The 99th anniversary of the death of Tom Kettle, stand at the edge of the grain fields at Ginchy today and it is hard to imagine the horrors of 1916. Kettle was shot as his company advanced. His friend Emmet Dalton went to him and took papers from his pocket and gave them to one of Kettle’s men for safekeeping; moments later a shell obliterated both the man and the body of Tom Kettle. It is a bleakly prosaic ending.
Kettle had somehow found inspiration for poetry during those final days, writing:
So here, while the mad guns curse overhead,
And tired men sigh with mud for couch and floor,
Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,
Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,
But for a dream, born in a herdman’s shed,
And for the secret Scripture of the poor.
Kettle’s perception of the reality of what surrounded him seems at variance with the popular perception a century later, a perception distilled in the final lines of the BBC comedy series Blackadder:
Baldrick: I have a plan, sir.
Edmund: Really, Baldrick? A cunning and subtle one?
Baldrick: Yes, sir.
Edmund: As cunning as a fox who’s just been appointed Professor of cunning at Oxford University?
Baldrick: Yes, sir.
Voice: On the signal, company will advance!
Edmund: Well, I’m afraid it’ll have to wait. Whatever it was, I’m sure it was better than my plan to get out of this by pretending to be mad. I mean, who would have noticed another madman round here?
Kettle finds a dignity and purpose in his presence in the trenches, Blackadder presents it all as a tragic and surreal farce, yet the one view does not necessarily exclude the other. Tom Kettle, sat huddled in the mud and excrement of the Western Front, writes of the “mad guns” and the “foolish dead”, Edmund Blackadder’s final question as the company goes over the top and the series ends, is “who would have noticed another madman round here?” Both concur in the belief that there is a necessity that they fulfil their duty, both concur in the assessment that the war is foolishness.
Next year, it will be the centenary of Tom Kettle’s death. The likelihood of there being any widespread agreement in Ireland about how such a centenary should be observed is very slim, perhaps the perception there was individual dignity and mass foolishness provides a very small area of common ground.