Somme-thing to Remember this 4th of July
The moment had finally arrived. After a thunderous five-day artillery barrage, the shrill sound of whistles pierced the early morning silence. Thousands upon thousands of soldiers from across Great Britain, Canada and France poured out of a vast warren of trenches dug deep into the muddy Belgian soil along the Somme River. “Over the top” they went, into “no man’s land”, a barren field of shell craters, razor wire and flying lead.
The date was July 1, 1916.
By day’s end 19,240 of Britain’s best would be dead. Bombs, bullets and gas would maim 38,230 more.
Shockingly those 19,000-plus dead represent only the British killed on the first day of a battle that dragged on for five hellish months. Before it was all over, 131,000 of the 908,371 Brits who died across Europe during the First World War would meet their end at the Somme.
While we celebrate our country’s 240th birthday this weekend the British, Scots, Irish, Welsh, Canadians, Australians, French and Belgians, will commemorate one of the worst days in human history, the beginning of the unequaled slaughter known as “The Battle of the Somme.”
Twenty-one short years later Great Britain would once again send her sons to die on the continent. Suddenly the “Great War” was a prequel.
In 1993, I found myself on the Canadian side of Lake Erie in conversation with a 96-year-old Veteran of World War I. His name is now lost to me but I will never forget when he rolled up his sleeve to show the scars on his shoulder, shrapnel wounds received on the Somme 77-years before.
He’s gone now. They’re all gone. There are no more memories of the First World War, only history.
It would come as a tremendous shock to those who fought at the Somme to know their epic sacrifice is nearly forgotten. It’s hard to conceive losing 19,000 soldiers in a single day but memories have an expiration date.
The Greatest Generation is fading as well. Only a handful of Pearl Harbor veterans remain. When the last is gone he will take with him the experience, leaving us only the facts. Someday -- guaranteed -- there will be no one left from our generation’s day of infamy, September 11th, 2001.
This July 4th, like most, we will enjoy a long weekend, maybe a roller coaster ride or parade and always, fireworks. Independence Day is rightly a celebration but it should also be a day of gratitude, a political Thanksgiving Day.
It’s not realistic to expect 2016’s America to feel the Spirit of ’76. The Revolution was a long, long time ago. Yet, we are still beholden to those bold enough to risk it all on a radical notion; that we are citizens and not subjects.
Abraham Lincoln called the bonds that link the generations the “mystic chords of memory”, the collective experience of a nation that allows the young to build upon the old. While we can teach the “who, what, when, why and how” of history, we can’t teach affection. Affection is learned in the classroom, the Scout meeting, at the dinner table.
Sadly, in far too many cases, the bond between the generations has been broken. Our schools are failing to teach our history, lumping America in with every other country, no better and often worse.
Still, all is not lost.
The tremendous success of the Broadway sensation, “Hamilton: An American Musical,” demonstrates millions of Americans are eager to hear our country’s story. Every night at the Richard Rogers Theater in New York, liberals and conservatives, young and old, all races and religions stand and cheer our Founding Fathers for the gift of freedom they gave us. This is more than a savvy theatrical manipulation. The emotional wallop of “Hamilton” speaks to something deeper; it reaches the DNA of America.
Still, we can’t count on an expensive night in the theater to preserve our independence. If America is to have another 240 years, our story has to live in our homes and in our hearts. Otherwise it will fade to black like the lives of the thousand lost in the muddy hell of the Somme a century ago.
Doug McIntyre’s column appears Sundays. Hear him weekdays 5-10 on AM 790. He can be reached at: Doug@DougMcIntyre.com.