Perhaps it is a measure of the enormity of the folly of the First World War that the overwhelming tragedy can be expressed in comedy, in silliness and absurdity, for what else would describe the overwhelming slaughter of millions of lives? Yesterday was the anniversary of first day of the Battle of the Somme, the darkest day in British military history. There seemed no better way to recall it than watch again the closing scenes of Blackadder goes Forth, the moments when they stand in a trench waiting to go over the top.
Lieutenant George: …Sir
Captain Blackadder: Yes, Lieutenant.
Lieutenant George: I’m scared, sir
Private Baldrick: I’m scared too, sir
Lieutenant George: I’m the last of the tiddly-winking leapfroggers from the golden summer of 1914. I don’t want to die… I’m really not over keen on dying at all, sir.
Captain Blackadder: How are you feeling, Darling?
Captain Darling: Ahm- not all that good, Blackadder. Rather hoped I’d get through the whole show, go back to work at Pratt and Sons, keep wicket for the Croydon Gentlemen, marry Doris. Made a note in my diary on the way here. Simply says: “Bugger”.
Captain Blackadder: Well, quite.
[Outside: “Stand to, stand to, fix bayonets”]
Captain Blackadder: Come on, come on, let’s move.
[at the door, Blackadder turns to George]
Captain Blackadder: Don’t forget your stick Lieutenant
Lieutenant George: Rather, sir. Wouldn’t want to face a machine gun without this.
[they walk into the misty trench, waiting for the off – suddenly there is silence – the machine guns stop]
The lines of Lieutenant George and Captain Darling seem always imbued with a particular pathos, their aspiration has not been for anything extraordinary, it has been for nothing more than the ordinary things of life, the things that might have passed unremarked, gone by unnoticed. George wishes to return to the gentle eccentricity of his former times; Darling wishes to go back to a predictable domestic routine, work, cricket, family.
The war memorials never capture a sense of the loss felt by the soldiers, they commemorate death in battle, they express the grief of communities; they never capture a sense of the inner life of the men whose lives were lost, the men who wished for nothing more than the ordinary things.
The Chinese curse, “may you live in interesting times,” recognizes how much the dull and the monotonous means to us, how much we value the ordinary. Had the fallen come home, they would have cheered the chance of ordinary things.