Welcome to Letters From Quotidia, episode 134 – a special podcast by Quentin Bega to commemorate the end of World War One in 1918. Quotidia remains, of course, that space, that place, where ordinary people lead ordinary lives. But where, from time to time, they encounter the extraordinary.
Armistice Day marks the end of World War One, where, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, all hostilities were to cease. It would be nice to think that at this precise time all guns stopped firing, all conflict ceased across the war-torn globe and that not another person was killed. A fine and noble thought but truth is: the artillery kept pounding the hapless men on either side until night had fallen over large swathes of the battleground. In Kenya, two weeks passed before the German and British officers got together to stitch up a ceasefire.
Really! Was the telegraph down all that time and were radios inoperable owing to sunspot activity? Did these outages, perhaps, mean that the news was transmitted, instead, by messengers strolling from London and Berlin to Nairobi taking the scenic route? Armistice Day remains a public holiday of note in France. In Commonwealth countries it became Remembrance Day after World War Two and in America it became Veterans’ Day. Anzac Day on 25th April has become the major date of commemoration in Australia. But this day, whatever it is called, is worth remembering.
The reason? From an Australian population of fewer than five million, 416,809 men enlisted, of whom 62,000 were killed and 156,000 wounded, gassed, or taken prisoner. What may surprise some of the listeners to this podcast, given the history of Ireland, is that 210,000 Irishmen fought in the First World War, in several theatres and either 30,000, or, if one includes those who died serving in armies other than Britain’s, 49,400 men died. And this from a population of four and a quarter million! So, the proportions from both countries are about equal. Many, if not most Australians, have a personal connection to the Great War, as well as other conflicts up to and including the Afghanistan War, through personal involvement or through the involvement of their relatives and forebears.
In my own case, just over four years ago, on September 18th 2017, I watched, over an internet link sent by my nephew, a Mass in Genarriffe, Co Antrim, to mark the centenary of the death of my great-uncle Private John Joseph Mitchell (of the 22nd battalion, A.I.F.) who embarked from Port Melbourne, Victoria, on board the troopship Ayrshire. Now, I didn’t even know my great-uncle existed until my nephew wrote to me about his life and death ten or twelve years ago. Since then, whenever we visit Canberra, we place a poppy next to his name in the Roll of Honour.
He died at the Battle of Passchendaele, where half a million casualties fell in one hundred days for only five miles or eight kilometres of territory. That means fifty men were killed for each step of ground gained. Can you imagine walking for almost two hours and witnessing fifty men fall around you at each step? It’s horror is beyond my imagining- thank God. A link to my song about him can be found here: (I Wasn’t With The Diggers) Marching Home From That War – Quentin Bega’s Blog Listen now to my version of Eric Bogle’s great song, No Man’s Land also known as The Green Fields of France or Willie McBride. [insert song]
‘Passchendaele’ was not only an episode in the history of the First World War; it became a concept, an international symbol of the great futility of the violence of war in its most horrific form. Here’s another Irish connection that shows the complexity of the Irish involvement in the First World War. Nationalist poet, Francis Ledwidge, was a Lance Corporal in the 10th (Irish) Division of the Inniskilling Fusiliers. He was killed in action in July 1917 on the first day of the Battle of Passchendaele while repairing a road in West Flanders, Belgium. He had joined the Inniskilling Fusiliers in October 1914, believing he was furthering the cause of Irish Independence.
He said that because Britain, and I quote, “stood between Ireland and an enemy common to our civilisation and I would not have her say she defended us while we did nothing at home but pass resolutions”. He is buried near where he fell at Artillery Wood cemetery and, close by, a memorial to him was erected and inscribed with lines from a verse of his poem ‘Lament for Thomas MacDonagh’ his fellow poet and friend who was one of the executed leaders of the Easter Rising: He shall not hear the bittern cry/ in the wild sky where he is lain.
I’ll read the concluding lines to Ledwidge’s poem, Soliloquy: And now I’m drinking wine in France/The Helpless child of circumstance/Tomorrow will be loud with war/How will I be accounted for?//It is too late now to retrieve/A fallen dream, too late to grieve/A name unmade, but not too late/To thank the gods for what is great;/A keen-eyed sword, a soldier’s heart/Is greater than a poet’s art/And greater than a poet’s fame…/A little grave that has no name.
Now to the other side of the religious divide in Ireland. I refer to a short poem which was written in 1918, by William Butler Yeats, to commemorate the death of Major Robert Gregory, son of Yeats’ patron, Lady Augusta Gregory. Robert Gregory was a multi-talented Renaissance man, a scion of titled Anglo-Irish gentry, athlete, aviator, scholar, and artist who, even though over the age for compulsory military service, enlisted in World War I. He did so, like so many other men, especially in the early months of the war, because they thought that it was a magnificent avenue for adventure.
In An Irish Airman Foresees His Death, Yeats presents his airman as being motivated neither by love of country nor hatred of the enemy but rather, “A lonely impulse of delight/ Drove to this tumult in the clouds; Yeats posits the aviator as weighing up the past and the future, seeing little of value in either, concluding: In balance with this life, this death. In an era long saturated with anti-war sentiment and rhetoric, such gung ho feelings and responses towards war seem alien, and, indeed, I’ll wager that the majority of soldiers fighting on either side felt terror or disgust or repulsion or any range of negative emotions when faced with the realities of trench warfare towards the end of the conflict.
But there is ample evidence in diaries, journals and letters that many young men felt that pleasant anticipatory surge of adrenaline when faced with the prospect of battle, particularly in the newly-fangled arena of aerial combat where some semblance of chivalry still remained in a war where the concept had been butchered wholesale. The concluding song about that first global conflict is also by Eric Bogle, a Scottish-born migrant to Australia, whose songs our group Banter has covered over the decades. The song: And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda, written in 1971 when anti-Vietnam protests were at a peak. The song took some time to spread among the folk crowd and I first heard it in the mid-1970s when I attended a folk session at a Hawkesbury River farmhouse near Windsor, New South Wales.[insert song]
Tomorrow, Friday 12, November, will see the publication of my regular Letters From Quotidia podcast. The first song featured is one I wrote in the 1970s about a sinister sort of relationship between someone on an aircraft carrying bombs and a young woman far below. The second is a song written by Robert Hunter in 1989 for The Grateful Dead– Standing on the Moon. I end this podcast with the traditional ode for fallen by Laurence Binyon.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old/Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn/.At the going down of the sun and in the morning/We will remember them/.
Credits: All written text, song lyrics andmusic (including background music) written and composed by Quentin Bega unless otherwise specified in the credits section after individual posts. Illustrative excerpts from other texts identified clearly within each podcast. I donate to and use Wikipedia frequently as one of the saner sources of information on the web.
Technical Stuff: Microphone- Shure SM58; (for the podcast spoken content) Audio Technica AT 2020 front-facing with pop filter); Apogee 76K also used for songs and spoken text
For recording and mixing down: 64-bit N-Track Studio 9 Extended used; Rubix 22 also used for mixing of microphone(s) and instruments
Music accompaniment and composition software: Band-in-a-Box and RealBand 2021