Battle of the Somme. July to November 1916

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A letter writer to The Times wrote in 1916, “the dum dum bullet has no place in civilised warfare..” Quite right too. Another complained about the neglect of marksmanship and rifle skills. Close-quarter fighting with the bayonet was extolled as the ultimate test of manliness. So there you have it. Bagpipes, military bands and footballs. The Good Old Days. No mention there of car bombs, proxy or otherwise, explosive suicide vests, poison gas, flame throwers, napalm, defoliants, nuclear bombs, depleted uranium, murder of hostages, ethnic cleansing, biological warfare or famine. Civilised warfare has gone to the dogs.

I heard an interview with a British mercenary at the outbreak of the Balkan wars. He was ‘in the service’ of Croatia. “This is the only place in the world where I can shoot people legally,” he declared with some pride. He need never be short of career opportunities. He may, by now, have taken part in some squalid victory parade. He may even have been awarded some medals.

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Light the touch-paper and retire. The beauty of gunpowder is that you can strike from afar. Even a low born peasant with a firearm can strike down a noble knight, without facing him in combat.  The Chinese claim the credit for devising the first explosives, hundreds of years before the idea took root in Europe. It would have been fine if they had confined the invention to fireworks and bangers to celebrate the new year and other festive occasions. However, the periodic insanity that we call war, made it impossible to resist raining fire from above on enemy armies, cities and anyone within range. Great civilisations celebrate peace and prosperity, the arts, poetry, architecture and science and then, like Samson, they pull the whole damn structure down on their own heads. War sentiment comes to the boil and bursts out, to general flag waving and cheering crowds. The history, as they say, is written by the winners. They are the ones in the right.

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Civilised warfare. Only the horse seems to realise how mad it is. Look at his eye.

A Franciscan friar, Berchtold Schwarz, a follower of the gentle Saint Francis of Assisi, devised the formula for the black powder that revolutionised warfare. A mediaeval woodcut shows him at work, with The Devil whispering in his ear. There was no need for Lucifer to trouble himself. The fascination is there deep down in the human psyche, the desire for ultimate power over others. It’s in every political fanatic,  every psychopath, jealous lover, fearful householder waking in the dark at some sudden noise or master strategist marshaling his armies for an assault. Children play Cowboys and Indians. The cowboys are the good guys, or at least, they used to be when we played it up in the ballast pit. Keep the faith and keep your powder dry. The good guys are always quicker on the draw.

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When Gulliver explained the wonders of artillery to the king of the giants, outlining the benefits that could flow from battering down the walls of the strongest fortresses and dismembering the inhabitants cowering within, the king was furious. He called Gulliver a despicable insect and warned him never to mention the subject again. Gulliver was puzzled that so enlightened a king could not see the manifold benefits of gunpowder. He missed a good opportunity for some civilised victories.

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In 1914 the great civilisations of Europe went to war. Historians, a century later, are still arguing as to why. After a few weeks of advance and retreat, the reasons became irrelevant. Old ways were thrown aside. Barbarism and callous disregard for life became mandatory. Civil life was dislodged. Agriculture became impossible in the war zones. Starvation followed quickly. Men learned to live like rats in holes in the ground. They learned to live with rats in holes in the ground. Entire economies were deflected to the service of the war. The first naval battle of the war took place off the coast of Chile on the other side of the world, as the warring powers sought to secure access to the nitrates vital for the manufacture of explosives. The guano birds were making their contribution to The Great War. 2008_0808daffs0232

It is said that one definition of madness is to repeat the same action while expecting a different outcome. After two years of carnage the generals hit upon a master plan. On July 1st, in fine summer weather, young men climbed out of their trenches at dawn and advanced at walking pace, across a few hundred yards of No-Man’s -Land, in the face of German machine-gun fire. The images still haunt our consciousness. The machine-gun is a wonderful invention, ‘a weapon to cut the enemy’s throat at a thousand yards.’ It is beautiful in its simplicity, a weapon that practically fires itself. No marksmanship required, its field of fire overlapping with the neighbouring  machine guns, all firing at knee height to achieve maximum effect. There was no great break-through on the Somme. Five months later the tacticians and strategists were still sending young men over the top all along the Somme battlefield. The machine guns were still hammering away. The memorials make dismal reading. This five-month battle will be remembered in many moving ceremonies on July 1st when the myths of The Somme will be recalled, with the resolve that it must never be repeated. There will, no doubt, be gun salutes, parades and marches. No, nothing like that could ever happen again. We have much better explosives nowadays.

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My father was there as a young boy, carried along by the prevailing enthusiasm. I think of him often, almost a child, the same age as my eldest grandchild. He lay all day in a soaking shell crater, feeling colder and colder as his life blood leached into the flinty soil of Beaumont Hamel. Some German prisoners, pressed into service as stretcher bearers, carried him back to the trenches. He laughed in later years, recalling the German officer ‘with his bloody monocle!’ ordering his men about even on top of the parapet, as sporadic bullets whizzed around. ‘I reached out with my good leg and pushed him into the trench, pompous sod!’ The men lost no time in following him.  It snowed that evening on the trenches, on the skeletal trees,  on the craters and on the wounded,  on the dead and on the rubble of what had once been Beaumont Hamel. The Battle of The Somme petered out.  The generals went back to their maps. Better luck next time. More committed use of the bayonet perhaps.

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On returning from France in 1919 he went, not surprisingly into the bar at Euston Station to wet his whistle, as he invariably said.  He was hailed by a doctor named Healy of the R.A.M.C. a member of a notable Skerries family. They had not seen each other since infant school with the nuns in Skerries. “Ah Tom,” called his old classmate across the crowded bar. “Did you have a good war?”  I suppose the answer is ‘Yes’ insofar as he survived, unlike the millions who didn’t.  No thanks however to the ingenious Chinese or to the good friar Berchtold Schwarz.

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