My grandfather served at the Somme and this is his story as researched by the Rathbone Archive which was set up in memory of Independent MP and feminist Eleanor Rathbone who was my great aunt.
“Ernest Vigars Rathbone (known as Bill) was born on 4th June 1892 at 6 Adderley Street Liverpool and baptised on 10th February 1895 at St Cyprian, Edge Hill.
In 1911 Ernest was an Apprentice (Dry Fruit Trade)but at some point he must have moved to South Africa, because in World War I Ernest joined the 2nd South African Infantry on 10th September 1915 at Potchefstroom, Orange Free State as a private and attained the rank of Major. He suffered a gunshot wound to his right arm on 17th July 1916 at Delville Wood, the Somme, France. The wound affected nerves in his arm and the arm was paralysed. An operation was performed in October 1916 to free the ulnar nerve which was found bound by adhesions.”
All I know about him is that he married my grandmother in July 1931 at Paddington Registry Office and my Dad was born in January 1932. Bill then moved back, alone, to South Africa where he resumed his career as a police officer. He was diagnosed with stomach cancer and came back to the UK in 1939 and died in March 1940.
Bill was one of nine children, and like many working class lads of the time his route out of poverty and a hard life seems to have been via emigration to the colonies. Whatever happened the machinations of international capitalism delivered him and thousands like him to the Western Front. From Munich to the Orkneys, from Derry to Danzig working people were sent to kill each other in the name of capitalism and it’s bastard sons, the corrosive and putrid concepts of Nationalism and Patriotism that can produce the sentiment, “my country right or wrong”.
If you want to find out more about events of 100 years ago“The Somme” was a drama-documentary broadcast on Channel Four in 2005 and is available on from their download site. It chronicled the bloodiest battle the British Army has ever been involved in. A staggering 19,000 young British men were killed on the first day alone, in a totally futile attempt to break through German lines and break the impasse of two years of attritional Trench Warfare.
The First World War generation is now gone but it is fitting that there is real interest from film makers about this gruesome conflict which was the precursor to the most violent century in human history. It seems that we become more addicted to war the more “civilised” the human race becomes. 100 million people (this is a crude and conservative UN estimate) were killed by war in the 20th Century and this blood lust shows no sign of abating into the 21st as we see 100,000 Iraqis die at the hands of the Coalition and each other, and the carnage continue from Afghanistan, to Palestine, through swathes of Africa and into places such as Indonesian Occupied Papua where it has emerged British sold weapons are responsible. An MOD Minister told the Observer that “We repeatedly told the Indonesian Government not to use them on civilians”. Satire is alive and in rude health.
Just today 41 souls lost their lives at the hands of suicide bombers and the Syrian civil war shows no signs of abating. Meanwhile the Turkish Government has trained it’s fire on the Kurds. Despite this they are the only ones taking the fight to ISIS on a consistent basis. The whole thing is a mess.
The industrial scale casualties of the Great War demonstrate the absolute contempt that Capitalism has for human life. Capitalism as a system, works on the premise of unfettered competition and survival of the fittest which naturally leads to violence as people seek to protect their interests. Ergo Iraq. Saddam’s vile Fascist regime, whilst it posed no threat to US economic interests, was indulged and Human Right abuses ignored. Hence Rumsfeld pictured with the Butcher Of Baghdad as late as 1981. But as soon as he looked like upsetting the apple cart with his invasion of Kuwait then the full might of economic power was unleashed and 1.5 MILLION Iraqi civilians paid the price between 1991 and the invasion of 2003. The UN Under Secretary, Denis Halliday, called this “a Genocide I can no longer be part of” and resigned his post in 2002.
The price of the Somme was paid with the blood of largely Working Class men aged 15-25. Hundreds of thousands of them. A true lost generation.
The film documented the experiences of a cross section of soldiers but what dominated was the sheer naked terror etched into the letters and diaries which were kept. What was it all for?
DULCE ET DECORUM EST, (1917) by Wilfred Owen.
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
The film brought this carnage and futility to the fore and was superbly put together. The soft thwack of bullets penetrating flesh was understated and all the more harrowing as a result. The blundering and thoughtless incompetence of the top brass was illustrated but it was the personal testimony that made this such a great piece. Un sentimental but above all human.
As a Socialist I believe in internationalism. The only borders are the one that we put up in our hearts in our minds. The EU can only be viewed through the prism of Capitalism, it has evolved away from any notion of protection except in the interests of the rich. There must be a fundamental shift of power away from the ruling classes and the super rich who have massively benefitted from Austerity which is merely what former BBC economics editor Paul Mason calls, “socialism for the rich”. The system is rigged, inequality is at record levels and destitution, rather than just grinding poverty stalks our society right across Europe.
The soap opera in Westminster may be riveting TV but it bears absolutely no relevance to the everyday lives of 99% of the country. The Labour Leadership crisis is a case in point. To those on zero hours contracts, insecure work, facing the results of NHS cuts and millions of others just trying to keep the show on the road the self indulgent antics of MP’s are totally off their radar.
The Labour Party is destroyed beyond repair and it is time to consider the view that Keir Hardie took of the Liberal Party at the turn of the last century. To many it was a bulwark against the hideous excesses of Edwardian Capitalism. But when it continually acted against the interests of the working class the Labour Representation Committee was formed which evolved into the Labour Party. At the time Hardie was told his actions were futile and he would never get anywhere; the Liberals were the only show in town for the Unions despite their flaws.
Socialists and Trade Unionists should take heart from their history and form a steering committee as a matter of priority with a view to creating a new Party which can be true to the aims of Clause Four by taking power away from the political class who have created this mess. Mass movements in Ireland, Greece, Spain and even in Seattle USA, have delivered Socialists to elected office from which they can build. It is of the utmost urgency that the Left acts here to block the possible rise of populist politics based on xenophobia and fear and build internationally with our partners in Europe and across the globe.
It’s a horrible thing that has happened to the Labour Party. Not for their MP’s or other riders of the gravy train but for those activists up and down the country. I feel your pain. I have been there but it is time to show loyalty based on class rather than just Party. The rigmarole around the Leadership is a distraction and combined with the vanity exercise in the Tory ranks allows Austerity to be implemented unchallenged.