Ian Poulton is in Shyogwe Diocese in Rwanda. This post was written before he left.
Tomorrow morning at 7.30 am it is the 93rd anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme. Three men from our tiny Church of Ireland community in Ballybrack died on that first hideous day of slaughter: Percy Horner and brothers Michael and David Goodwin.
At the time of the 90th anniversary, when the Irish government for the first time held public ceremonies to remember the Fallen of the Great War, there were attempts to understand that tragic episode of European history. The Fallen seemed strangely to have led lives of some significance when compared to the lives of many in the 21st Century.
The following was written, and appeared on this blog, a few days after the commemoration.
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?
Ian Poulton is currently in Rwanda. This post was written before he left.