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23 June 1916

With poetry and faith in the air I naturally wanted the facts to be as earthbound as possible - as with every episode of TOMMIES. But that was before I encountered the balloon incident of 23 June 1916 in the War Diaries, which writer Nick Warburton made into a poetic question of faith.

 

First, though, the character of Canon Martin Robertson. He was based on Woodbine Willie (real name Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy), the clergyman given to handing out Woodbine cigarettes on his visits to the troops. He experienced a conversion over time to pacifism after the war, but our character was to be challenged this very day.

 

Then there was the question of poetry. I was looking for a way to show that the poetry of the trenches was rarely that which we would associate with “the War Poets”. Their poems are such a naked entry point to the mind-set of these people. Poetry was a publicly-owned, enjoyed and shared way of expressing daily life, however much the form, language and imagery suggests to us today a miss rather than a hit on what the writers were trying to express. They write it; they believe in it; they share it; it's their art-form and I wanted to give it back to them. This is emphatically not the war poetry of Owen, Sassoon, Rosenberg, Gurney etc, geniuses all. Mud and blood poetry is in this place seemed unrepresentative.

 

Hence the celebrity vicar became the celebrity poet as well.

 

23 June 1916 was a day of upheaval along the line as the signals units of the division, brigade and battalions went forward to their battle stations and assessed what they were going to do when they went forward for real. The bombardment leading up to the attack starts tomorrow. So there's plenty to do; most of 34 Divisions signallers are burying cable six foot deep up to - but not beyond - the front line, whereas Mickey has to check a telephone line running up the anchor cable to a vast thirty metre-long sausage-shaped kite balloon currently floating at 700 feet.

 

I'm just going to take a few paragraphs to step outside today's story and discuss other aspects of the Tynesider's world view. We already know that their training has told them that combat is a noble rite of passage and that they must strive to succeed or die in the attempt: there is nothing worse than a live coward at the end of an attack. What we haven't seen before is the underpinning of this idea provided by the Christian teaching of this era.

 

These are men who are told that the British Empire is a civilising influence bringing Christian goodness to a world of child-like savages, all of whom are eventually grateful for bwana's coming.

 

We can gain an insight into the superiority these men feel by comparing it to what we now see as American Exceptionalism. As President Obama said only last October about the volunteers who went to nurse in Ebola-stricken parts of Africa, "a lot of people talk about American exceptionalism. I’m a firm believer in American exceptionalism. You know why I am? It’s because of folks like this. It’s because we don’t run and hide when there’s a problem... We react clearly and firmly, even when others are losing their heads. That’s part of the reason why we’re effective. That’s part of the reason why people look to us...That’s what we should be proud of. That’s who we are."

 

Quite apart from the whiff of Kipling in that quote, the same could have been written about the British Empire soldiers who went and took a country; the administrators who went in shortly afterwards; and neatly, the missionaries who went in to make it spiritually 'right'. Obama really cannot see a flaw in his argument: just watch him deliver one of these speeches on YouTube. I think it is important to do this because otherwise TOMMIES would have been stuck in some quite traditional arguments about the Empire when I think the way they felt about it is really interesting.

 

Even more so when you realise that these men, lionised and sainted by the country for the time being, were right at the bottom of the pile. The trickle-down of wealth from the Empire barely touched them.

 

The wind and rain mount throughout the day. The weather gets so bad they winch the balloon down. No sooner are the crew out of it when God himself seems to start a thunderstorm (and it was big enough to make the Corps war diary so it wasn't a minor summer shower). This is all 3 Corps and 45 Bde RFA war diary stuff, right down to the time it blew away.

 

Nick certainly grabbed the opportunity and this is a wonderful play.

First, this imaginative take on a famous aspect to the run up to the Somme:

One of Hilary Easter-Jones' films, naturally.