Wednesday, 12 December 2012

A time to leave the ploughshares

I've just enjoyed a lovely weekend in the beautiful town of Ypres in Belgium. I wanted to go back there so that Liz and our girls could experience the Last Post ceremony, so faithfully persisted in every night since 1929 (except for the  hiatus of the second world war). It was a privilege to be there especially with a group of German schoolchildren laying a wreath at the Menin gate where the names of 55000 British and Commonwealth troops are recorded.

I've had an interest in the Great War (aka the First World War) since school days, and my interest only grows with each new book I read or each visit I make to Ypres (500,000 British troops alone lost their lives in the Ypres salient).

Aged 100 years
I've just read A time to leave the ploughshares:a gunner remembers 1917-1918. It is a story recalled by William Carr. He had been a farmer in Scotland, but at the age of 32 years enlisted for active service,  whereupon he was seconded to the Royal Field Artillery. It wasn't until he was 90 years old that he returned to the scene of his service, and subsequently was encouraged to record the recollection of his wartime experience. The extraordinary detail of his memories is contained within the book. It is not a detailed account of the great battles nor of the various forces of nationalism at play during those times. Rather it is a story simply told. Of the loss of colleagues, of the stench of death and decay, and touchingly towards the end of the book, the account of his command of his battery during the offensive of 1918. He knew he had a large group of retreating German soldiers within the range of his guns which he accurately deployed to devastating effect,
'I could see the road black with retreating men. I could scarcely believe my eyes. It was like a crowd leaving a football match. "Prepare for salvo and five rounds of gun-fire," I ordered.
I had to wait a few minutes for them to reach the target area. The first men, moving rapidly, were nearly there, probably thinking themselves lucky to escape.
"Fire!"
I shuddered and felt jubilant. What happened next is a recurring nightmare. I hear the salvo on its way. Judged by the report of the guns it is almost perfect. The range is six thousand yards, shells are 103, the most efficient at this range. 
What is happening? Grey clad figures are falling in all directions disappearing in a cloud of smoke. I feel dazed, close my eyes and remember I am a soldier. There has been a pause. I pull myself together and order:
"Repeat!"
The smoke and dust have cleared. Men are lying all over the road-others have bolted into trenches alongside. Now two jump out of a trench and lift up a wounded man. I hear the roar of the second salvo-would to God I could stop it. The wounded man is raised up. I can see clearly-a stretcher is brought. They are in the centre of the target....please God stop the salvo....but no - a direct hit.....the wounded man and the rescue party are no more. I Weep .'
As the guns blaze in Syria, Israel and Gaza, it's salutatory to reminded of the personal effects of the power of such weaponry. perhaps the fact the Gunner Carr to actually see the effect of his weapons explains his telling comment of weeping.

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