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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