The richness of the private soldier

Jul 6th, 2006 | By | Category: Ireland

The Somme anniversary last Saturday prompted me to start reading Sebastian Barry’s novel A Long, Long Way, which tells of the experience of soldiers of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers on the Western Front in World War One.

As futile as their sacrifice seems now, their lives have a significance in the shaping of the history of our world. Even the humblest is commemorated amongst shining white stones in French cemeteries, on war memorials dotted around these islands, on burnished brass plaques set into church walls that prompt solemn obeisance each November.

The ordinary private soldiers, the countless thousands of them, were men whose lives were lived with purpose, however misguided we believe that purpose to have been.

I thought about them this morning. Driving along the street, a black BMW convertible sports car came up behind me, revving impatiently as if to suggest that no-one should have the effrontery to drive ahead of this young man in his sharp suit and wrap around sun glasses, who obviously thought very highly of himself.

Compared to the soldiers on the Western Front, his seemed a life entirely without significance. All his money would never buy remembrance; all the deals in the world would never bind him to the hearts of a nation as did the simple actions of those soldiers.

Francis Ledwidge, the war poet who died in 1917, recognized that there was something in the lives of those soldiers that would write their names in history. A soldier’s heart was greater than any human fame:

It is too late now to retrieve
a fallen dream, too late to grieve
a name unmade, but not too late
to thank the gods for what is great;
a keen-edged sword, a soldier’s heart,
is greater than a poet’s art.
and greater than a poet’s fame
a little grave that has no name.

I felt sad for the man this morning, if his life was no more than these appearances, then what was in his heart? Was there anything whatsoever that would match the private soldier in the mud and slaughter?

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