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.

Advertisements

The Black Tulip. Vlanderen/Flanders.

13099018_1680907908839781_1435876805_n

Picture borrowed from Inge.

My school Geography book showed a similar picture…but it was in monochrome. They tell me that everything was in monochrome in those days. Not so. On certain occasions in the junior classes, a new consignment of plasticine arrived, bright strips of márla, not unlike the pattern of the tulip fields, bringing some glimmers of colour to our nineteen-forties classroom. “Do not mix the colours.” An impossible directive. To make anything at all interesting, you have to combine the colours. Márla sticks to márla.  Once combined, the colours cannot be uncombined. For a little while we got that interesting marbling effect but eventually the rainbow gave way to a dull brown. Red+Green =Brown. Blue+Yellow+ Red=Brown. Everything+Everything=Brown. You can’t make Black, Some fool said that in the science of light, all the colours combine to make White. Nonsense. In the márla world, even light is Brown. (See Stephen Foster for Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair.  I rest my case.) For the rest of the year we worked the sullen márla into:- birds’ nests filled with brown eggs, brown ships with brown sails, brown flowers, brown people, cows, sheep, cars and simplest of all, brown snakes. There were magic painting books too, the paper impregnated with chemicals that reacted to water. The theory was that you could paint brilliant pictures by merely brushing water over the page. It was a lie. Everything emerged in bleary tones of Brown. These execrable books are still around, an affront to the eye and a severe disappointment to any budding Rembrandt. It is no exaggeration to say that we were often browned off by the sheer dullness of the nineteen forties.

2006_0410daffs0018

Eamon Kelly, the legendary Seanachaí, told a story of a farmer who was sitting in his kitchen eating his dinner, when his little boy ran in the door, in high excitement, clutching a bunch of flowers in his fist. (He actually said ‘fisht’). “Daddy! Daddy!” cried the little boy. “Look what I found in the field.” The farmer put down his knife and fork and regarded his beloved child with the posy of flowers. —And if he did, didn’t he draw out and give the child the greatest box in the ear the child ever got. “Didn’t I tell you before that there is no worth in flowers?” he bellowed. “You can’t get a grant for flowers.”—

Incidentally, that Geography book gave an account of ‘the increasingly popular tomato.’ The tomato was grey in colour. It could never be produced in Ireland because of our proximity to the North Pole. Spaniards grew them out of doors and clever Dutch people grew them in glasshouses/greenhouses, but in Ireland, I was informed, the glasshouses would collapse under the weight of snow. (Snow!) The tomato is a fruit, yet a close relative of the potato. They both came from South America in the days of the conquistadors, hardy men, very fond of their chips with tomato ketchup, inextricably mixed now into the cuisine of most European cultures.

I had to take a break from reading Catastrophe  by Max Hastings, his masterly account of how the world went blithely to war in 1914. I felt a profound melancholy settling over me in contemplating how quickly humankind can accept, justify and forget the obscenities considered necessary in the conduct of war. It didn’t just happen in monochrome a hundred years ago. It is happening right now in living, bleeding colour, with all the panoply, heraldry and weaponry of modern industrial warfare. Hastings, as a young man, worked as a researcher on the BBC series, The World at War. He interviewed many veterans, old men and women remembering how their world was destroyed by the savagery and stupidity of that ‘war to end all war.’ Empires fell apart and whole populations were uprooted. This is the decade of commemoration. Some talk of celebration. We are surrounded by monochrome pictures of people and battles long ago. Hastings brings it vividly into focus with startling relevance to the events of our own time. I had to put it aside and contemplate more cheerful things.

2006_0410daffs0016

Between the wars some of those clever Dutch people settled in Rush and Skerries, attracted by the light warm soil, or so we were told. They grew flowers! They built glasshouses, despite the danger from snowstorms! Their names, Amerlinck, Ruigrok, DeJong became by-words for hard work and innovation. On our way to and from school we wondered at the large green and red fruit/vegetables in Walter Ruigrok’s glasshouses. Definitely not the increasingly popular tomato. They turned out to be red and green peppers. which in their turn, have become increasingly popular. I gather that they also came from South America.

The Low Countries are synonymous with the cultivation of flowers. The mid-seventeenth century saw an outburst of ‘tulip mania.’ Tulip bulbs became more valuable than gold. You could compare it to the South Sea Bubble or the Dot Com Bubble or, God help us, the Sub-Prime Bubble, with its sub-optimal outcome. Alexandre Dumas wrote about the struggle to develop a black tulip, the Holy Grail of tulip growers. I don’t think it has happened or will happen, just as with márla. The best way to transform the tulip fields of Vlanderen/Flanders into fields of brown and black, is to send millions of young men there, with the best modern weaponry to fight a war, to disrupt the placid courses of the rivers and churn the landscape into liquid mud. It will be expensive but it will make great black and white or sepia, television for generations yet unborn. Perhaps they may learn from it.

Tulips boys in chair 002

In certain lights, this is our black tulip. It may appear to be a deep red but it is black. It is. It is. It’s all in the eye of the beholder. This is an illusion created by colour photography. In a proper photograph it would of course, be black.  I invite you to invest your guilders, kroner, florins or whatever you have, in our tulip, but keep your hands off it as you walk by, or it will mean war. We cultivate them in marl covered with compost, for peat’s sake. I may or may not go back to Max Hastings, some other time when the weather is brighter and the clouds have lifted. I did enjoy the yellow daffodils. I notice that  Fingal Council is now mixing them with red tulips at roundabouts. Watch these spaces for interesting developments.

Incidentally, greenhouses are colourless. They are made of glass to let the light in.

Rural tranquillity, war and litigation.

007_Constable

246772_229087627106428_6476217_n

The connection is in the name. Constable. He spent his life painting by the River Stour. He depicted tranquil rural scenes, scenes that remind us of some lost Eden, real or imagined. In the age of the dark, Satanic mills, he brought his viewers back to a time of simplicity, where a man might pause at a ford to let his horses drink—-a place where he could draw strength from the beauty around him. If there is drama, it is in the sky.  Meteorologists praise the accuracy of his clouds. They claim that they can read the weather and compile an accurate report for the day on which he painted any given landscape. There could be a drop of rain there in the afternoon. I hope he gets the hay in safely. Others blame him for not engaging with the great issues of the day, politics, war, social injustice; the figures are too small, reflecting a lack of interest in his fellow man. Is that relevant? Has he not raised the spirits of many generations by the sheer beauty of his paintings. In our own age of anxiety and stress, is it not good that we can stand by Constable’s river and look at the trees, the mill, the soaring clouds and a man taking a break while his horses refresh themselves?

Skerries people love the image of The Mill Cottage, a trim white-washed building beside the ford. Perhaps your grandparents knew that man. Perhaps he was your grandfather. Perhaps he had a life that consisted of more than pausing, one day for a photographer, on his way back from the mill. Maybe his life was filled with drama and struggle, with wit and music and the laughter of children. Did his horse drink from the stream? It was a time before pesticides and chemical fertilisers. I drank that water despite dire warnings, but from much further upstream. You could lie at the edge on a small, gravelly margin, supporting yourself like a crocodile, your elbows sticking out to either side. There was a chalky, limey taste, with a suggestion of mud and weeds and God knows what else. I didn’t get liver fluke or brucellosis, bovine TB or potato blight. Some unkind souls have noted a touch of foot in mouth disease, but let’s move on.

230767_229038690444655_386367_n247250_228550560493468_7621564_n246715_228550610493463_2634210_n

Had Constable spent a holiday in Skerries, he might have gone for the reverse view, but he could have missed the pond or even the cottage. He would definitely have asked the driver not to pose so stiffly in the the middle of the pond. He would probably have postponed his painting for a century of two, until the trees had a chance to grow to picturesque proportions and the Mill Cottage had been built. [When was it built?]

Scan0011

I like to think that I feature in this photograph. I wasn’t as dilapidated as the cottage had become. Not yet. We weren’t posers or poseurs, as the posers say. We were serious fishermen going about some serious business. There were pinkeens in the shallows and under the limestone slab. I found a shilling in the water once. My brother caught a trout—with a shovel. My sister made mud-pies, on her way home from school. She and Ann Duff, stopped to perfect their art. ‘Oh here’s a really mucky one,’ she cried out in triumph. (She was very good at mud-pies.) An old woman carrying a bundle of sticks, took it as a reflection on her personal hygiene. A constable came to our house. He was a Guard, really, but I needed the pun.  ”There has been a complaint’, he explained to my parents. ‘We got this letter.’ The letter contained inflammatory language and mention of solicitors. It looked as if my sister would do time. There was a tribunal of enquiry. ‘Ah,’ said the Guard, ‘take no notice of her. She’s as daft as a brush.’  He explained, apologetically,  that he had to mention the matter. I would have brought her a canary, if she had gone ‘inside’. Nevertheless, mud-pie production fell off sharply after the incident.

There were three black huts in the field behind the cottage. We called it the Mill Field but it was once The Wireless Field. During World War I the British Navy installed a radio mast and wireless telegraphy equipment to talk to the ships in the Irish Sea. The huts were built of railway sleepers, if I recall correctly, and covered in tar.  I thought that The Blackened Hands built them. I got into trouble for arriving home with tarry hands and tarry clothes, any time I went into the Mill Field. A school friend told me that his father burned the Blackened Hands out of those huts, but strangely, the huts were still there forty years later.

Joey Brannigan lived in the Mill Cottage for many years. He took part in that war, as did a fellow Skerries man, Gunner Welsh. They met at The Front, one driving a mule, laden with ammunition and the other coming back from a forward position. One said to the other: ‘I wouldn’t go up there, if I was you. They’re effin’ killin’ each other up there.’  Nobody ever put it better, although he didn’t say ‘effin’. In this centenary year there will be a tsunami of books, television documentaries, parades and ceremonies. When the captains and the few remaining kings, the learned historians and the military history nerds, have had their say, remember what that Skerries man said: ‘I wouldn’t go up there , if I was you. They’re effin’ killin’ each other up there.’ Happily they both survived.

cherry tree holmpatrick 014

There’s a much better road there now, with a bridge and a car park. We have gained a duck pond, but lost a cottage. The trees are taller. The children are better-dressed and probably, better fed. They don’t drink from the stream or catch pinkeens. What would Constable make of it? (My sister, by the way, is an exemplary citizen…with no criminal record.)