I note that looking back on the First World War is a retrospective act everywhere save for Ireland. Here it is the most introspective of activities. However over the next few years it will become the norm as we finally place the significance of the war in its proper context.
Many people are still coming to terms with the fact that in 1916 their forefathers were not manning a sandbagged window in the GPO. As we revise and edit the standard version of history fed to us over the last 90 years, we will realise that for every person that took up arms in Dublin on that Easter Monday morning, there were 200 fighting in Khaki. Yes Irishmen and women were in the thick of it from Ypres to Mesopotamia, Gallipoli to Walvis Bay. It is a fact that many residents of this Island are uncomfortable with and this discomfort will no doubt invite any number of theories and explanations. Yet as we come to understand it we must also confront the fact that there was no conscription in Ireland during the Great War. So if thousands of ‘Nationalists’ went to the front and it wasn’t for ‘King and Country’, what was their motivation?
For me the first clue is in those beautiful lines written by Thomas Kettle in the field before Guillemont on the 6th of September, 1916
“And oh! they’ll give you rhyme
And reason: some will call the thing sublime,
And some decry it in a knowing tone.
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 herdsman’s shed,
And for the secret Scripture of the poor.”
We are finally maturing as a nation, or so we like been told, Ad nauseum. This morning the media is dominated by stories of Israels relentless destruction of Gaza and sectarian atrocities in Iraq. How ironic that almost a century ago the Connaught Rangers with many Leitrim men in the ranks fought and defeated the Turks at Gaza, Jerusalem, Ramallah, Basra & Fallujah, and how sad and depressing it is that a century later these same familiar place names still dominate the news.
The only positivesof the Great War was the extensive body of war poetry it left us, much of it espousing the futility of war, recording the terrible carnage and its effects on the human soul. There are many oft quoted verses by Sassoon and Wilfred Owen et all but I think these few lines by Conrad Aiken capture the madness of going ‘o’er the top’
“It will be like that other charge–
We will climb out and run
Yelling like madmen in the sun
Running stiffly on the scorched dust
Hardly hearing our voices
Running after the man who points with his hand
At a certain shattered tree,
Running through sheets of fire like idiots,
Sometimes falling, sometimes rising”
We await the Poets of Gaza, Donetsk, Aleppo and Bangui.