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One hundred years ago today, at dawn, this little orphan was shot during the final phase of the Battle of the Somme. He was a very small cog in the vast machinery of murder and destruction that convulsed the world at that time. I see something of him in my siblings’ features, in my children and even in my grandchildren. He was one of the 10th Battalion R.D.F, annexed, to his lifelong annoyance, to the Royal Naval Division at Beaumont Hamel. He had no say in the matter. Going to war, getting shot and surviving was, he remarked later, ‘by and large an unsettling experience for a young chap.’
An unsettling experience. He was one of the lucky ones. He carried the scar and walked with a curious flick of his left leg until he died quietly in his sleep, sixty three years later. I can only surmise what inward scars he carried. He was an indefatigable walker, despite a lifelong smoking habit. He spoke little about his experience, remembering some friends and some kindnesses from lads, even from enemies, in the same predicament. He was one month past his nineteenth birthday when he took refuge in a shell crater under the persistent drizzle falling on the lunar landscape of the Ancre/Somme battlefield. Yes, he had a ‘good war.’ He survived.
He was lucky to be sent for officer training after his convalescence instead of being sent back up the line. He was lucky enough to miss his place on the mail boat Leinster, torpedoed by the German U Boat that lurked behind Rockabill lighthouse the previous day. Sin scéal eile. He was lucky enough to arrive at his posting in France six days after the Armistice was signed, an agreement that brought an end to hostilities, only to sow the seeds of an even more savage conflict twenty years later. He was lucky that the pistol of a fanatical Irish republican jammed. Scéal eile arís. The fellow was a bleak and puritanical zealot who never took a drink in his life. He obviously had no appreciation of the etiquette observed in a respectable Irish pub. We are lucky to be here and to know a little of his story. I tried to catch some of it long ago, in a novel, Reprisal. I may try again with a broader perspective brought on by the years.
The Newfoundland Monument.
A century is not a long time. The guns of the Somme, the idiocy and the carnage of those savage years are remembered still with pomp and circumstance. The violence and killing in our own country still reverberate a hundred years on. No amount of commemoration can conceal the fact that we celebrate in a strange skewed way, the act of killing our fellow human beings. The witches’ brew of nationalism and hatred is poisoning old alliances that have kept Europe (relatively) free of war for seventy years. There is no glory in monuments to slaughter. I commemorate, in this decade of commemoration, that little fellow, our father, who had a lucky escape in the mud of the Somme one hundred years ago today.
The Slaughter Tree.
It is dark outside my window. A light drizzle is falling.
At this time a century ago to the hour, he was fortunate beyond measure that a stretcher party of German prisoners of war located him and lifted him up, before his blood leached away into the water of that Flanders shell crater. I commemorate them also with gratitude.
I hope their luck also held.
Snow fell on the rubble of Beaumont Hamel the following morning. The battle was over.