Ut­ter fu­til­ity of war un­der­lined by the thou­sands who van­ished in a red mist

Irish Independent - - World News - David Diebold

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.

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