Echoes of War

My mind is still reeling from watching the commemorations to mark one hundred years since the end of The Great War. I don’t believe that it’s possible not to be moved by the pictures and stories that were paraded before us, but while I would have liked to add some small, meaningful observation to the proceedings, I found it impossible to say anything that has not been said countless times before by others.

I was however transfixed by the faces of dead men and women produced by Pages of the Sea, but rather than describe this wonderful site, I would urge you to explore it for yourself. I found the contemplation of the images of these long-dead people to be terribly moving and they stayed with me long I’d turned off my television and laptop screens.

It’s been a long time since I’ve written about such nebulous matters, but the work of our gifted and dedicated modern artists put me in mind of a passage from Tacitus, describing what was at the time the apocalyptic rebellion by Boadicea in Britain:

“While the Britons were preparing to throw off the yoke, the statue of victory, erected at Camulodunum, fell from its base, without any apparent cause, and lay extended on the ground with its face averted, as if the goddess yielded to the enemies of Rome. Women in restless ecstasy rushed among the people, and with frantic screams denounced impending ruin. In the council-chamber of the Romans hideous clamours were heard in a foreign accent; savage howlings filled the theatre, and near the mouth of the Thames the image of a colony in ruins was seen in the transparent water; the sea was purpled with blood, and, at the tide of ebb, the figures of human bodies were traced in the sand. By these appearances the Romans were sunk in despair, while the Britons anticipated a glorious victory…”

I personally believe these reports of terrifying supernatural events, as I’ve studied such things for decades and what Tacitus had to say has the ring of truth to it, as a personal opinion. But it doesn’t matter if I’m right or wrong, because I find it amazing that just under two thousand years ago in Britain, in conjunction with what would be fearful bloodshed, the least of which was the destruction of a Roman legion, “the figures of human bodies were traced in the sand” near the mouth of the Thames.

The likenesses of men and women were created on our beaches in our own time by living men and women, but some invisible hand was responsible for what was seen here in Britain by the Romans all those centuries ago. I seem to remember reading that Holst composed Mars from The Planets before the First World War, something that astonished others at the time who felt that he could only have captured the conflict so memorably in music after the event, so perhaps for Holst and earlier, for the Romans staring in horror at the signs and portents appearing in their midst, they experienced what Thomas Campbell wrote about in his poem Lochiel’s Warning:

“Coming events cast their shadow before.”

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2 Responses to Echoes of War

  1. One set of supernatural events surrounding World War I that are probably not actually supernatural per se are the reports of angels and similar beings over battlefields. Military shells at the time were actually fairly primitive affairs, and used explosives like Picric acid instead of the more familiar nitro-toluene derivatives used now. Of particular interest is how shells were detonated; the only sensitive trigger explosive then available was mercury fulminate. On detonation this produces mercury nitrates, which like all nitrates are very soluble. It is thus fair to say that WW1 battlefields were not just dangerous but toxic as well; mercury compounds are neurotoxic and cause hallucinations.

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    • eternalidol says:

      Somewhere here in my new home, I have a cassette recording that miraculously survived destruction by fire in my last home. My mother made it for me years ago, so as I haven’t played it in a long time, I’m reluctant to try again as I don’t want to destroy. From memory, it dates from the 1990s and it’s a recording of a BBC interview with a Mons veteran, who clearly remembered thinking of suicide as a young man because of the terrible position he found himself in. However, he remembered an angel with a flaming sword appearing next to him and somehow urging him to fight on. What you’ve said about chemicals is undoubtedly true, but the battlefield of Mons didn’t have time to become polluted, as this particular conflict happened so early in the war. Otherwise, it’s a subject that has fascinated me for decades, for reasons that you surely know about, so I’m always interested to hear and learn more about it.

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