Saturday, July 01, 2006

The Lions and Donkeys of The Somme

It's ninety years since the Battle of the Somme began. The mines went off. The whistles blew. And the soldiers walked into a hail of machine gun bullets and mortar shells. It was the worst day in British military history.

And Newfoundland's worst day ever.

In recent years some historians have been revising the conventional view of that battle. And disputing whether it really was the case of Donkey Generals leading British Lions to the slaughter.

Even the son of the Butcher of the Somme has come out to defend him.

It's pretty hard to defend a guy who thought machine guns were "overrated" even as they mowed down his men. But Haig died a hero. Still insisting years after the war that tanks and planes were no substitute for a soldier and his horse.

Some lessons were learned.

But the one I think we've never learned. Apart from the one to stop killing each other. Is the one to stop glorifying war.

The one that Siegfried Sassoon, the gay warrior poet who lived through the hell of the Somme, took aim at with these few lines

"You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye

Who cheer when soldier lads march by

Sneak home and pray you'll never know

The hell where youth and laughter go...."

That's what I take out of the Battle of the Somme. That it was a place where youthful idealism was mown down by the reality of war. Young men were led to the slaughter by old men who didn't know what they were doing. And made the same mistakes over and over again.

While the crowd cheered and the band played on.

It's an old story. And then maybe it's not.

Remember our troops in Afghanistan, and the dead soldiers of Newfoundland.

Happy Canada day everyone!

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