Dedicates Life to Ending ‘This Foul Thing Called War’
Writes of the ‘Choosers of the Slain.’
Hundreds Killed in Tunnel Explosion.
Special to The Great War Project
(5-8 September) Tom Kettle was an Irish nationalist and a journalist and poet. He is also a former member of the British Parliament.
A century ago on these days he finds himself an officer in the British army, fighting the Germans at the Somme, in one of the bloodiest battles of the First World War.
Unlike many other prominent Irish nationalists who oppose the war and actually take up the gun for Irish independence, Kettle enlists in the British army when war breaks out.
He writes that he joined “not for England but for small nations.”
“I am calm and happy, but desperately anxious to live,” he writes to his brother on September 4th a century ago. “If I live, I mean to spend the rest of my life working for perpetual peace.
“I have seen war and faced modern artillery and know what an outrage it is against simple men.”
Earlier he writes to his wife, “I want to drive out this foul thing called war.”
But Kettle does not survive. On September 5th he is leading his men, many of them Irish, against the Germans at a village called Ginchy.
“Before the attack,” writes historian Martin Gilbert, “the officers were given pieces of green cloth to be stitched on the back of their uniforms, a symbol of Irish patriotism.”
A soldier who witnesses Kettle’s death writes a letter of condolence to his wife: “He carried his pack for Ireland and Europe. Now pack-carrying is over. He held the line.”
Had he lived, reports Gilbert, “he would have taken up the position of Base Censor, away from the daily dangers of the front line and the assault.”
In his last letter to his brother, Kettle writes: “Somewhere the choosers of the Slain are touching with invisible wands those who are about to die.”
Death can come suddenly and from any direction. As if this war is not terrible enough, at Verdun, still being fought over after many months, more than five-hundred French soldiers are killed, not in an attack but by a thunderous explosion, Gilbert reports, “when the Tavannes railway tunnel being used for the accommodation of troops, blew up.”
This is a disused railway tunnel, reports Swedish historian Peter Englund, “which the troops have been using for a long time as a bunker, cantonment, and ammunition store.”
“This blocked-off tunnel,” Englund reports, “was always packed with people, either soldiers who have become separated from their units or men seeking shelter from the continuous shelling.”
“The disaster,” writes historian Gilbert, “was an accident caused by fire breaking out in an ammunition store.”
One of the few eye-witnesses later described how, after the explosions, “a shattered body flew into me, or rather poured over me. I saw, three meters away, men twisting in the flames without being able to render them any help. Legs, arms, flew in the air amid the explosion of the grenades which went off without cease.”
Adds Gilbert, “those men who managed to reach the exit of the tunnel were caught in a German bombardment, and several killed. Among the dead inside the tunnel was a brigade commander and his staff, and almost the whole of two companies of territorials. [volunteer reserves of the British army.]”
Gilbert writes: “The fire burned for three days. When finally men could enter the tunnel, they found only the dead.”