Battle of the Somme. July to November 1916

  Scan0066

Click on the images to enlarge.

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.

Chinese_rocket

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.

i_081

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.

lwicklow seal 020

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.

2008_0808daffs0327

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.

2008_0807daffs0063

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.

2008_0808daffs0314

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.

Sex, Lies and Gunpowder.

 6828772647_487a4a3691_n

In the run-up to the last Iraq war there was much talk of ‘sexing up’ a report on Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. Hans Blix, the U.N. investigator, said that there weren’t any. What kind of sex did these people engage in? Patient and rigorous investigation isn’t ‘sexy’, especially if it undermines the case for war. Did you find George Bush, Tony Blair or Alastair Campbell, ‘sexy’? By this reckoning, smart bombs, helicopters, plutonium-tipped projectiles and all the paraphernalia of war, impart a perverted sexual thrill, at the thought of all the people who can be killed. Power, it is said, is the ultimate aphrodisiac. The reality takes place perhaps far away or far below. Arafat, (definitely not ‘sexy’,) spoke of his one hundred young girls selected to be suicide bombers, as his ‘army of roses.’ Maybe they had to hurry on ahead to Paradise to get ready for the martyrs. ‘Sexy’ or what?

There’s O Connell, the Liberator, still dominating the bridge. He relied on words and brains to achieve his ends. He lost his street cred in old age when he cancelled a ‘Monster meeting’ at Clontarf, largely because the guns of The Pigeon House fort across the water, had been trained on the crowd. Think of the martyrs he could have rallied to his cause with a good massacre. Hundreds slaughtered in famine-stricken Ireland!! If he had had a good press secretary, like Mr. Campbell, he would have been home and dried. The baton passed to the ‘physical force’ tradition. As that smiley man, Chairman Mao,asserted: ‘Political power comes out of the barrel of a gun.’ Nelson, an ardent lover with what was left of him, would have agreed. He stood just around the corner from The Gunpowder Office on Bachelors’ Walk. Was that a phallic symbol he was standing on? Can’t have that in holy, Catholic Ireland. Draw your own conclusions and no sniggering, please.

00071907-622

The Chinese, of course discovered gunpowder, a mixture of saltpetre, charcoal and brimstone in certain proportions, to bring about an explosion. They used it for fireworks and for war. The 13th century Franciscan, Berthold Schwarz gets the credit for introducing it to Europe and everything has been great ever since. You can use the stuff to move mountains, celebrate Hallowe’en or dominate your neighbours. You can become a hero, a great statesman, a rebel/anarchist/revolutionary, giving the two fingers to those you don’t agree with, if you have enough of it. You can become a bloody menace to society if you mishandle it, as the dreadful explosion in Tianjin shows. Pearse admitted that  some of the wrong people might be killed at first….Lenin went for mass slaughter. It takes practice to get the hang of it. Interestingly, Lenin listed the bourgeoisie, school teachers and other intellectuals as candidates for liquidation in this mass extermination. I don’t know, as a former school teacher, if I should feel flattered.

The-Hundreds-Year-War-England-France-16

It may well be apocryphal but the story is that, at Agincourt, the French High Command, directed that any English archers taken prisoner, should have the index and middle finger of the right hand chopped off. This was to avenge the scandal that a low-born man could strike a noble knight dead from afar. Comparable punishments were to be inflicted on gunners using the detestable material, gunpowder. The only respectable way to slay an enemy is in hand to hand combat, according to the customs of Chivalry. Ee I Addio….we won the war. It seems that these low-born varlets delighted in showing their two fingers to the defeated French. Considered to be very rude nowadays…rude peasants…rude forefathers. There are some families in Wales still drawing a pension for their forefathers’ service at Agincourt, but keep that under your hat… where the same ancestors kept their bowstrings in wet weather. Did Shakespeare ‘sex-up’ Agincourt 1415?  The Herald of France put it more succinctly…’, No, great king/ I come to thee for charitable licence/ That we may wander o’er this bloody field/ To book our dead and then to bury them/To sort our nobles from our common men…’ Agincourt 2015. Sounds like a festival, with gurning politicians speaking about heritage and tradition and soldiers rattling sabres and gesticulating with rifles. Guards of honour and artillery salutes….the works.

agincourt2

God save the mark!

An interesting suggestion was made in America, where people love their guns. Arm the teachers. That would put a stop to the random massacres in schools and colleges, perpetrated by people unbalanced with a sense of power or grievance. Fortunately I never carried firearms to school. There were days….There were days….youghal doneraile spenser's castle 049

I think I would have fancied one of these.

When Gulliver boasted to the King of the Giants, that he could show him how to compound gunpowder and make cannon to blast down the walls of the mightiest cities and tear apart the bodies of the wretches hiding therein, the King was enraged. He warned the ‘insect’ Gulliver never to mention it again, on pain of death. Seemed like a sexy idea to Gulliver.

No need for it now anyway, since Tony Blair became Peace Envoy to The Middle East. How did that go, have you heard? Probably count his successes on the two missing fingers of some Welsh archer.