first book, Annals of the Five Senses, in 1923. He dedicated the book to John Buchan, “for the encouragement and help he has given to a young and unknown writer”.

“How would he describe the battlefield of the Somme? A broad road leading through an open country, rising and falling in conformity with the configuration of the ground. A long stretch of that road covered with traffic of all kinds: huge guns being dragged along by heavy tractor-engines; great motor-wagons in an interminable line, carrying food, ammunition, clothing; men marching towards the front, either fresh from their training or returning from rest camps … making once more towards the hell of the trenches; others returning from the battleground covered with a caking of mud and yet fretted with an odd cheeriness despite the strain through which they had passed and the bitter cold that bit to the bone: long strings of horses …

“Energy and activity unceasing. The monotony of going through such traffic hour after hour, day after day, year after year. Overhead aeroplanes went to and fro in a very sky that was becoming crowded and peaceless …

“This was the very heart of the trench-crossed, shell-pitted, mine-caverned battle area. As far as the eye could see on each side of the road there was nothing but desolation. All had been cultivated ground, studded with villages, farm-houses, villas, and here and there a chateau. Pleasant woods had risen up in parts ... Today a few stumps showed where the woods had been, a few heaps of bricks remained of the villages. Even the piles of bricks were few and far between: in most cases the last vestiges of habitations and of the materials whereof they had been composed had been utterly obliterated …”

Which brings us back to Grassic Gibbon and Sunset Song (1932. “FOR I WILL GIVE YOU THE MORNING STAR” (which he writes in capitals and italics) and draws his novel towards its conclusion like this:

“So, lest we shame them, let us believe that the new oppressions and foolish greeds are no more than mists that pass. They died for a world that is past, these men, but they did not die for this that we seem to inherit. Beyond it and us there shines a greater hope and a newer world, undreamt when these four died. But need we doubt which side the battle they would range themselves did they live today, need we doubt the answer they cry to us even now, the four of them, from the places of the sunset?”

After that, perhaps no more words are needed. The last movement of John Blackwood McEwen’s Threnody String Quartet is a hushed, agonisingly lovely setting of The Flowers of the Forest and we’ll let that play quietly down into the silence of memories, thoughts and hopefully, resolution.