Could be mouse tracks, but the ground seems the color of mustard almost, strangely enough. At least it doesn't seem to be snow, or mud for that matter. But something's been scurrying across the surface, don't you think? Looks oddly dimpled too--maybe some golf ball-sized hail went on a rampage. Seems to be tracks though, some kind of rodent leaving trails in the mud or whatever that odd surface is.
But trees in the upper corner? and a road up on the left?--at least it looks like a road, gravel. The whole thing is a map or something, isn't it? No, it's an aerial photo. Somebody flew over this moon-like landscape and shot a picture. I know! It's one of those images people claim clearly document space aliens, right? "They were here, whoever they were, and it can't be denied! We've got the photographs."
I'm guessing most people could stare at this image for a long, long time and still have no clue what on earth is going on. I did and didn't.
It's now an entire century since an archduke was assassinated and Europe's powers-that-be--Germany, Russia, France, and England--got their collective danders up, determined that national honor was at stake and that it was, therefore, jolly well time for their rivals to eat some humble pie, to teach each of their dishonorable enemies moral lessons they would never forget in "the war to end all wars." All of it sounded so noble, so honorable, even righteous.
Here, on this field, lies the evidence for an event--an ordeal--we could only wish was alien. Here, at the river Somme, the Brits lost 60,000 men in one day, most of them in the first hour of battle, when a thoughtfully conceived offensive turned into disaster in just seconds, thousands upon thousands of British troops leaping from trenches, bayonets ready, running madly into machine gun fire from the deeply fortified German defenses, fire that was supposed to be taken out by the shock and awe of a bombardment that had simply failed.
Sixty thousand men in one day of battle, the bloodiest day in British military history. What scars that image is what still exists of trench lines and pockmarks from bombing and artillery laid across an otherwise empty field.
But the Brits weren't alone in suffering. During the war, the Russians lost men at a 76 percent casualty rate, topped only by the much smaller army of Austria-Hungary; only ten percent of its fighting men returned untouched--if anyone could be by "the Great War." It was a war that was absolutely devastating. I lost a great uncle when America entered late in 1918. It's doubtful that anyone there was left untouched, even those who didn't bleed, even those who didn't fight.
Here, on this field and others in about a six-mile swath of French countryside, 1,000,000 men were killed or wounded. Perhaps it's a blessing that, one hundred years after, that level of carnage simply can no longer be imagined.
I hope this year, in schools, a special attempt is made to cover in detail what happened 100 years ago in Europe: the introduction of the tank, the first use of aerial warfare, poison gas, and wholesale disillusionment, loss of faith. Eyewitness accounts exist in quantity and character that almost make you bleed. There is no lack of sources.
Still, this morning, I'm thankful for this particular picture of the Somme battlefield and others like it--what things look like today.
I'm thankful for what it doesn't show; some things we probably need to forget. But I'm also thankful for what that picture documents, because other things, painful things, must always be remembered.