In these days we mark the centenary of the battle of the Somme. Historians recognise that it took place in 1916 from 1st July until the middle of November that year. The battle was preceded by the shelling of the German trenches for a week, that is why our remembrance takes place today, a week prior to the recognised date of its commencement. It is the battle in which there was no clear outcome, there was no victory and there was no defeat. Virtually no territory was gained and no advantage achieved, like so many of the battles of that war it was inconclusive. But the only thing that was clear was the immense cost in lives on both sides. The original idea was that it would be part of a summer offensive in that year, comprising soldiers of the French army and the British Expeditionary Force. But the objective soon changed with the battle of Verdun in which the French army was almost brought to its knees, the battle of the Somme became an attempt to draw fire away from the French army. On the first day of the battle the British Expeditionary Forces sustained 60,000 casualties of which 20,000 were killed – the worst single day that any British army had endured. By the end of the war French and British losses would rise to over a staggering 1million people killed or injured while the Germans had casualties or losses of 500000. The professional army had given way to the volunteer army of ordinary men – these were farmers who came from the land, people who worked in factories, mostly young men who knew nothing of war or battle, or of such a horrifying and terrifying battle that they had to endure. They were poorly trained and ill equipped. The strategy seemed to be attrition, to wear the other side down by long drawn out engagements. Communication was terrible, runners were killed, telegraph an phone lines soon blown up, in the confusion people didn’t know what they were doing. What ensued was carnage on both sides. In the end little was achieved. Historians tell us that the battle coupled with other battles being fought at that time ensured that the Germany army could not win. The cost of such logic was high and it would shape the logic of wars that would follow, no cost in human life was too great to win the battle and the war, whereas in the past the logic had been different – what king on his way to war with another king will not first sit down and consider whether he can engage with 10000 men the king who is coming against him with 20000. And of if he is unable, he will send a delegation while the other king is still far off, to ask for terms of peace Lk 14: 31-32. This was not be the logic used in these days, everything was thrown into the battle in order to win at all costs, no consideration was given to these young inexperienced and ill equipped and ill trained young men. Victory was the goal at any cost.
War has its own terrible logic. We demonise our enemy. We justify what we do the carnage, the destruction of civilisations built up over centuries. Soldiers become the pawns of generals. War is never glorious, never clean, never chivalrous. It is bloody, terrifying and the price is always high too high.
God’s ways are peace and justice. He wants us to get on with one another. He wants us to set aside differences. He wants us to seek the path of reconciliation. He wants us to love our enemy and not hate our enemy. He wants us to forgive rather than hate or find fault. He wants us to seek paths of accord and harmony. He wants to cast out the demons of selfishness that torment us.
His ways are for peace. The disciple on the road might want to delay following the Lord. But often the message is too urgent even to say goodbye to parents. The works of peace must be done now before it is too late…. Before someone else sows seeds of war and division.
Often the cost of war is soon forgotten – history moves on, the dead and the sick are forgotten. There is something about this battle and that war that we are commemorating that cannot be forgotten. The cost of the lives of those young men has endured as a scar too great to heal over. Even today 100 years we remember them.