Utter futility of war underlined by the thousands who vanished in a red mist
FIRST thing I recall about the Somme is the cold. I hadn’t expected it in March. I wondered if the lads who joined the train at Skerries over a 100 years ago might have thought the same; that France and Belgium, being somewhat more exotic, would be warmer. Instead, bitter doesn’t describe the feeling in my dead white hands. I felt as though, if I tripped and fell, my bones might shatter.
The second thing I remember is the silence. Standing at the side of the road by a vast ploughed field near Thiepval, no birds sang. The air, though crisp and bright, hung like a shroud. It dared you to breathe. I felt instantly insignificant. Plunging my hand into the ground on a whim, I plucked a live rifle round from the muck, its unspent contents flowering from one end in a calcified plume.
Looking up, I saw another bullet, then rusted shards of deadly shrapnel as far as the eye could see — the ‘iron harvest’ as its known locally, millions of bullets and fragments of armaments working their way to the surface of these fields every year, as though the silence wasn’t enough of a reminder of the horror that happened here.
The nearby memorial soars like a skeletal cathedral. It was designed by Edwin Lutyens, who also designed the Irish National War Memorial at Islandbridge, where the Wicklow stone survived two IRA bomb attacks with barely a blemish.
Freezing, breathless, I made my way towards the towering thing, noting a delicate pattern on its stone surface. Only when I got close did I realise the pattern was made of names of those never found in the fields — 72,337 of them who vanished in a red mist.
My great grandfather was in the US Army Corps of Engineers for the last part of the First World War. I don’t know what action he saw, but the name Cambrai rings a bell, just 45km from the memorial where I shivered. He survived until the 1970s, but had lifelong health issues with his breathing and his skin. Someone said it was an allergy to the wood dust in the workshop he worked in for many years, but it’s also likely to have been a consequence of his exposure to battlefield chemicals.
Albert never talked about what he saw or what part he played in that final year of fighting in northern France. My father said that being in the Corps of Engineers meant his job was to build bridges, though other engineers had organised the first US Army tank units and developed chemical warfare munitions. The details are vague.
Perhaps it’s not so surprising, in a way, that I feel more of a connection to the young Irish men who fought and died, in particular some of those from the north Dublin town where I live.
Not long before I found myself in cold and silent Thiepval, I’d attended the dedication of a plaque in Milverton, in the hills above Skerries, to two young brothers who had been killed a week apart on the Western Front. As we held a minute of silence on that November day, the trees around us had been busy with the bucolic banality of birdsong.
It was easy to imagine in that moment how two young men, not much more than boys, had craved the adventure of enlisting, their first time away from the farms, let alone overseas; the last thing on their minds being the politics of that decision, politics that would result in an entire century going by before they could actually be remembered with a little plaque.
On the way back to our hotel in Ypres, we stopped at a small military cemetery nestled between a rail line and a perfectly circular pond, the crater from some massive exploded shell. We had all submitted family names to our guide on this battlefield trip to see if any grave of a relative could be found and, as it turned out, there was one right here.
The colleague whose relative it was told us about his granduncle, a catholic who fell in love with a protestant girl. When his father found out, he marched him down to enlist, telling him: ‘You love their women so much, you can join their army.’ Just a week after arriving in France, he was killed and no one from the family had ever looked for the grave.
I watched as the man fell to his knees in front of the neat, white slab and, with tears running down his face.
He produced a small wooden cross on which his children had signed their names ‘with much love’. He planted it in the grass. ‘I’m sorry,’ is what I thought I heard him whisper.
On the way back to the bus, our guide pulled me aside. ‘You know, I checked the grave records for the name Diebold and found two,’ he said. The thought had crossed my mind. My great grandfather had been one of 10 children, and his father had been one of 10 or more, and the name is not a terribly common one, so there was every possibility...
‘One is in an American war cemetery,’ he told me, ‘the other is in a German one.’
In that moment, I was never more aware of the profound futility of it all, that two men on opposite sides of one of the most disgusting wars in history may have been long-lost cousins.
I brought home a small stone from a deathly quiet battlefield and wrote on it: ‘Somme’.
I’ve kept it for two years but on Sunday, the centenary of the armistice, I plan to go to Milverton, where I will place it on a plaque to two young brothers.
And all around us in the trees, birds will sing...
‘Oneis in an American war cemetery,’ he told me, ‘the other in a German one.’ In that moment I was never more aware of the profound futility of it all.