Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Remembered, not Forgotten.............

In this, the centenary year of The Battle of the Somme in Northern France, I travelled with extended family to lay a plaque at the Thiepval Memorial in honour of our great-uncle Peter Whelan, who died in September 1916 halfway through that bloodiest of battles.

Billions of words have been written about The Somme and its name has become synonymous with pain and suffering. I’ve read a few thousand of those words, I’ve seen the pictures, watched the documentaries – but nothing prepared me for the emotion I felt as I walked the ground where my twenty two year old ancestor died an awful, unnecessary death.

The area where The Battle took place over 141 days is incredibly flat, of course it was pummeled into submission. Trees have been re-introduced since the Second World War and the land looks good, there are large fields of corn, kale and cabbage; other fields are fallow and lie neatly tilled. The earth is reddish brown and crumbly – good soil; perhaps fertilised by the blood and bones of the over one million men who gave their lives for us – or so they believed. Were they misled? Who can say they were wrong? The reasons for the first World War are complex, I have difficulty remembering them all, and I wonder how many of those under-educated boys could comprehend how they ended up in churned up fields in France, up to their oxters in mud, driven mad by lice and rats; all five senses being constantly battered by the horrific carnage all round them.

The ceremony at Thiepval was extraordinarily moving. I tried to do my best in reading aloud a Tom Kettle poem but my emotions nearly got the better of me. My cousins had a similar problem when they read out a short piece about Peter Whelan in both English and Irish and to wrap up another cousin read a Francis Ledwidge poem.  After a two minutes silence we all trooped up the steps of the monument to lay a ceramic plaque (made by an incredibly talented cousin) inscribed  as follows


After trying and failing to find someplace in very rural France to purchase a cup of coffee we decided instead to visit as many of the sites as we could in our limited time. We visited the South African Memorial in Delville Wood where over ten thousand men died. Only one tree remained intact at the end of the battle. The area has been re wooded and oak, sycamore, ash and birch provide a lofty peaceful canopy over the shallow trenches where men once crawled to get back to bigger trenches named after streets at home. I thought Delville Wood a very peaceful place - until an Englishman (old soldier by his garb) found a WWI hand grenade at the side of the road. He explained that there are still grenades, shrapnel and bits of human bone working their way up through the soil. As the farmer tills his field he places anything he finds on the side of the road and the police pick them up.

Last stop before gin o'clock was to see the Lochnagar Crater, the largest man-made mine crater in WWI on the Western Front. It looks like a small meteorite fell. Bits of bones that still surface from time to time are sent for DNA testing in an effort to identify what nationality the owner of said bone might have been. Then it is buried with its countrymen.

Aerial photograph of Lochnagar Crater taken in the 1980s.

We drove to our hotel in Amiens a tad subdued. We were emotionally drained and, given that the mean age of the party was about 55, various body parts were complaining (statistician cousin can correct me on this!). However - fortified by alcohol and showers we ventured out into the mildness of a French September evening to eat good food, drink GREAT wine, laugh, talk and reminisce. It was lovely. I felt like a child on Carne Beach in Wexford again, where the families would try to get together every August. Salad Days.

Sunday was given over to sight seeing around Amiens. The Gothic Cathedral is well worth a visit. Amiens suffered badly during both World Wars, being occupied several times by both sides but it has been rebuilt into a pleasant wide boulevarded city; it has a very relaxed atmosphere and we had a very pleasant day there, we all particularly enjoyed a boat ride on a man made canal in the city's central park. We ate outdoors in a little restaurant and it was delicious, particularly the cafe gourmand - although I was reliably informed the the creme brulee was to die for.

Then we flew home. I haven't seen much of my cousins in the last thirty years, but I think we felt comfortable around each other. I suppose the things that made you happy as a child can do so again as an adult; we always had great fun when we were together as kids and the time apart seemed to count for little, we just picked up where we left off.

I hope it won't be another thirty years before I see the Walshie cousins again.

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