Observe the true amnesiacs marching towards the Somme
Observe the true amnesiacs marching towards the Somme

The first 26-County commemoration of the Battle of the Somme was held in Dublin at the weekend, with representatives from all the major political parties in the North in attendance.

Thousands of Irish soldiers employed by the British Army died during the battle, including five thousand of the Ulster Division.

By Tom McGurk (for the Sunday Business Post)

Across Europe this weekend, people are remembering and commemorating the 90th anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme.

By the time it drifted to the end of its utter bloody pointlessness almost five months later in November 1916, more than one million British, Irish, French and German soldiers had been killed. It was later calculated that their average age was 17 years and eight months.

Next time you see a young man of about that age, imagine a million men like him lying dead across the fields of France. Just imagine that. Of course the Somme commemorations are being undertaken in the now familiar rituals - uniforms and flags, spit and polish, the soldiers, the generals, the VIPs, the last post and reveille, the lowering of the colours.

And we are hearing again the familiar words - heroism, courage, sacrifice, ‘‘they died that we might be free’’ stuff. Then today’s soldiers will march off past the VIPs and the statues erected to the generals and the class who created this mayhem in France all those years ago. This time, no body of redoubtable old veterans will march past, because - save for a handful - all are dead.

Given what happened that July morning in 1916, why is it that, somehow, nobody is to blame? It is as though this slaughter was somehow a force of natural disaster, an event like an earthquake or a tsunami. But who or what caused this slaughter of humanity on such an industrial scale?

If you listen carefully to the speeches and the military apologists, apparently nobody caused it. It just sort of happened. Consider the phrases that are never used around these occasions - ‘‘war crime’’, ‘‘indiscriminate slaughter’’, ‘‘mass murder’’, ‘‘war profiteering’’ or even ‘‘crime against humanity’’.

How extraordinary then that the same armies, with the same set of attitudes, keep turning out year after year to enunciate the same platitudes over the same memorials in the same places. It is as though we are frozen in time, our reason still suspended by the sheer magnitude of this criminal act. Even worse, the militarists and propagandists see the whole event as somehow part of the natural order of having armies in the first place. Armies are there to kill people and that is apparently something we are not supposed to get too hot under the collar about.

Sometimes we lose a few, sometimes we lose a million, but generally speaking we try not to lose too many. Apparently this annual drama has a curious plot where there are many, many victims but apparently no villains. Well, maybe the Jerries - but you can’t go around saying that.

As ever, the Irish are apparently the most ungrateful of all. We were recently told that we suffered from ‘‘historical amnesia’’ and forgot the thousands of poor Irish who were cannon-fodder. Now the Republic is doing its bit by following the commemoration of 1916 with the commemoration of the Somme.

Never mind the history, just see the fine equality in death we can conjure up in these politically correct days. Of course it hasn’t occurred to those accusing us of historical amnesia that, far from forgetting the Irish cannon-fodder, we actually bloody well remembered them very well. Sowell that we were determined that we would never again allow our children to go off and kill other people’s children in other people’s countries. That was one of the benefits of declaring a republic and thereby cutting the emotional heart-strings of the recruiting sergeants, and the seductive music hall anthem ‘‘It’s A Long Way to Tipperary.”

In 1939, we went one further step in remembering them and what was done to them by declaring our neutrality as a nation before the world. To commemorate them publicly would mean we were required to participate in the militaristic rituals of our former colonial masters and pretend that we too could see no villains in the plot.

According to Fintan O’Toole in The Irish Times, one measure of our ingratitude was that the Commissioners for Public Works refused for 20 years to allow the epitaph ‘‘Killed in France’’ to be added to the bust of poet and nationalist MP Tom Kettle in St Stephen’s Green. I think the commissioners were absolutely correct.

Perhaps if the organisers of the Kettle memorial had tried ‘‘Among those mass murdered in France’’ the wait would have been shorter. And I suspect Kettle would have approved. O’Toole argues that we cannot forget our war dead because ‘‘they gave us vital warning of the consequences of big-power games, fanatical nationalism and the abuse of human courage’’.

How fascinating that O’Toole, 90 years on from the Somme, can’t bring himself to add imperialism or colonialism to his list. I wonder then could this be another form of this dreadful - and obviously widespread - epidemic of historical amnesia?

I, too, have stood in graveyards across the world and looked down the roll-call on the old war memorials and seen the chiselled lines of Murphys and Kellys and O’Connors, and the Munsters and the Connaughts and the Ulsters and the Leinsters.

‘‘The poor, poor bastards’’ has been my overwhelming emotion; a mixture of sadness at their plight and anger at those who took them and had them killed - and had them running around all over Africa and India killing other subject peoples.

And I fell gratitude too, in a curious way, because by their deaths - their sacrifice, if you like - we in the generations that followed were able to learn the true nature of that old colonial relationship. By their deaths, we were set free of the murderous culture that consumed them.

The national amnesia brigade would do well to remember that there are silent remembering places deep in the Irish psyche that require no flag waving or soldiers marching.

That we are what we are is the ultimate proof that we never forgot them, or the lessons taught by their terrible carnage and exploitation.

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© 2006 Irish Republican News