If Senator Bernie Sanders can’t calm down his avid and angry fans, he could do down in history as the man who elected Donald Trump president. Hillary Clinton may not be the ideal candidate, but as presidential timber, she’s many board feet ahead of the competition. Plagued by her political (and personal) opponents for almost a quarter century, she was routinely exonerated by independent counsel Ken Starr, and was exculpated for misconduct in the Benghazi attack and the deleted emails controversy. Her most recent nemesis, FBI director James Comey, a “former Republican,” was a special counsel to the Senate Whitewater Committee that tried to lynch Clinton in 1996. What a coincidence. He failed again this year to find anything actionable, but didn’t stop short of smearing Clinton anyway. When did “Republican values” become an oxymoron? But then, it is an election year.
For a while today attention in the UK and Ireland shifted from Brexit, economic woes, political maneuvering, and scandal to war – the First World War and specifically the Battle of the Somme. It began at 7:30 on the morning of July 1st, 1916, on the western front along the Somme River at multiple points centering on Thiepval Ridge, where the great cemetery and memorial now stand. The battle lasted over four months with no substantial advantage to either side but at the cost of more lives lost and men wounded than in any war of the western world to date. Over a million soldiers were either killed or wounded.
After the Armistice, here in the Republic of Ireland, where the Rising of 1916 took place in the midst of the war, little attention was paid to the fallen or wounded, for the world had profoundly changed. For decades in many families and communities, their names were not even mentioned. They fought and more than 3500 died in that single battle for King and Country, but neither were now the focus of Irish patriotism. (By the end of the war, it is thought that between 35,000 and 50,000 Irish soldiers were killed or wounded, a significant number in a population of just over three million persons.)
That attitude changed significantly as the centenary of both the First World War and then the Rising approached. Long overdue recognition began to be paid to those who had made the selfless sacrifice of life and limb in a “war to end all wars.”
One notable recent project, My Adopted Soldier, was begun several years ago in Co. Donegal by Gerry Moore, a secondary school history teacher. His students selected an Irish soldier by name and began to research his life as a way of understanding the historical reality of the “Great War.” The idea spread. Eventually it involved a student from every county in Ireland who elected to research their “adopted soldier,” visiting his home, meeting with his living relatives if they could be found, and eventually traveling to the great cemetery of the Somme at Thiepval where 72,000 Allied and German soldiers lay buried. There the students placed a bit of soil from the soldier’s native place on his grave. (See the project web site, www.myadoptedsoldier.com for a comprehensive report.)
Today ceremonies of commemoration were held in Dublin, Cork, Belfast, and throughout the United Kingdom and Europe. Members of the English royal family, the President of Ireland, and other military and civilian dignitaries made speeches and laid wreathes on the monuments. Cannons were fired, rifles barked their salutes, and bugles played. But the most memorable event for me was learning about the life-changing project undertaken by the students of Ireland who in most cases are about the same age as the brave men they so beautifully honored.