Centenary remembrance of the First World War

Where’s the sense in this, then?

When you read the following names, you might know where these places are: Beaumont Hamel, St. Pierre Divion, Delville Wood, Bazentin Le Petit, Pozières, High Wood? Anyway, they all lie on the high rolling chalk land in France known to us as the Somme, named after the river which meanders marshily on the hills’ south side.
At Thiepval, high above the tributary river Ancre, is a huge and unpretty structure, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens. It is a memorial to seventy thousand (70,000) dead soldiers whose bodies were never found during the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Inconnu. Known only to God.
So I suppose that it would have been impossible to have created a neat, two minute TV/PR media event by having their bodies flown home from Iraq, to be greeted by a brass band, a draped union flag, a minor Royal and a few proud chests covered with medals. To point up this small absurdity is not an attempt to diminish the personal tragedies of families and friends. But today, political spin makes us voyeurs in a soap opera world, whose boundaries are an over-familiar rectangle.
Mankind’s capacity for profoundly idiotic behaviour seems bottomless, probably because we have no difficulty in discovering moral reasons for doing whatever we choose to do. We find ourselves accepting war with the simple proviso that it shall be successful, that our ability to invent even cleverer weapons will disguise the meaning of our actions from ourselves, permitting us, we hope and expect, to succeed with no casualties – at least for us. ‘Johnny comes marching home again – hurrah, hurrah!’
On the south-west edge of High Wood is a British military cemetery. Someone, in the very early nineteen-twenties, had written a despairing message in the Book of Remembrance there, and it wondered whether the nightingales would ever sing again in High Wood.
Perhaps you know that the Queen’s and South Staffs had first attacked High Wood on the evening of July 14th, 1916. After months of mayhem, the wood was taken and the way forward to Bapaume was open – or so they thought. But of High Wood there were only stumps, mud and a huge mine crater left, no more.
A lifetime later I sat there in the warm evening sunshine, leafing through the book. I could hear not one, but three nightingales singing in High Wood. The mine crater is a pond with ducks.

July ’03  JB