Listening to the quiet voices of The Somme

Poppy edited 2As a child I was forever fascinated by a random collection of oul ‘things’ in a rarely-approached cupboard at home.

It was the sort of place where unflattering school reports and old medical cards lay alongside broken spectacles and stringless yoyos, the theory being that they might some day be read, repaired or resurrected.

There were a few medals – the full relevance of which I never discovered – but what especially caught my imagination was a bloodstained Nazi armband, taken from a soldier at Dunkirk by a Lurgan man who brought it home as a memento of battle.

Somehow, it ended up in my Dad’s possession.

I think that armband made me realise that war, however noble the cause, is a nasty and bloody thing. And that it came from Dunkirk was a reminder that 1914-1918 was not ‘the war to end all wars’.

While not a great singer, I’ve an interest in the songs of the period and one I chide myself for not having learned in full is called The Hill Street Tommies, which lists some of the Lurgan men who enlisted to fight the Kaiser.

I’m from Lurgan and the piece has a particular resonance for me. They were just ordinary guys, nothing special. Had I been a young man in the town at that time, I imagine I’d probably have enlisted too. But none of this should make war appear to be a glamorous thing. It’s not.

At the start of the war there was a mixture of optimism and naivety: they weren’t expecting the awfulness which awaited them in the mud-splattered, blood-drenched trenches of this newfangled ‘modern’ warfare.

I cannot definitively claim that my family covered itself in glory in the First World War, but I know that many years later there were those who fondly referred to ‘Uncle Sammy from New Zealand’, who had been a WW1 pioneer in what became the RAF.

It’s still a matter of family record that there was none who could make a flour-bag kite fly as high on Duffy’s Hill as himself. Whatever he did, or didn’t, in the war, his knowledge of aerodynamics was without parallel.

And then there were those medals. As clear as day I remember they said ‘1914-1918’, but that’s all I remember. They’re gone now, just as is our family’s collective recollection of the events and lives captured in the bloody fist of those dreadful years.

We don’t value the past until it’s gone, alas.

Yet we are now looking at the conflicts of the last century in a new way. The Somme is important to everyone, regardless of labels. None should forget that Catholics and Protestants alike fought with the utmost bravery in The Great War, in the 36th, the 16th and the 10th.

It is great to see people from both sides of the community taking an interest in the conflict and acknowledging the role of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers, ‘forgotten’ soldiers whose participation was quickly airbrushed from the family record on their return from the Front.

If they even made it back from the Front, that is.

A while ago an avowed Nationalist showed me the ‘Death Penny’ that had been sent after one of his relatives died in the Great War. He said he had never shown it outside the family before.

This willingness to explore the past among those from Nationalist and Republican backgrounds is encouraging and helps us all to appreciate that only by understanding the past we can free ourselves from its shackles.

Yet there’s more to this shared history than the cold-faced, dead-eyed regimental portraits which languish in forgotten family photo albums. There are the letters from the Front.

And then there is the poetry from the Front. Not the fine words of Owen, Graves or Sassoon, but the plain verse of the ordinary man who found himself where no man should ever find himself.

I’m reluctant to use the word ‘celebrate’, but I’d like to pay tribute to those amazing men from both traditions who gave so much for us all in the bloody slaughterhouse that was The Somme.

And not just The Somme. There were other hideous battles that vacuumed up the finest that Ulster – and Leinster, and Connaught and Munster – could muster in those miserable trenches.

Each day, therefore, during the month of July, I’ll be using Twitter to showcase a snippet of verse written by those at the Front, or by relatives back home who were thinking of their loved ones in the forward trenches.

My selection comes from a wonderful little book by Richard Edgar, Lost Words: The Great War Poets of Portadown and Lurgan. Some of the verse is wonderfully crafted, as good as anything those mentioned above could produce; and some is as rough and as raw as a newly-dug trench.

Some of the verses are full of youthful exuberance, the writers’ excitement clear at what for many was a big new adventure; others record the day-to-day boredom of life near the Front.

But many, of course, recount the horrible reality of war: the bloodshed, the mud, the constant cacophony of shellfire that made sleep impossible in these killing fields that became the final resting place for so many of these poets.

Set against the din of conflict, theirs are the quiet voices of the war, poetic echoes of a terrible nightmare that was unfolding far away from home in France and Belgium.

I’ll be using the hashtags #SommeVerse and #WW1_Poetry. While my selection relates to Lurgan and Portadown, there are surely many more, written by soldiers from other towns and villages all over Ireland, North and South.

Please feel free to add examples of Great War poetry written by those from your own areas, using the Twitter hashtags above.

Let us not forget the shared sacrifice of those who gave everything to ensure that we might have a future where we have the freedom to argue and bicker but – hopefully – finally agree a way of living together.

Above all, let us not forget those quiet voices from The Somme.

I’ll finish with one verse from The Hill Street Tommies:

“Success to all, both short and tall,

When in the strife my luck attend them;

With sword and gun, they crush the Hun,

Their cause is just, God will defend them.

Their country’s call, they answered all,

Nor thought of gains or losses.

We hope ‘ere long they will return,

An on their breast Victoria Crosses.”

• Lost Words: The Great War Poets of Portadown and Lurgan, Richard Edgar.

#SommeVerse #WW1_Poetry

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