The bag is packed; the tickets checked; the passport found. An advantage of not flying is there is no baggage limit. The books are piled in: Faulks’ Birdsong, Brittain’s Testament of Youth, read only last summer, will be read again. Travelling by sea and road, taking the car outside to the battlegrounds, the three day trip has become five days. Perhaps there will be no more understanding this time.
Back in 2006, an Evening Herald photographer came to the church to take photographs to go with a story they ran about the 90th anniversary commemoration.
The pictures he wanted were of the name “P. Horner” scratched into the back pew of the gallery and the name “Percy Horner” engraved as the first name on our war memorial. The name in wood and the name in brass were probably not many years apart – Percy was just twenty when he disappeared without trace on the very first day on which he would have seen action. Blown to pieces by a shell or submerged into the mud, I don’t suppose it makes much difference, he has no known grave; his name is one of the 77,000 who disappeared and whose names are recorded on the arch at Thiepval. I will once again find his name on Tuesday
One of the things I had hoped through the process of remembrance was to get closer to the men who left what was just a little village to go off to war. Perhaps the problem has been that it simply is not possible to recapture how it felt to be living in Ballybrack as the first stages of the Great War were fought out. What pressures were on them? What stories did they hear? What was it that took them away to Ulster to enlist instead of joining one of the Dublin regiments?
The questions have increased rather than being solved; the Herald reporter thought of angles I had not even considered.
Perhaps confusion is appropriate, perhaps only by having far more questions than answers can we move towards having any sense of the thoughts that went through the minds of the men who lived through those hideous scenes.
In the end, I can never know what went through Percy Horner’s mind; a different age, a different culture, a different world, he and I are so far apart that there is an unbridgeable gulf. Perhaps Frank McGuinness’s Observe the Sons Of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme captures more reality than cold, rational history.
All I can do is to remember; perhaps remembrance is not meaning, but it is better than forgetting.