(Editor's Note: This was written by my late father on the occasion of visiting my great-grandfather's resting place in the village where he was killed in WWI during the battle of the Somme. On the eve of Veteran's Day, which was known originally as Armistice Day and marked the end of the War to End all Wars, it seems fitting to share this little remembrance of the day we walked the ground and visited the monument to a place where a half million soldiers were killed, including one LCPL Terence P. Moran)
The road to the Somme was trim and green in the April air. I sat in the back, a place I rarely visit, and having had no real breakfast, chewed on Rory and Terry, who was driving, The incessant chatter and airy disregard of place and direction made me curmudgeonly. Still, nothing could actually sour the freshness of the morning and after one or two more “Right! Here, turn right for crissakes ”. Terry, in a fine state of total contentment, sailed on unperturbed and I decided to leave it be and trust to blind faith. After which, strangely enough, there were no more lapses of attention.
We skirted to the north of Amiens and stopped at Albert, not sure where we were exactly in relation to the battlefield but somehow knowing we were very close. The church, the town square, the very ambience of the place had a timeless quality completely at odds with the fact that 84 years ago everything in view was raised to the ground and even that was reduced to a porridge of muddy craters. We had a cheesy toasty thing – certainly not what you would call breakfast – and some good coffee and pushed on, heading for Thiepval.
The Memorial is huge. It towers over the trees and dominates the landscape. The landscape is serene and laid open to view. One can see across the downward sloping
Hills, across the entire battlefield in fact from a vantage point by the Ulster regiments’ memorial which stands at the top of the ridge. There the enemy machine gunners were dug-in along a line, maybe 70 feet apart and paralleling the railway line. Although the gunners were unable to see the railroad track away below them what with the ground mist and the dark on that November morning it hardly mattered as all the guns had been sighted-in so thoroughly that ‘not a single blade of grass could escape the murderous fire’. It all looked very placid and bucolic now, but on Friday morning, the 13th November 1916 , it must have been a scene from hell. A featureless expanse of tree stumps, barbed wire and shell holes; and because of the incessant rains, the entire area a gluey quagmire of mud and lifeless body parts
No place certainly for a living being and no way out alive for my Grandfather.
A man finding himself here on that early day would be terror-stricken with the sure and certain knowledge that death was just a few quick breaths away.
We walked along the bottom by the railway track, tracing the line of advance towards the little station of Buvaise-Hamel, which had been the objective on that day, just a few hundred yards ahead. We saw again the trench that had been furrowed out between the railway line and the wee river and knew we were looking at the killing ground where our Grandfather had given his life to a promise that was never kept.
With all of the trenches ladderbacking the hills and the close proximity of the thousands of desperate men who had been facing one another, what struck me most was that the scale of things was so much smaller than one would have supposed. The ‘kill area’ was actually a long gully with the little river running through the length of it and the railway line to Buvaise-Hamel snuggled in beside the river. The land sloped down on both sides forming the vee of the gully and from their entrenched positions on the slopes the enemy could pour a wall of enfilade fire with little or no risk. We stared, silent, at the ruined little red-bricked box of a station. It looked utterly inconsequential and very, very sad.
Just a couple of hundred yards back from the station we came to the small walled-in cemetery where all 900 who fell that day lie together with others killed earlier and still others who were to be killed the following day. In all 2478 headstones stand inside the enclosure.
We walked the rows of white markers so neat so well kept; knowing already that his body had not been identified except by the uniform and was ‘known only to God’. In many cases it was the same, sometimes the name of the regiment was given, sometimes not. At times not even that much could be identified from the shredded cloth.
Out of all those markers there was one, just one, which said: Lance Corporal, 10th Battalion, Royal Dublin Fusiliers -Friday 13th November 1916 ……. and so we took that to our own.
Back at the Memorial we read his name in the book and found it again on the wall of remembrance –Block 16C. Rore took the photo, while Ter clung to the wall with me holding him and we got a tracing:-“Terence P. Moran “
Yes…and that was it.
Terence Fergus -- April ‘03
(Postscript: the visit was made on the occasion of my and Dad's leaving Iraq on leave - me on mobilization and he on a tour as a project manager to make operational again the Port of Umm Qasr; another great story.)
As Veteran's Day is approaching I'd like to share one particular story about my favorite servicemember, a Marine who happens to also be my son. This was written in May 2014 on the occasion of his becoming a Marine, and given his EGA - the Eagle Globe & Anchor emblem of the U.S. Marine Corps. the memory is as vivid today as it was then...
Last Thursday morning, I was at Camp Pendleton. As a member of the military I was granted the special privilege of witnessing my son achieve something truly remarkable; earn the title of United States Marine.
Over the final hilltop, in a long ridge line of undulating peaks and valleys - known as The Grim Reaper - 150 young men of Alpha Company from The Recruit Training Battalion crested the final height at precisely 0600. They had been up since 0330 to begin the 9 mile hike, with full battle gear, helmet and rifle, to complete the final part of the Crucible; three days and two nights of constant exercises and training that is the culmination of Marine Basic Training.
Recruits perform team-building exercises reinforcing the warrior ethos. Teamwork is stressed, as the majority of tasks are impossible without it; each group must succeed or fail as a whole, requiring them to aid their fellow recruit(s) if they struggle in the accomplishment of the given mission. Recruits are lucky to get a total of 4 hours sleep a night, and are given just 2 meals-ready-to-eat (MREs) to ration out over the three days. In this particular week, Alpha Co. experienced temperatures reaching 100 degrees over most of the daylight hours. Even for a fit 18 year old, it’s easy for him to sweat out all the electrolytes in his body if he doesn't stay hydrated; it’s a supreme physical, mental and moral challenge that few ever attempt, and it furnishes the a rock-bottom sense of the capacity to endure and overcome the challenges a Marine will face in serving his country.
At the end of those three days awaits the final assault of the Grim Reaper; at the last summit, waiting for each recruit is the prize: a piece of metal the size of a silver dollar, that is the emblem of their new profession; the eagle, globe and anchor, or EGA. When each recruit receives it, they have entered the brotherhood that demanded total focus, commitment, and dedication to achieve over 12 weeks of basic training; each man has become and is henceforward always known as a Marine.
There were no bedraggled bodies or bowed heads on this morning. As they appeared upon that summit in three columns of silently intent young men, each platoon stopped at their assigned spot, stowed their gear at the edge of the clearing behind their ranks, and lined up in exact order; in complete, electric silence. The senior Drill Instructor presented the company to the battalion commander, who had been chatting with me a few minutes before, and the ceremony began. It was simple, and it was brief. At one point the Sr. Drill Instructor had the company fall out and form a semicircle around him. Without a word, the ranks melded into a closely formed body of young men kneeling and looking up expectedly at the man whose word had been the law governing every action for three months. Even now, in their exhaustion and triumph, every face registered total focus and discipline. One of those faces was my son.
I had seen him in the second row of Platoon 1013; had he seen me? I wasn’t sure. He looked well. There was no lack of focus on that lean face, belonging to an incredibly unique and gifted person that was also an interchangeable member of a fighting unit.
The Sr. DI told them they had completed their training, and told them “Well Done” He asked them if they were ready to become Marines. “Yes sir” came the reply, with no false enthusiasm or any hint of tiredness; it was steady and even and true.
“Very carefully, return to your ranks”, he said. Even now he and all of his staff were looking after the recruits; knowing that these young men were at their physical limit. Without a word the semicircle dissolved back into exact ordered ranks. The staff DI’s stepped forward, and began to go down the first row of each platoon, placing the prized emblem in each Marine’s hand, shaking a hand, gripping a shoulder, saying a few well chosen words that were meant for that man alone, and conveying the authentic respect that can only be earned.
The young captain from battalion headquarters that had assigned himself to my care now said, 'Ok sir, now let’s go see your son get his EGA'. We stepped toward the platoon in silence, as though in a cathedral. He was the fourth man in the second row. His DI, SGT Smith, shook his hand. I didn’t catch what was said, but whatever it was made it even tougher for him to maintain his composure. His hand came out, and the EGA was put in it. Job’s done, I thought; everything is now changed.
The young captain again: ‘Go tell your son how proud you are of him'.
I stepped forward, between the ranks, stopped and turned in front of him. I will never forget looking at my son’s face and feeling the complete and mutual joy, pride, and love that passed between us. My son had fully realized his potential, and broken wide open his expectations of himself and of the world around him, and I had been given the privilege of witnessing the ultimate moment.
I shook his hand - the one with the EGA clasped within it - and did what the young captain had suggested. “Thank you sir”, came the correct reply. This was not a time for scooping my boy up in my arms, as much as I wanted to. I was not about to disturb what was happening around or within us. I told him I would see him again soon, and congratulated him, and then moved on. I was content, and my son understood.
Later my son moved off with his platoon to receive a briefing, and soon after take up his pack and hike out another three miles to the Chow Hall before breaking his fast… what a sense of humor the Marines have. I wasn’t about to disturb the proceedings, so I took my leave with a last look over my shoulder to see that young Marine standing with his new brothers. Later that week he formally graduated from basic training, but the day he got his EGA will live in my memory forever.
Wooden Boats for Veterans (EIN 46-4194065) a nonprofit private foundation, was founded by combat veterans and sailors dedicated to enriching veterans’ lives. We have served and we have a passion for restoring and sailing boats.
Our long-term strategy to deliver a prolonged impact to veterans includes building community in the Bay and Delta regions through wooden boat restoration projects and sail training, ultimately leading to a capstone voyage to Hawaii.
To find out how you can be involved, visit us at www.vetsboats.org or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/vetsboats.org/