This short essay examines how, in the immediate aftermath of World War I, a range of British publications inflected by the diagnostic logic of psychoanalysis helped to facilitate a cultural processing of the widespread use of the military death penalty. Freudian thought, transmitted by the work of the famous shell-shock doctor W. H. R. Rivers, influenced the representations of the military death penalty in an impressive array of popular texts from various genres, including A. P. Herbert’s novel The Secret Battle (1919), the Labour MP Ernest Thurtle’s testimony pamphlet Shootings at Dawn (1920), and A. D. Gristwood’s novella The Coward (1927).
In a striking moment in Joe Biden’s Inaugural Address in January 2021, the new head of state asked the nation to join him “in a moment of silent prayer to remember all those we lost this past year to the pandemic.” This was, he told the millions watching worldwide, his “first act as President.” It was a moment unprecedented in Inaugural Addresses. Biden, in both personally gracious and canny political terms, recognized the need for a moment of collective mourning and remembrance, a small act of commemoration as a necessary part of moving forward as a nation.
A first centenary, like 2018’s of the Armistice, is a kind of hinge in time. It marks the point at which a commemorative scale of years and decades begins to swing outward toward a longer scale of centuries and even millennia. Such a moment is like the edge of a continental shelf where, with our feet still in the shallows of calendrical time, we peer over that rim into the undersea canyon of deep time.
On November 4, 1919, a week before the first anniversary of the Great War’s conclusion, a letter to the editor of the Times worried that there seemed to be “no signs of any official or public celebrations” scheduled to mark the first Armistice Day.