Big Boys’ Toys. 4th of August 1914-2014.

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This fellow had a wretched childhood. He was subjected to hideous treatment as an infant to try to correct a withered arm. Perhaps he compensated for all this by amassing a vast store of toys, ships and armies, aircraft and guns. He had a great collection of soldiers, more than any of his cousins. I had one, a Highlander in a kilt. I was convinced that he was alive. I could walk him with my fingers. I recall the excitement of running home from school to play with him. I waited for him to speak. I was in infants’ class at the time,so my misapprehension could be excused. He was actually made of lead. The flesh-coloured paint on his face and knees, was chipped. His wonderful Highland tartan became ragged. Macgregor? McDonald? I never knew his name. He encapsulated in his tiny frame, all the romance of the clans and the awesome Highland regiments. He won many battles for me against Redcoats, armoured knights and Red Indians with feathered war bonnets. (You may not say Red Indians any more. I was always a bit embarrassed by warriors who wore bonnets anyway. The Highlander wore a floppy beret, also tartan. It wasn’t a bonnet. Don’t be stupid….. That’s another argument.)

There was a young fellow at Wipers

Got shot in the arse by some snipers.

The music, they say,

When the wind blew his way,

Beat the Argyll and Sutherland pipers.

My Old Man had the definitive answer to the recurring argument as to whether there is anything worn under the kilt. ‘No, there isn’t. I saw them upside-down on the wire.’

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This is my army now, a gentleman with a flag, making himself conspicuous; a guardsman in a busby who has soldiered for half a century in a toolbox and five armoured knights that my little boy brought back from Warwick. ‘Warwick, great setter up and puller down of kings.’   They are my crack troops. I will not expend them lightly in war. In the book Voices of War there is a story of an officer addressing his troops before the D Day landings. They were to be the first to land. ‘Gentlemen,’ said he, ‘we have the honour to be expendable.’  An answer came from the ranks: ‘F*** that for a game of soldiers.’  A disgrace to his regiment. My guardsman is a disgrace also, coming on parade in that state. Look at that rifle! Look at that uniform! ‘You ‘orrible little man!’ (Sergeants always say that.) My knights, however, stand tall in shining armour. I have never taken them out of the box. In years to come they will be worth a fortune, because they have never been played with. It’s an Antiques Roadshow paradox. And in the original box too!! Do you remember the lead soldiers in Woolworths? Rank upon rank of them, knights on horseback, guardsmen in red and black, horse artillery, armies enough to conquer the world. I couldn’t afford them. By the time I could afford them, Woolworths had left Ireland and anyway, I had not become a toy-soldier-war-games nerd, (as far as I know).

Frederick the Great loved to watch his guardsmen on parade. They were apparently gigantic men, with bearskins to enhance their height. He lavished money on their uniforms. Legend has it that he was horrified one day to see a sentry wiping his nose on his sleeve .’ After all the money I’ve spent….etc…etc…!’  Lateral thinking was called for. Some cunning strategy. He directed that rows of buttons should be sewn onto the cuffs of all uniforms. A signal victory! They are there on the sleeves of your sports jacket and business suit. In the army you are advised to keep your nose clean. The Royal Greenjackets do not derive their name from this incident.

The Kaiser (Caesar? Come on!), the uber nerd, put his faith in steel. He dumped his Iron Chancellor and made himself a man of steel. Bismarck knew how to win a war: pick on weaker, more feebly armed countries.  He reviewed his Grand Fleet. He reviewed his grand army, bigger than anything Woolworths ever stocked. He needed a war. He made the fortunes  of Krupps of Essen. Krupps, an old family firm, manufactured spoons. Now they make hair-dryers and weighing scales. Between the time they made spoons and the time they started making hair-dryers, they made everything else that could be made of steel… railway lines, railway guns, bridges, ammunition, rifles, tanks, artillery and all the nuts and bolts of warfare. They owned Essen. They even owned the Bible in the church, for God’s sake. Business was booming. The Kaiser was ready for the Off.  On the seventh day of the Great War, Britain opened hostilities against Germany. This was industrial war, a war of mass production and mass consumption. It was a war of assembly lines, fuelled by human lives. It made war the norm for the Twentieth Century. Wars were no longer to be won on the playing fields of Eton, but in the dark Satanic mills and factories and in the squalid trenches among rats and lice. Fire and steel rained from the sky. It still does.

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Our grandchildren inspecting the frigate Heroina, Buenos Aires, armed by Krupps of Essen.

Little boys are drawn to ships and planes and weapons of war. They’re “deadly”. They incorporate them into their play. If they are lucky, they grow out of it. If not, like all the “Great Men”, they go on to bring untold suffering to the world, particularly to its children. One hundred years on, we have the weapons to end all war…and everything else with it. Bloody fools. Maybe the Kaiser just needed a hug from his mother. Today is my mother’s birthday. She talked a lot of sense. She was never a great fan of Woolworths. Her children tended to go astray there. It took her ages to round them up. It could have turned out worse.

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At the end of the war, Krupps of Essen sent a bill to the British government for shell fuses and detonators supplied to the British forces. The British had used these up to 1916 to fire upon the Kaiser’s troops. The bill was paid. Business is business.

I see that the Kaiser’s great-great grandson,Georg Friedrich, Prinz von Preussen, has not ruled out taking up the task of leadership, should his country need him.

For God’s sake, keep him out of Woolworths.

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Countdown to War, July 29th 1914-2014

Garden finished July 2014 etc Red Island playground, P French, 015

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.