It was mere coincidence that meant we were winging our way southwards down the A1 between Calais and Paris, a hundred years to the day since the start of the Battle of The Somme. The French toll-roads are fast and we were belting along at 130kmph across a low-lying wet valley, when I noticed the small sign by the roadside, marking "The River Somme". A hundred years may seem like a long time, but it was within the lifetime of two of my four grand-parents. The Somme Valley today is green, and wet, and criss-crossed by streams, canals and drainage ditches. It is not hard to imagine how months of digging, shelling and vast movements of armies could reduce it to the infamous swamps and saturated killing fields of 1916. As I sped across the Somme, it was hard not to imagine the thousands of men who climbed out of their trenches exactly a century before, wave after wave of whom were mown down by relentless machine-gun fire. 21,000 British and 8,000 German troops lay dead by the end of the first day of the battle, as 19th Century military tactics were launched against 20th Century weaponry. Harder to imagine was that Britain allowed up to a quarter of a million under-age soldiers to join the slaughter, the youngest of whom was just 13 years of age, despite the legal age for overseas combat being 19.
In the rear-view mirror of the car, I could not only see The Somme (a river whose name means 'Tranquility') sliding into the distance; but my 16 and 14 year old sons gazing out across the French landscape. I shuddered as the mental image of fresh-faced Tommies hearing the whistles and going over-the-top, merged with the sight of my sons sitting in the back of the car. I am now to old to be of any use to any army other than one lead by the likes of Captain Mainwaring. Lord save us from days in which our youth are called-up to be butchered for Queen and Country.
The Centenary of WWI is being marked in Perth at Balhousie Castle, home of The Black Watch, with the installation of the Weeping Window, a display of individually crafted porcelain poppies. These bright red flowers of Flanders fields, where so many fell, are the symbol of loss, remembrance and respect for those who died. Arranged like this, the poppies are powerful, dramatic and thought-provoking.
The many and the one