The Cross. Agincourt 6oo. October 25th 2015

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It would be remiss not to comment on the 6ooth anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt (25th of October 1415). If I were to neglect the opportunity I would have to wait another century to get a similarly significant date. Because of its place in literature, this battle took on an importance not accorded to other English victories of that dismal war. ‘Gentlemen in England now abed…..will think themselves accursed they were not here to share this day with us…  It’s stirring stuff, the template of martial valour, no matter where you come from.  And then a hero comes along….according to an ad on television. It could be an ad for pizza or mobile phones or, as in this case, for a video war game for nerds. The knight wears golden armour and rides an armoured steed, a classic hero. A hero leads and inspires. Sometimes he achieves the almost impossible, over-riding considerations of right and wrong, self preservation and most of all, common sense…Once more into the breach, dear friends…….for Harry, England and Saint George. King Henry carries the Cross of Saint George, the flag of England, secure in the knowledge that he has been chosen by God. His men wear the broad red cross on their coats. God and the saints supported this raid. No doubt  the French called on God to assist their efforts also, as do most armies in time of war. There are no atheists in foxholes.

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Eleven centuries before Agincourt, Constantine’s soldiers inscribed the cross on their shields, following a vision in the sky… In this sign you will conquer.  He conquered and the cross became the most powerful symbol in European history. As part of his new dispensation, sovereignty over all islands was granted to the Pope. This had implications for Ireland in later years. Everywhere you look in Ireland you will see crosses. There are Celtic, Coptic, Greek, Maltese, Lorraine, Saint Brigid’s, Russian and many other variations on what was originally a Roman device for torture and execution. The ‘tree’ on which the convict was killed, became a symbol of triumph.

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It was the symbol of the Crusades, a symbol that still inflames enmity in Muslim societies. You see it in the national flags of many nations. The Red Cross organisation uses the reverse of the Swiss flag as its symbol. In some countries it shares its principles with The Red Crescent organisation, although the humanitarian impulse is the same. There has been an tendency in societies influenced by the Christian heritage, to put crosses on mountain tops  and in prominent places. In more recent years there has been a push to remove such symbols in the name of secularism and parity of esteem. It comes across as an attempt to erode the past, to blot out the things that gave western civilization, for all its faults, much of its identity. The Taliban,when they destroyed old statues, did not do it in the name of parity of esteem and tolerance.

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It was customary after the annual Blessing of the Boats, for the crews to bring all comers on a trip around the bay. It was an adventure for small children to embark on a fishing boat for a free trip. One fisherman commented to me that he couldn’t understand why the blessing had to be done annually. “It’s not like anti-foulin’. It should only have to be done the once’t.” The blessing held anyway, as the gravely overloaded boats returned safely every time. The late Jimmy Duff took it upon himself to erect a tall cross on Saint Patrick’s Island for the Holy Year 1950. He loaded it onto a trawler and we small boys went aboard for the ride. Unfortunately we sat on the cross as it lay on the deck. “Get off! Get off! Show some respect. Good Christ! Good Christ! Get ashore at once.” He muttered some less than pious remarks under his breath, about young people and their lack of respect. We were sinners, it appeared. We went ashore smartly. The cross stood tall on the island for some years. The owner of the island frequently railed against Jimmy’s impertinence in not asking permission. “He should be effin crucified on it,” he was inclined to remark to anyone who would listen. I don’t know what became of it. It was gone before the Hippies arrived in an attempt to settle on the island in the late 1960s. Maybe an easterly gale knocked it down. I don’t think the Hippies would have survived there either.

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The cross on Holmpatrick Church was originally  Celtic, with a circle in the centre. When it was replaced, during repairs to the steeple, the story goes (Apocryphal of course, after so many years,)a contribution was made by a Catholic  publican and his customers to pay for ‘a Catholic cross on a Protestant church.’ It was said in jest, but maybe he hit on what the cross should stand for, good neighbourliness and a good landmark. Kevin Duff did the work, carrying the stones from the quarry on his bicycle and lifting them into place by block and tackle. Except for the bicycle, he worked in the tradition of the master masons of the soaring mediaeval cathedrals.  The cross has outlived Jimmy’s wooden one on the island by a generation or two.

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The relentless rain and frost erode the stone crosses, washing away the depictions of the Christian story, just as the modern world erodes the imprint of the Christian story. My daughter’s friend went into a jeweler’s shop in London to buy a cross and chain as a present. The assistant was most helpful.  She had a wide selection. “Do you want one wiv’ a little man on it?”  Where do you go from there?

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The very model of a modern major general. Armistice Day.

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On Armistice Day it does no harm to contemplate  how our civilisation and many other civilisations, glorified the profession of war. Major General Sir Denis Pack has a c.v. that makes Horatio Hornblower and Jack Aubrey look like shrinking violets.  Every schoolboy would look at his garlanded tomb with a kind of envy. He personified courage and capability in the service of King George during the Napoleonic Wars. He took part in all the glorious campaigns, in The Low Countries, The Cape of Good Hope, Iberia and of course, Waterloo, under the command of the greatest of them all, the Duke of Wellington. Severely wounded nine times, he won glory for his country, by exemplary courage in the face of the enemy. What novelist would dare to tell such a story, without fear of being accused of absurd exaggeration? Would you not give your right arm for a testimonial like this. Many gave a great deal more.

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(Click on the image to read the inscription)

“Nay,” said Dr. Johnson, “Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier or for not having been at sea.” The posters derided the shirkers. “What did you do in the war, Daddy?” Dr. Faustus was tempted by the Devil with the thought of riding in triumph through Persepolis.  “Gentlemen in England, now abed, shall think themselves accurs’d whiles any speaks that fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.” It is no wonder that Olivier’s splendid  Henry V  was filmed in the middle of World War II, (in Ireland incidentally) to kindle patriotic spirit in the hour of England’s greatest danger.

The Napoleonic Wars were the last great wars to be  glorified without the awkward intrusion of photography. The Crimean War photographs and war dispatches, show a squalid and ill judged campaign where disease took more casualties than battle. Not much glory around.  The idiocies  and ineptitude of the high command were to a degree, disguised by glorious uniforms. The charge of the Light Brigade was extolled by a poet…. who wasn’t there. C’est magnifique, mais c’est ne pas la guerre.’ The Commander in Chief, Lord Raglan, (think sleeves)  a veteran of Waterloo, persistently referred to the enemy as the French. He meant to say Russians, but what the hell!  Lord Cardigan, who led the charge, spent much of his fortune on uniforms. He particularly forbade the wearing of spectacles by any of his officers. Ironic that the cardigan is identified with elderly gentlemen, probably wearing  glasses, reading quietly by the fireside. You would not throw one sleeve rakishly over your shoulder. Probably drop your pipe out of the top pocket.

The American Civil War produced a body of photographs that prefigure the horrors of World War I and Auschwitz. The Andersonville pictures show people deprived of any human dignity and denied any mercy, burrowing like rats, in the mud. Dr. Johnson was rebutting  Boswell’s observation: “I should think that where military men are so numerous, they would be less valued as not being rare.” Boswell, more than he could have imagined, was closer to the truth.  Photography shows the profligate waste of millions of lives in modern war. It shows the sinister beauty of weaponry and the apocalyptic destruction  now possible. In commemorations, the dead are accorded the honour frequently denied them in life. There is a melancholy glamour to remembrance ceremonies, where the paraphernalia of war is deployed to salute those slaughtered by war. Remembering does not necessarily lead to learning.

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A word or two from Carl von Clausewitz, distinguished Prussian general, who gave the subject some thought: “War is merely the continuation of politics/policy by other means.” Nothing to get too worked up about there. “War is therefore an act of violence to compel our opponent to fulfill our will.”  Call a spade a spade. “All war presupposes human weakness and seeks to exploit it.” A rich field for exploitation. “In war, the mistakes that come from kindness are the worst.”

Yet the inspiring stories from wars are the individual acts of courage and selflessness that keep a flicker of hope alive, that human beings are more than mere reptiles tearing one another to pieces in the primaeval mud. These are the stories that most demand remembrance. My father, as a boy, saw no glory. He saw a lot of mud and death. He spoke of small acts of kindness and courtesy, even from German prisoners. He went to no re-unions or commemorations. He retained no bitterness against any enemy and showed no delight in the breaking of nations. He wore his poppy occasionally in sad recollection of a terrible time. He spoke seldom, but tellingly, of what he had seen of human suffering and  the pity of it all, late at night as the fire was dying down. I can only try to imagine what he saw in the embers.

Wellington sat amid the ruins of Badajoz and wept for the fine men whom he had sent to  death and mutilation.

 After Waterloo, his greatest victory, he prayed to God that it would be his last battle.

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(Click on the image to enlarge.)