Horrible rotten objects.
Twenty years ago, we were on holiday at a campsite in French Catalonia, a few miles east of Perpignan. Our son was 8 years old, and the site was to become our summer “home from home” for most of his childhood.
The site was well run, family friendly, and in an attractive situation near the beach. However, its major attraction was that it was multinational. We used to leave as soon as the school holidays started and were usually there by the end of June. That meant we shared the site with the French, Germans, Irish, Dutch, Danes and Belgians.
Despite the relaxed nature of the place, there was a kind of routine to the day – especially once folk left the swimming pool around 4pm.
You were liable to be invited to join others for an aperitif between 5 and 6pm. This involved much attempted deployment of language skills, and a bewildering and intoxicating, selection of drinks. We would take whisky, the French pastis or kir, the Germans Schnapps, and so on. They could prove a heady mix after a day in the sun!
In the hour before that, the dads, boys, and a few girls, got into the habit of congregating in a large field at the edge of the site to play football. In later years, the camp site built a more than respectable five a side pitch with Astroturf, but I always thought these games with unlimited numbers on each side, children and dads pitched against each other, on the long grass of the meadow, were somehow perfect.
Sometimes we managed to chat, pidgin-wise, as few of us were fluent; mostly, the international language of football took over. As I drove down through France, I always looked forward to these games and to the friends from around Europe whom we would meet each year.
This particular year, on the second evening of our stay, the game was especially enjoyable. A cooling breeze was sneaking down from the Pyrenees, the grass was not long cut and still gave off that amazing summer smell. The aroma of cooking floated over from the tents and mobile homes, the sky was steely blue, butterflies sought to avoid our trampling feet, there was birdsong in the surrounding trees, and swifts swooping overhead.
Of course, for a dad, there’s nothing quite like playing football with your son, or daughter, and there were many happy faces around me. I took my turn in goal and looked about to take in the scene. It was the kind of game where you really want to win, but the pure joy comes from just being part of it. Dads slid into ill advised tackles, six year olds nutmegged fifteen year olds, ten year old girls played with a determination to better their brothers.
The sounds were of laughter, cheerful and urgent shouting, and in a mix of languages.
I suddenly realised the date – it was July 1st.
Eighty years before, on this day, had been the start of the Battle of the Somme. By this time in the afternoon, over 20,000 lay dead – and they came from England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, from Germany, Canada and many other countries, many of them were no more than ten years older than the children playing here, and the others were Dads or brothers, like the rest of our gang, or had left behind sisters, like our determined female footballers.
The thought was like a splash of cold water on my hot cheeks. It was hard to think of such carnage in such a beautiful setting, but then, before the Great War, the Somme had been simply a river meandering through bucolic countryside for most of its length.
There was a shiver, as if a cloud had passed over the sun, even though the sky was perfectly blue – but then I was alerted to an attack, and had to look sharp to save a goal. When my son said, “Well saved, Dad,” it felt, somehow, extra special.
I looked at our German friends – Berndt and Nico, at Alain and his boys Sylvain and Romain, from near Rouen, at the shy Belgians who had arrived that day, at the Danish family, and the two skilful Dutch boys, and I felt an immense relief that my birthdate meant we were playing football together, enjoying each others’ company, exchanging drinks and half strangling our languages, rather than facing each other across No Man’s Land.
It was the lottery of chronology.
I don’t know if anyone else paused to reflect on the date, and it didn’t seem right to mention it, but I did feel an extra joy in our session later, as we sat around, exhausted, with our aperitifs, and tried to tell our wives how brilliant we had been.
It felt so good to be part of this gathering – where our different nationalities were a cause for interest, an exchange of ideas, some new empathies. I couldn’t help reflect on how lucky I was, how lucky we all were, to live in times of neighbourliness, cooperation, and mutual respect and understanding.
Of course we were different, and had varying attitudes, but, in a sense, at national and individual level, that made for a more interesting and rewarding friendship, a chance, in the relaxation of holiday time, to look behind the stereotypes, to put names to faces, give voices to strangers.
On that July day in Argeles sur Mer, it felt like our diversity was our strength, our countries were our admission to this international gathering, the future saved from the foolishness of aggression and war.
In the cool of the evening, it seemed unthinkable we would ever return to the politics of envy and greed, to be faced with unscrupulous politicians quite prepared to lie openly in pursuit of their ambitions, and to a society where people were abused in the street because they appeared in some way “different”. Looking around my European friends, I took comfort from the fact that, rationally, we had learned from two wars, and we were moving forward as a continent, together and as partners.
I have also been to the Somme.
It is peaceful now, at least in appearance. In many areas, farmers’ barns replace pill boxes and redoubts. There are rebuilt villages, and small towns, with half familiar trading estates on their approaches – all corrugated plastic and high visibility signage. In places, new autoroutes make their unnatural way across the landscape.
But I’ve also stood in the fields around Gommecourt, where, on July 1st 1916, practically the whole strength of the London Rifle Brigade was wiped out before noon – in what they would never know was merely a “diversionary” attack. Two weeks later, my uncle would arrive in France, and be transferred into the Brigade, with large numbers of his Post Office Rifles colleagues – because there were hardly any left from the original battalion.
I have driven the long straight country roads through flat fields, where the dark shadows of the trenches can still be seen through the crops if you know where to look, and where it seems that milestones are replaced by the stark white tablets in row upon row in military cemeteries.
In the evenings, you will hear birdsong – though, in the distance it may be confused with the reversing beeps of a small town refuse lorry. You may breathe in the scent of the cooling air in the sun setting over the earth – though it will never quite overwhelm the smell of fear from thousands of young men – whose grandchildren would never exist to share the desks in your classroom.
And, when your emotions get the better of you, that thumping in your heart, as you well up at the thought of all those life stories lost, will never quite manage to drown out the thunder of the great guns as they hurled youth into oblivion from distant ridges.
At the foot of each concrete telephone pole are small piles of metal – these are the Great War shells, still uncovered in the fields by farmers on a daily basis, and left here for collection. The army comes around each morning to take them away to be detonated.
A young soldier says, in perfect English:
“You think this war ended in 1918 – but it didn’t. It still goes on for us every day – as long as these horrible, rotten objects emerge from under the ground“
And then I think of the Leave Campaign. I think of all those politicians who see proof of national “greatness” in battle, who tell us we were “at our best” in wartime, who sell weaponry and stir conflict in an attempt to gain some kind of international status, who use their limited intellect to encourage abuse of anyone or anything “different”, who scrape for votes in the soulless lives of those whose world they have systematically destroyed in the pursuit of profit.
And I think of how, playing football with families of many nations in that field below the Pyrenees, I was naïve enough to believe my son would be able to spend his life in the exciting potential of a friendly and cooperative Europe, in a state which welcomed the enrichment which is brought by the diversity provided by immigration.
And I think of all those young men who never left these fields, a hundred years ago: and I could weep.
In fact, I often do.