Time cannot silence the Voices of the Somme

Lurgan Volunteers with picAt the start of July I posted on Slugger O’Toole to introduce Somme Voices, a month-long series of daily tweets in remembrance of that dreadful World War One battle.

I’m returning to Slugger to bring the Somme Voices project to a close with a final poem. The reason is that I’d like to quote this one in its entirety and Twitter is a less-than-perfect medium for something of considerable length.

It does, however, give me the chance to make a few closing comments and reflections on a war which took a heavy toll on the young men of Ulster, Ireland, Britain and beyond.

At a personal level, I found out a lot more about my family’s own history, including, for example, a Great Great Uncle who was in the Royal Flying Corps, precursor to the RAF.

And one of the poems I tweeted on Somme Voices was written by another Great Great Uncle: I have to concede that The Old Flag was perhaps one of the more jingoistic pieces I proffered…

The Union Jack is waving o’er the battlefields of France,

The Union Jack is floating o’er the sea,

The flag that stands for Free,

The flag that stands for Right,

The flag that stands for Truth and Liberty.

 

It’s the same old Union Jack,

As our fathers fought beneath in days gone by;

It shall lead their sons to victory,

It may lead their sons to death,

But for it a British son is proud to die.

The extracts I quoted were in no special order but covered the entire span of the war, showing all aspects of the conflict; from that early jingoism and optimism that it would all ‘be over by Christmas’; through the strange mixture of boredom and excitement of life near the Front; to the reality of night attacks and watching good friends die as they charged across No Man’s Land.

Even so, many of the writers did their best to make light of their predicament and wrote – or occasionally adapted – verses to keep up their spirits in the worst of circumstances. One I especially like is My Little Wet Home in a Trench:

I’ve a little wet home in a trench,

Which the rainstorms continually drench;

There’s the sky overhead,

Clay or mud for a bed,

And a stone that we use for a bench.

There was often a ‘let’s get at ’em’ attitude, seen in The Enemy:

The enemy are near us,

Our cover it is bad,

If only we could get at them,

We would give them sport bedad.

 

When we get the opportunity,

We’re not afraid to fire,

And if we don’t do damage,

You can make me out a liar.

But the horror of war was never far away, as so poignantly expressed in Attack, clearly adapted from an Alan Seeger poem but still worth reproducing:

A shell surprised our post one day,

And killed my comrade by my side.

My heart felt glad to see the way,

He died and suffered not.

 

I looked about the place he fell,

And found, no bigger than my thumb,

A fragment of a splintered shell,

The hour, the mode, the place.

For those who survived (many of the writers quoted in Somme Voices did not), there was a final coming-to-terms with this so-called war to end wars, as shown in In Memoriam:

Their objective gained, their task is o’er,

As ours is for a time;

Welcome relief has come to us,

We are now in the second line;

But we miss the dear old faces,

As the muster passes by,

But their memory lives for ever,

In our hearts, t’will never die.

Some of the ‘lucky ones’ endured a lifetime of ‘shell-shock’, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as it would be known today. My father, now in his late 70s, can still recall one lost soul who walked the road from Lurgan to Portadown and back every day, muttering to himself, forever trapped in a twilight world of trenches and bombardment.

Even in the height of Summer, he wore three coats…

Anyway, in bringing closure to Somme Voices, I’d like to present a poem in full. Considering our own recent history in Ulster and the fact that some still see WW1 as a ‘them and us’ issue, I feel that Orange and Green, written by an anonymous soldier of the 16th Irish Division, is an appropriate closing note.

Given the repetition of the opening lines in each verse, I suspect that it may have been written as a song. Other than that, it requires no further comment:

Where are the boys from Taylor’s Row?

Where are the boys from the Shankill?

They’ve gone away, they’ve gone away.

Where are the chums we used to know?

Where are the boys from Taylor’s Row?

Where are the boys from the Shankill?

 

Far from the scenes of petty strife,

One in their love of Erin,

To a nobler fight for a loftier height,

Now are united in death for life,

Far from the scenes of petty strife,

One in their love for Erin.

 

And where the guns of Teuton roar,

Over in dark Picardy,

Wounds are made, and healed, latent love revealed,

Reconciled now that we never were before,

Where the guns of Teuton roar,

Over in dark Picardy.

 

Sometimes their spirits droop and sink,

Often their hearts are weary,

Sorrows, travails borne, souls with anguish torn.

Bitter, the cup. Ah, yes but shrink,

Sometimes their spirits droop and sink,

Often their hearts are weary.

 

Some on the altar of love are laid,

Sinless, and white, and holy;

Radiant faces, bright in the ethereal light,

Bearing the palm of the victor made,

Some on the altar of love are laid,

Sinless, and white, and holy.

 

Breaketh the day, through the tearful mist,

Endeth the night of weeping.

Oh, the golden dawn, old things past and gone;

Orange and Green by the saints are kissed,

Breaketh the day, through the tearful mist,

Endeth the night of weeping.

 

Honour and Majesty are thine!

Erin our lovely mother!

Through the vale of tears to the gladsome years,

Glistening bright, doth the Emerald shine.

Honour and Majesty are thine!

Erin our lovely mother!

• I’m indebted to Richard Edgar, who compiled the Lost Words poetry collection, which was both the source and inspiration for the Somme Voices project.

• The original Somme Voices post is here, and all poetry tweeted during July 2016 as part of the project is available at the #SommeVerse Twitter hashtag.

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  • AntrimGael

    It’s such an important story and part of the historical futility of Empire and Colonial wars which is what WWI was. It was essentially the outworkings, arguements and egotistical falling outs of Queen Victoria’s children and nothing about ‘small nations’. The War poets are powerful reading and they lay all this out in graphic detail. Unfortunately in the North of Ireland ‘Remembrance’ of WWI and The Somme has been hijacked by sectarian, bigoted Loyalist and Unionist elements who use it for their own fundamental extremism. Just look at the UDA parade last week in South Belfast. It used the Poppy and ALL the trappings of British ‘Remembrance’ to glorify two terrorist mass murderers. WWI and UDA regalia were on open display and NO ONE from the British Legion, the British MOD, the two main Unionist parties or the British Monarchy EVER comes out and condemns or distances themselves from these grotesque, Loyalist/Unionist displays of naked hatred. Until such time as these groupings do so the Nationalist community in the North will always feel alienated and in no way part of any Remembrance, EVEN if they had relatives who were involved in WWI and WWII.

  • AntrimGael

    Yes totally. I read the memoirs of Harry Patch, the oldest surviving British WWI veteran at the time he published his book about 10 years ago. He detested Remembrance events and said they were ALL about politicians and Military Sirs and Knights putting themselves in the limelight. He stated that on the important days i..e. dates and incidents he lost friends, he just thought about his ‘pals’ and didn’t attend the military bun-fests. His book is a great read and I highly recommend it. Harry drives a horse and cart through ALL this ‘Remembrance’ circus.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    Lest We Forget !

  • Jarl Ulfreksfjordr

    A sobering and poignant reflection.

    Best to ignore the contemptible ramblings of those who latch on to any subject to give an outing to their sectarian Britphobic bile.

  • Thomas Barber

    Regardless of the futility of war and however misguided those young men were who made the ultimate sacrifice in the thousands for a bankers war that made rich people richer and poor people poorer and the creation of tax havens for the elites of our society. But no-one can take away the bravery and unselfish committment made by all those misguided Irishmen who volunteered to fight and die on foreign fields for what they believed was freedom.

    Uneducated young men were seduced by false promises of freedom and others by loyalty to a crown who for centuries has used them as nothing other than cannon fodder to enrich the pockets of the few.

    “War is just a racket. A racket is best described, I believe, as something
    that is not what it seems to the majority of people. Only a small inside
    group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very
    few at the expense of the masses” Smedley Butler.

  • Croiteir

    I go all Rhett Butler over this obsession that unionism has for the Great War. Nothing to do with me guv.

  • AntrimGael

    I see the ‘you’re only condemning the burning of carcinogenic tyres; Irish/Polish/Palestinian flags; Sinn Fein/SDLP posters; Nationalist political effigies; Catholic symbols…..because it’s OUR KULLLLCHURRRRR’ brigade have joined the discussion. In their wee bubble the Earth is STILL flat and the Moon is STILL made of cheese.

  • AntrimGael

    Indeed, and with this most people have NO problem and give it the utmost respect. However when Loyalist paramilitaries and members of the Unionist community use the Poppy to eulogise and worship at the altar of sectarian, terrorist mass murderers as they did last Friday in South Belfast then decent society MUST take a stand and say NO. Until such times as ‘constitutional’ Unionism, the British Legion, British Royalty, the Unionist media etc acknowledge the abuse of Remembrance and the Poppy the Nationalist community will ALWAYS feel unwelcome and ostracised.

  • Jollyraj

    Didn’t bother reading the post before skipping to the comments, I see.

  • Jollyraj

    Does anyone else find the bitter sniping of Irish Republicans on this thread a bit tiresome?

  • Jarl Ulfreksfjordr

    Please, please, please, a plea to the moderators of this site. Can you please frame the above piece of pure sectariana for the record?

    Marrying loyalist bonfires with WW I for the sole purpose of indulging in an exercise of sectarian stereotyping surely demands that it is marked as a classic of its, baleful, kind.

    Of course I would not wish it to be highlighted as the leading comment on this particular thread. Such commentary has already tried to despoil the intent of the lead article.

  • I’m definitely far from Anti-British (grandson of a WWII PoW) and I’m pretty sure there’s a discussion to be had about the appropriateness, motives and methods (even the psychology) of some acts etc of war remembrance. My grandfather had no interest in such events and would, I think, agree with this point.

    However, I’m neither best-placed nor inclined to go any further with that one.

    Picking out a small number of memorials someone finds objectionable and using these to broad-brush/ reject the rest feels like confirmation bias.

    (As an aside: My grandfather also had strong views about the disrespectful way the Union Flag is – at times – physically handled/ used, but that’s a whole different subject).

  • Jollyraj

    Sometimes one thinks that the laconic nature of moderate unionism evolved as a response to the hyperbole, exaggeration and sometimes outright lying of the banshee-style Republican diatribing. It’s enough to simply skim down the comments section of this article – and contrast that with the actual tone and content of the article – for an outsider to see how very difficult it is for unionists (or indeed anyone not steeped in Republican mythology) to reach any sort of compromise with their deeply ingrained contrarianism.

  • Jarl Ulfreksfjordr

    Indeed. I sometimes imagine that such people (I would never besmirch republicanism by associating our local sectarian nationalists with that particular legitimate political philosophy) react to anyone not metaphorically humming the “Broad Black Brimmer” in overblown hysterical knee-jerkery. The sectarianism is thrown in for free.

    You can see it in the reported comments of the Shinner Declan Kearney over on another thread. Much of what he comes out with is so transparently fraudulent that when you realise that he might just actually believe what he is spouting it brings you up short. The only reaction at such a time is to say ‘wow’.

    If it were not for the real-world trauma and pain suffered as a result of the endeavours of militant Irish nationalists you could afford yourself no more than a belly laugh every time they, or their acolytes, produce another example of their hateful mindset.

  • Hugh Davison

    This comment was not intended as a reply to you, Croiteir. Sorry for any misunderstanding.

  • Croiteir

    I don’t know – you tell me

  • Oggins

    Lads,

    Both sides are as guilty as each other. Neither own the moral high ground, but both claim it. Neither speak out by sectarianism from their own sides, but leap to the defence to their own murky culture

  • 05OCT68

    My great Grandfather fought & died in the battle of Loos his brother was wounded in the same action, I’ve been to the Somme twice, my grandfather fought in WW2. All Nationalists, I’m proud of them all. Much has been made of the treatment of Nationalists veterans by Nationalists after the War’s but was it any more disingenuous than Unionism failing to recognize their sacrifice was not for the Northern state that we now inhabit.

  • AntrimGael

    Snigger…..being accused of sectarianism by Unionists is like being called overweight by Billy Bunter. I don’t think being opposed to Unionist bigotry, apartheid, gerrymandering, anarchy, violence etc can be classified as sectarian. Certainly if I had made anti-Protestant remarks I would take it on the chin but I would defend EVERY man, woman and child’s right to profess whatever religion they like OR none at all. Indeed even though born and raised as a Catholic, I would have little time for a lot of the outworkings and iconic elements of ‘my religion’ and would have a lot of sympathy for the Old Testament, dealing directly with God beliefs of the various Protestant faiths.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Nor was the “36th Ulster Division” the man for man transfers from UVF it is so often represented as having been. Tim Bowman’s excellent “Carson’s Army” intelligently describes the complexities of actual recruitment in 1914, where the UVF regiments seldom made up more than a percentage of actual numbers required. The claim to “ownership” of the Great War by Unionists has always required a serious editing out of many actual facts.

    And regarding WWII, slightly more people from the south actually volunteered to fight against Hitler than offered themselves in the north. Of course these figures need to take account of southern neutrality:

    http://www.historyireland.com/20th-century-contemporary-history/the-forgotten-volunteers-of-world-war-ii/

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Britphobic bile has never been exclusively the preserve of nationalists, Jarl. An interesting piece of printed ephemera with Unionist pro-German comments from 1913/4:

    http://catalogue.nli.ie/Record/vtls000507650