I am sitting at my desk on a wet and miserable summer morning, it is July 1, 2016, and exactly one hundred years ago over 50,000 men of the Fourth Army were casualties, nearly 20,000 of them dead, on that first day of the Battle of the Somme which lasted 141 days.
I cannot begin to imagine what it must have been like, the whistle blowing officers, the advancing infantry – many from the same county, town or village – the tanks, the smoke, the machine gun and the cannon fire, a cacophony of terrible and destructive explosions that made so many soldiers known only to God, blown to kingdom come, never to know a grave or resting place of their own.
All over the country last Friday, in high streets, town centres and wherever people gather, a silent, sombre parade of marching men in full First World War military uniforms each handed out a card bearing the name of a dead warrior.
In one crowded railway station the men sang, ‘We’re here because we’re here because we’re here.’
Their strong voices moved me to tears.
I give you ‘Returning, We Hear The Larks’ by Isaac Rosenberg of the King’s Own Royal Regiment, who was killed while on dawn patrol in the final year of that so called ‘war to end wars...’:
Sombre the night is.
And though we have our lives, we know
What sinister threat lurks there.
Dragging these anguished limbs, we only know
This poison-blasted track opens on our camp
On a little safe sleep.
But hark! joy – joy – strange joy.
Lo! heights of night ringing with unseen larks.
Music showering our upturned list’ning faces.
Death could drop from the dark
As easily as song –
But song only dropped,
Like a blind man’s dreams on the sand.
By dangerous tides,
Like a girl’s dark hair for she dreams no ruin lies there,
Or her kisses where a serpent hides.
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