Monday, June 30, 2008

Remembering The Battle Of The Somme

In addition to being Canada Day, July 1st is also the anniversary of the first day of the bloody Battle of the Somme, in World War I.

I've been watching a dvd collection of the 2003 documentary series, World War In Color, so the infamous story is on my mind.

This impressive documentary meticulously colorizes hours of black and white film footage taken during the grinding conflict that so shaped the start of our modern age. The colorized footage tends not to have the "muddy" look that used to belabor this technology; it makes you see the old films from an old world with fresh eyes, and renewed interest. For all its gruesomeness it remains a riveting show: chapter by chapter the documentary chronicles various aspects of the war, with precious interviews of surviving veterans intercut along the way, to humanize history.

That men could emerge from the carnage of The Great War, and the suicidal Battle of the Somme in particular, to go on to start families, study for a career, and choose to remain decent people, is an overwhelming fact to contemplate. I stare at those soft-spoken veterans in awe. Let those who whine and complain about their lot in life today, reflect on what people in the not-so-distant past lived through, and despite their experiences (maybe because of those experiences..?) they still felt compelled to do the Right Thing... they had the courage to try to live Good lives. Given the plain butchery of the Somme, I wonder which act can be proven the more valorous...

Canada, as well as Europe, has reason to remember the horror of that first day of the Battle of the Somme, especially those not yet part of Canada at the time, the troops from Newfoundland:

The Battle of the Somme began early on the morning of July 1, 1916, near the towns of Beaumont and Hamel. Thousands of soldiers from Britain and Newfoundland climbed out of their trenches to walk through a hail of machine gun fire, toward the German line.

In less than half an hour, the fighting was over.

57,470 British soldiers were killed or wounded on what remains the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army. Newfoundlanders suffered especially heavy losses on that day: of the 801 who had gone into battle, only 68 were able to respond at roll call the following morning.

There's more than one Europe, no matter what our maps might tell us. There's the Europe of the unaccountable EU elites, sitting at their remote tables making their daft calculations like modern-day General Haigs and Joffres, discovering only too late that their golden dreams are built of mud and broken bones.

Then there's the Europe that gathers on anniversaries like tomorrow, to honor the memory of the good that died in places like the Somme, so that, through memory, that good may live on:

SCOTTISH war heroes who fought and died at the Somme... will be honoured at a ceremony in France tomorrow.
... The Royal Scots Guards lost 20,000 men with a further 40,000 wounded while attacking heavily fortified German trenches close to the village of Contalmaison.
Despite huge losses, the 16th Battalion – known as [Sir George] McRae's Own – was credited with achieving the deepest penetration of the enemy line anywhere on the battlefront. [Communities Minister Stewart] Maxwell will lay a wreath on behalf of the Scottish nation at the Contalmaison Cairn, the largest memorial of its kind to be built on the Western Front since the 1920s.

Mr Maxwell said: "Their sacrifice in defence of their nation has helped preserve Scotland's way of life and our democracy.

"It is very important that their courage, valour and sacrifice are recognised and never forgotten."

There was so much waste, so much senseless death throughout that awful nightmare that is The Great War, it is terribly easy to conclude that it was all for nothing. After all, there was a Second World War that followed soon enough the "war to end all wars". Today, with barely a handful of WWI veterans left alive, the war seems as remote to us as the Napoleonic campaigns would have been to these veterans when they enlisted. That remoteness makes it tempting to just sweep the whole messy memory under the rug... or into its grave.

Towards the end of one of the episodes of the forementioned colorized documentary series, a veteran looks away from the camera as he admits that he feels his generation's sacrifices have been "condemned to be forgotten", and that when this happens their sacrifices will have truly been for nothing. The expression on his face, of looking at nothing... yet seeing everything... is a haunting one.

That elderly gentleman lived through the shadow of the evil brought upon him, and yet can still look back on much to be grateful for. As we should look back, and be grateful for the good examples that have come before us; especially the remarkable generation that outran the four horsemen when they went "over the top". These gentlemen returned still feeling the human duty to renew their humanity, and choose to be gentle men.

1 comment:

Gerald said...

War is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.