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.
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.
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.
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.
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.