Now, there are more than 150,000 names. So many more have been added to the Rolls of Honour throughout the Second World War, Korea, Falkland Islands, Iraq, Afghanistan. As long as there are soldiers to war and scribes to record, the great books will grow in number, filled with “fairly written” names, dates, and places of death.
There were no living veterans of the battle on the Somme River for the anniversary. No soldiers to relive the hell that began in July 1916. No warriors to bemoan the battle fought relentlessly until the mud and rain of November forced a halt.
At the end of it all, the United Kingdom and French Allies had advanced a total of eight miles during the Battle of the Somme. With a million men dead, the bodies might have stretched from Paris to Berlin to London and back again, never mind how they could form in mountains over that hard-won, eight-mile strip of no man’s land.
America entered World War I, finally. One of my grandfathers enlisted on June 3, 1917. He was a farmer from Tolland, Massachusetts. He was sent as a soldier to the trenches of France. He never spoke of his experiences.
He owned a grocery store. I remember him, a big man dressed in white and covered by a blood and fat-smeared apron. His passion was the Maine woods where he hunted and fished with a close band of solemn, silent men.
When my grandfather died, these same men, then bent and frail with age, carried his ashes by canoe and backpack to their hunting lodge. They buried him there by a big rock at the water’s edge, far from the battlefields of his life.
Yet, I wonder what could happen if there were no regrets? What if we all decided not to send young people to war or old people into obscurity?
What if caring for the Living were as natural and as valued a human trait as is our devotion to the dead.