BBC Radio 4:Francis Campbell - 31/07/17


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At ten to four in the morning, one hundred years ago today, the Battle of Passchendaele started just outside the Flemish town of Ypres. It would be one of the deadliest battles of the First World War. Its aim was to claim the ridges to the south and east of the town from the German army.

What started on 31 July 1917 did not finish until 6 November 1917. A victory was eventually claimed but at a terrible price of over half a million casualties. Later today political and religious leaders will be in Ypres to collectively remember the saCRIfice of so many.

To this day controversy still surrounds the decision to go into battle. Histories judge the events of a century ago, but no history can reconstruct them as they actually were – only versions of them.

The pictures, lives, laughs, sadness and hopes of each of the five hundred thousand can be lost amidst our incomprehension of the scale of such a tragedy. We often don’t imagine them in 1912 as younger people fascinated by the inventions around them; the motorcar or the telegraph or the train network, or thinking of their potential and how they would live out their dreams. We can look back now with the certainty of knowing what happened, but no one at the time could have predicted such devastation as they looked forward from their world of 1912. No one could have predicted that many of the wonderful inventions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries would be used with such devastating effect in war. That wasn’t part of their imagination in 1912.

For most of those coming from these islands it is highly likely they would have experienced the war with a shared grammar of faith, an understanding of saCRIfice, the laying down on one’s life for ones friends. That may have given some of them hope and solace despite the evil all around them.

Humanising the fallen asks us to recall that each of them in the midst of war, remembered a ‘before’ and dreamt of an ‘after’. None more so than the war-poet Francis Ledwidge who died on this day a century ago in the opening hours of the battle. He wrote of his first published works in 1915, Songs of the Fields, which remembered the beauty of his before and not the desolation of the fighting fields of his present, ‘My best is not in it. That has to come yet. I feel something great struggling in my soul but it can’t come until I return; if I don’t return it will never come.” He didn’t return. His voice was carried forward by his friends who published what he had planned to be his next volume, one he called, ‘Songs of Peace’. May he - and each of those like him who did not return, now Rest in Peace.

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