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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Rockabill Lighthouse. Abel Rock.

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A man at Speakers’ Corner told a sad story; “When I was a young lad goin’ to school in Dublin long ago.” he said, “I learned trigonometry. Do y’know what trigonometry is?”  I kept my head down. Of course I know what trigonometry is, but I have a mortal fear of street performers of any kind. Didn’t I give some of the best hours of my young life to Tan a over 2, Sines and Cosines, Logs and Antilogs? I even painted the Cosine page in my log tables red, to avoid a tendency to read the Cosine instead of the Sine. That could result in my space probe failing to rendezvous with the comet, Giotto, by several million miles and probing the Bog of Allen instead.  ‘It’s Tan a over 2. Stupid boy!’  I never quite cracked the language of mathematics. Napier filled a whole book with page after page of numbers and it became a best-seller. Pure genius.  ” It’s all about angles and triangles,” explained the man. “I learned how to measure the height of any tree or a lighthouse or a skyscraper. It was amazin’. I decided to get a job measurin’ lighthouses, but when I left school I found out that all the lighthouses in the world had already been measured. That cured me of ambition. I’ve never worked a day in me life since then”.

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As a child, I suspected that Rockabill was a ship. It has a chimney. It has a tender for the coal, just like a steam engine. It definitely moves, shunting up and down the horizon, depending on where you are standing. You need to keep your eye on it to see how it moves. Walk along the coastal path and it follows you, sometimes hiding behind the islands and then slipping out suddenly to surprise you with a new vista. I painted a picture of it and was roundly abused by a man who could see it when he was shaving every morning.  “Where’s the gap?” he challenged me. “There’s a gap between the two rocks.”  “Not where I was standing,” I replied lamely. “I was further to the south. Everything depends on your point of view.” He snorted derisively. “You’re wrong, you know,” he insisted. “There’s a gap.”  There is a gap.  A German U Boat sat up on that gap at low tide to effect repairs. It then went on to torpedo the mailboat Leinster  with great loss of life. My father missed that boat, because he went on the beer. Who says that beer is bad for your health?

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How could you do trigonometry anyway, with all those noisy neighbours? The rocks are covered by clouds of kittiwakes, terns and gulls, shags and cormorants. Look at your man showing off, the king of the castle. Little guillemots bobbed and dived on the calm surface of the water.  There is abundant guano, often deposited in elegant triangles, the apex pointing to the nest. The British War Office appointed the artillery branch of the army to begin the great Ordnance Survey of Ireland. Ordnance relies on mathematics for accuracy. They began at Poolbeg Lighthouse in Dublin Bay, fixing the Ordnance Datum (OD) at a low  spring tide and triangulated from that point, covering the whole island with a web of triangles. They then went on to anglicise all the place names, e.g.  Skeheenarinky. It sounds like gibberish. It was Sceachín an  Rinnce , the little thorn bush of the dancing—The Little People dancing  at midnight in the moonlight. Be wary of the Little People.  There are stories and myths in the old Irish place names, if you have the time and patience to tease them out. The Ordnance Survey nailed everything down. Now they use GPS and satellites to keep everyone in their sights. Even the OD has moved to Donegal. We have come up in the world.

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Alice took us around the rock in a gentle curve. The islands swam from one point to another. The birds screamed at our intrusion. Perhaps they knew that Mike was about to catch some of their fish. We spliced the main brace to christen Michael’s new boat. A porpoise rolled on the surface. He shrugged and went below. Porc pisces —sea pigs?  A gannet dived like white lightning. We noted a few brown jellyfish drifting languidly in the tide. Alison and Margaret took time out. Where else would you rather be?

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I looked out this morning to check on that gap. The Rockabill was gone. There was a sea mist. Maybe, of course, it had merely gone walkabout. There was a time when it warned us of fog. Waw wah, waw wah, like a sick cow. It was a comforting sound when you lay in bed at night. Someone was keeping watch. Then it changed to Woop woop, woop woop. It had become a destroyer, steaming out of harbour to hunt for U Boats. Now it is silent. There is no need for watchers on the tower or foghorns to talk to the ships. All is electronic and of course, infallible.Tara, Rockabill, Harbour  end 065

There is a groove on the garden wall where the lighthouse keepers rested their telescope.  They focussed on the white wall of Flower and MacDonald’s coal yard. I was talking to a lady about this one time, when suddenly, to my surprise, she went into a spasmodic dance, waving her arms about like a mantis. I thought it might be because of some hypnotic power that I might have over women—but no. “What was that all about?” I asked. “I was saying goodnight to my Daddy,” she said. “We used to talk by semaphore at the  the coal yard wall.”

How the image  in the lens, of his little girl with her flags, must have warmed his heart , during his lonely vigil on Rockabill.

Countdown to War, July 29th 1914-2014

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Yesterday, a hundred years ago, the Great War began. Austria and Serbia began the process that dragged the world into war. The metaphor of the Matterhorn tragedy of 1865 has often been used to express what happened. Four climbers were plucked off the mountain when a rope connecting them to three others, broke. They were on their way down. It is often more difficult to get out of a situation than to get into it. The weight of the uppermost climber pulled the second one loose. Their combined weight peeled the third and then the fourth from the face of the crag. The ties that bound them together, were their undoing. The watchers below were helpless to do anything.  The tragedy became the subject of paintings and engravings. After all, the leader of the expedition was Edward Whymper, an artist in love with the Alps.

Professional historians say that the situation was much more complex than this metaphor. Of course it was, but Austria pulled in Germany while Serbia plucked the Russian Empire to its destruction, then France, Belgium, the British Empire and any innocent bystanders who happened to be watching. Portugal was wary of Germany in Africa, so they sent troops to Belgium. The French brought Indo-Chinese  and Senegalese to Europe. Australians and Dubliners went to Turkey. Keep an eye on the Japanese, not that they could pose any serious threat to The Great Powers. The Arabs are getting restless. A glorious opportunity for world strategists to display their skills. Spread out those maps. Send in the cavalry. Send an expedition to Mesopotamia. That should keep those blighters quiet for a century or two.  King Hammurabi of Mesopotamia, in Biblical times, made laws for the protection of widows and orphans. No need to worry about them. It will all be over by Christmas.

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It’s a load of shit. Bird shit in fact. The first naval battle was off the South American coast, where Britain and Germany fought to secure the supplies of bird guano from Chile, to make high explosive, to fill the millions and millions of shells needed to dismember millions and millions of people and destroy the drainage of the rivers of Flanders. The shells are things of beauty, works of art. My father defused one of those small shells and brought it back from the war as a souvenir. He saw lads doing the same thing on ammunition dumps and blowing themselves up in the process. There is an art to removing the detonator and the high explosive. Handle with extreme care. It is safe now. In his old age he gave it to me. Their manufacture ensured full employment and liberated women to take paid labour. What could be wrong with that? Famine, Plague, War and Death kicked their horses into a canter. Welcome to the Apocalypse. The troops marched to the front. The khaki-clad British, sensibly, took taxis. The brightly coloured French despised camouflage. They relied on élan. The Russians promptly got lost.  The Kaiser turned to his chemists to fabricate guano. While you’re at it, make me some poison gas.

There were other allegorical figures linked together on that slippery slide into catastrophe: Pride, Covetousness, Lust, Anger, Gluttony, Envy and Sloth. They all brought their talents to the conflict. You could mention also, Irony, Stupidity, astonishing Charity, Mercy, Generosity, Patriotism and Honour, Humour, Endurance and heart-breaking Courage. Poets idealised the shedding of blood. Artists tried to depict the grim reality. Musicians lifted the spirits. In La Grande Illusion a disillusioned soldier remarks that there would be no wars if there were no brass bands. We all love a brass band.…and we won’t be back till it’s over over there…That film was made by Renoir, son of Renoir the artist. There are many things to love about old Renoir. I particularly admire his remarks about the necessity of keeping the house safe for children: removing razor blades and anything that might injure them, poisonous fluids and chemicals etc.

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However, it may be necessary in a war to kill children, along with their mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, grandparents and neighbours, if strategy demands it. This is of course, regrettable and should be avoided if possible, by extensive leafleting in advance, as is done in the present conflict in Gaza. The fact that they have nowhere to run to is a sad irony of the situation. That gun is a thing of sinister beauty, a work of art and precision. It is sited at Sanctuary Wood. Who sought sanctuary there? Where do the children of Gaza seek sanctuary? In a playground? In a school? In a hospital? Not right now. Don’t you know there’s a war on? God fights on the side of the big battalions, with the big guns.

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My brother, who knows a bit about museums, accompanied me to Flanders. He took issue with the way artefacts (objects made by art?) were displayed at the Ulster Tower museum. ‘These items should be displayed in atmosphere controlled environments’ he pointed out. ‘They will deteriorate over time.’  ‘Don’t worry,’ replied the official.’We can always go outside and dig up some more.’  That is the truth.

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Plenty more where George Nugent came from. His name is attached to a cross.

When I was a child, my mother took me to the National Museum. I saw wonderful things. One thing that puzzled me was the inscription on the belt-buckle of an Irish Volunteer uniform: Gott Mit Uns. It wasn’t Irish. I asked her what it meant. ‘It’s German, ‘ she told me.‘God is with us. The Kaiser, out of the goodness of his heart, sent over some uniforms for the Irish Volunteers.’  What a kind man! I wonder how his chemists got on.

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Kipling was a strong advocate of the war until the day an irate father challenged him at a recruiting rally. ‘Why don’t you send your own bloody son?’ he shouted. Kipling had done everything he could think of to keep his boy safe but he could no longer shield him. The boy was killed. Kipling learned a hard lesson. When my father died, or as an old soldier, faded away, at the age of 82, my little son wrote in Our News in school: ‘My Grandad died and we have his shell on the mantlepiece.’ It made for a very puzzled teacher. I tried to write about his experience, in my novel, Reprisal. Maybe I should have mentioned his shell. My father would have smiled at the little boy’s version. He would smile too at the sudden enthusiasm for The Great War in Ireland after a century of shamefaced denial.

The Great War was the war to end all war. That’s day one over anyway.