D Day the 6th of June and a Whiff of Grapeshot.

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We still live in awe of the magnitude of the D Day undertaking; the logistics and organisation; the secrecy of the preparation; the firepower released and the courage and sacrifice of so many lives. A Frenchman observing the bombing of his home town of Caen, remarked that freedom was being bought at a terrible price. Strategists and historians can explain the methods and means by which war is waged. Ingenious inventors can provide more and more instruments to bring about the dismemberment and destruction of human beings. They will sell these instruments, if they are permitted, to the highest bidder. Terrible things happen in wars, people say in justification. The whole enterprise is usually swathed in patriotic rhetoric or the quest for “Glory”. Yet the images that persist from World War II are short on glory and long on horror and unimaginable cruelty. Remember though, that Hitler was elected. Is that you, 457th from the right in the 23rd row? I hope not.

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The glory lies in the courage and determination of those who went to war against a vile regime, conceived by a mind distorted by bitterness and hatred; a mind filled with lunatic notions of greatness, conquest and racial purity. The tragedy is that he could sway so many to his way of thinking. They call it ‘charisma’ when people surrender their freedom of thought and action to one all-knowing and all powerful leader. D Day dealt a body blow to the regime yet Hitler did not stop until he had brought his country and its people to devastation and misery. There are still some who revere his memory. On this day we revere the people who carried out the D Day invasion at a terrible cost to themselves.

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In two weeks’ time we mark the 200th anniversary of The Battle of Waterloo, a battle that saw the end of Bonaparte’s career as emperor of France. In that most republican of countries he is still admired and revered for his many achievements. Foremost among these was his ability to organise and use force to get his own way. His use of grapeshot against a Royalist mob attacking the government in October (Vendemiaire) 1795 marked him as the coming man in French political life. Approximately  300 citizens died in the street. On that day too died the French Revolution, with its ideals of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Grapeshot is efficient against a mob in narrow city streets. This is not to suggest that the Royalists would have been preferable. They were not organised. Bonaparte’s particular genius lay in his decisiveness. Grape shot brings a quick and tidy solution to thorny political disputes. As a reward he was appointed commander of the Army of Italy, not an Italian army but a French army sent to invade and conquer Italy.  Shortly afterwards he received a positive reply to his application for a job as gunnery officer on a British East-Indiaman. He turned it down for better pickings. Behold a pale horse……

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The man could do no wrong. General Vendemiaire, as he was nicknamed after the grapeshot episode, “my first title of Glory,” looked to greater things. He declared himself Emperor. Look at the costume…Drag artists everywhere take note. The mentally unhinged frequently turn to Emperor Napoleon for inspiration.

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Like any good, ward-heeling politician, he began to get jobs for his family. He set the brother up as King of Spain. That didn’t work out too well. He decided to invade Russia, as you do, when you become all-powerful. It will cost the lifeblood of your country but sure, why not? Onward to Glory!  On the days before Waterloo he was conspicuous on his pale horse, often silhouetted against thunder clouds and lightning, as he marshalled his army. Dramatic stuff. His Guards fought to their deaths for him. He was captured and conveyed to England as a celebrity, on HMS Bellerophon. The crowds came out in their boats on Plymouth Sound, to see him. He doffed his hat to the ladies and to his new fans. Charlie Chaplain complained that only a quarter of a million people turned out to greet him when he arrived back in England. Disgraceful. Fair play to Charlie though, he did a great job in satirising The Great Dictator.

'Scene in Plymouth sound in August 1815' oil on canvas by John James Chalon, 1816

‘Scene in Plymouth sound in August 1815’
oil on canvas by John James Chalon, 1816

Strategists and historians explain the ‘How?’ of empires, dictators and war. Psychologists struggle with the ‘Why?’  There may be days when you would like to have some grapeshot to hand, to deal with people who irritate you but you keep the idea in check…because you are sane. Hang on to that and be grateful to the soldiers of D Day.

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By the way, Churchill was voted out of office in the first general election after the war. Democracy,  he remarked, is a terrible system but it’s the best we have.

117 year old man. Mexicans, Hungarians and plagiarism.

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I read recently, that the Mexicans have a belief: ‘You are not dead until the last person to speak your name, is dead.’  By that reckoning, Achilles is still going strong, three thousand years on. Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun and Adolf Hitler will be around for a long time, plying their grisly trade. They are the connoisseurs of death. By comparison with us human beings,  scorpions, snakes, funnel-web spiders and sharks are mere amateurs when it comes to notching up the death toll. Only mosquitoes, viruses and bacteria  are more proficient than we are at causing death——up to now anyway. We grew up, during The Cold War, under the threat of total nuclear annihilation. That would make us the winners. As the most intelligent and advanced species on the planet, it is only fair that we should win. (George W. Bush, leader of the free world, called it ‘Nucular’ destruction. It probably doesn’t matter what you call it, in the long run. My father was very strict about correct pronunciation.)

That little fellow is my father. I see him in my grandchildren. I rarely mention the names of his parents. They are almost gone. He was an orphan at the age of five. He came to school in Skerries, to the nuns.  He often mentioned his two best friends there, Willie and Paddy Doyle, from South Africa.  We spoke about them the other day,  so they are still alive somewhere. What else would a fellow do, when he grew up, but get involved in the most exciting thing to happen in the whole world? In fact it was a world war. Everyone was getting involved in the great war for civilisation, the war to end all wars. It seemed like a good idea, a happy Odyssey. Poets enthused about it. Orators orated about it. Politicians advocated it. Crowds cheered and off marched the young men.

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He loved to wander over the fields in the morning, looking for mushrooms. I can still feel the thrill of finding little white buttons peeping through wet grass, early in the morning.  The French are great for foraging wild foods in fields and forests. For the last century they have also foraged for unexploded shells, mines, gas cannisters and previously un-located bodies. In death the soldiers are accorded a respect and consideration not given to them in life. Commemoration has become a duty, a vocation, an industry and a tourist attraction. This is the village of Beaumont Hamel. My father was there in autumn, a good time for mushrooms, although I doubt if he got much chance to look for them. He went with The Royal Dublin Fusiliers to capture the village. It was in the last days of the Battle of the Somme, a record breaking battle in terms of casualties. By the time the village was captured there was nothing left of it, except a  shard of glass from a window of the church. It was snowing. No sign of mushrooms.  He was in a field hospital and we were lucky. He lived to show us all the best places for foraging and to warn us against poisonous fungi. He lived to talk about the stupidity of it all. ‘On balance, it was an unsettling experience for a young chap.’ Understatement of the century, perhaps.

Danger Tree Newfoundland Memorial

This is the Slaughter Tree, no understatement there. It was a witness to the massacre of young Newfoundlanders. It was a world war, of course. Everybody had to be there. The witness tree is dead. It saw too much. It gave up the ghost. The workmen maintain the headstones meticulously, sharpening up the inscriptions with dental drills. Their names live forever. or so they say.

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The Hungarian writer, George Mikes, maintained that there is nothing wrong with plagiarism. It’s a compliment. The essential thing is to show good taste. I will plagiarise my grandson, Victor’s, prize-winning poem. He never met his great-grandfather. He is now a year older than the youngest soldier to die in the war, a fourteen year old child from Waterford, named John Condon. Thank you, Victor.

A river of blood

Fills the trenches,

An undying thirst only a bullet quenches,

Brother and brother,

Hand in hand,

Fighting together to save our land.

Men, old and young,

Grasping their guns,

As the toxic gas fills their lungs,

Death after death,

Young and old,

The only survivors are the brave and the bold,

War never changes. That is no lie.

War will be the same as long as people die.

In going through some of my father’s books the other day, I came across  A Happy Odyssey, by General Carton de Wiart, a British general of Belgian extraction. He had one eye and one arm. He was famous for the amount of shrapnel that rattled around  inside him. ‘I met him once,’ my father told me. ‘I was sent out, shortly after the Armistice, to get some mistletoe for the officers’ mess. I had a lively horse under me, so I took him into a field to run some of the steam out of him. The blasted horse bolted and ran out onto the road. I was spotted by this general in a staff car, Carton de Wiart. He gave me a bollocking for galloping a horse on the paved road. I felt a complete fool, saluting with a fistful of mistletoe.’  Afterwards he found two dishevelled German soldiers hiding in the woods.They surrendered to him. They didn’t know that the war was over. One of them was seriously wounded. His companion had gathered a helmet full of mushrooms. It was no happy Odyssey for them. I wonder if they ever made it home. Soldiers of The Great War, Known Unto God.

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The family of Arthur Conway Young didn’t buy that line either. His Name Liveth Forever.  Their anger blazes out from the inscription. I must ask my Dad if he ever met him.

Hawker Hurricanes, Hitler and Harry. Catalina at Skerries and Loughshinny August 24th/25th 2013

Harry Hawker epitomised the romance and adventure of early aviation. His name evokes the knightly sport of hawking, a world of falcons and hunting, of speed and deadly accuracy. Born in 1889, he saw the very beginnings of heavier-than-air flying … Continue reading