The Battle of the Somme: Thoughts from Inside a P.E.T. Scanner

Yesterday, at 5.00 a.m., I drove to Oxford to have another P.E.T. scan*. Usually, I spend my time fighting claustrophobia and trying to pray. Yesterday was slightly different. I had a box placed on my tummy to measure my respiration rate. It knocked against the inside of of the tube in time with my irregular breathing and induced a new panic: was I going to pass out there and then? I also discovered that the minor aches and pains attendant on my deteriorating condition made holding my arms above my head painful. I was just on the point of having to say, ‘I can’t hold this position any longer’ when the scan came to an end. It was then, and only then, that I thought of what I had intended to make the substance of my prayer: the Battle of the Somme and our need to learn the lessons of the Great War, not repeat them.

The discomfort I experienced inside the P.E.T. scanner was trivial in comparison with what soldiers on both sides experienced at the Somme. I didn’t die; I didn’t even have to put up with the discomfort for very long. But there are similarities, too. None of those who died or were wounded wanted to be; none of them wanted to experience the mud of the trenches, the rats, the barbed wire, any more than anyone really ‘wants’ to be ill or experience some medical procedures. Those who were fighting had to trust the judgement of others, or at least submit to it, with no very clear or optimistic view of the future. Idealism was wearing thin by 1916. The Great War for Civilisation was proving bloody and brutal, and there seemed no end to it. My paternal grandfather never spoke of it, couldn’t speak of it — the wounds in the mind last long after the wounds in the flesh have more or less healed.

Today we shall affirm our desire that Europe should never see war again. We shall proclaim our gratitude to those who gave their lives. We shall pray for their souls and surround ourselves with poppies and wreaths and national flags, but I wonder how many of us will be asking what more we should do, what more I should do? How do wars start? They start, surely, in the hearts and minds of people just like us. They start with wanting what we don’t have, or refusing to forgive some perceived insult or wrong, or believing ourselves superior to others, or even just exulting in physical strength and wanting to lord it over others. We may balk at such a description of ourselves, protesting that we are guiltless of such enormities; but the political parties to which we belong, the countries of which we are citizens, may hold such attitudes.

I don’t myself agree with those who are drawing doom-laden analogies between our present political chaos in the U.K. and the inter-war years in Germany, but I don’t think we can be complacent. If our leaders are in a mess, and the vanity and the in-fighting makes me think they are, there is no reason why we should be — but we will have to make sure we don’t blindly follow suit. This is a time for holding coolly to what we believe to be right and for working for the common good. How we define the common good will, of necessity, vary; but I think most of us would agree that we want people to feel secure, to have jobs, food, shelter, education, healthcare. Those of us who believe in Christ will know that this is more than just a vague wish or political ideal. It is a moral imperative, and Christians must be the first to take up the challenge. May I suggest that we need to think and pray about that today if we are truly to honour the sacrifice of those who died in 1916?

* Positron Emission Tomography. The process involves being injected with a radioactive sugar solution, drinking vast quantities of cold water on an empty stomach, then, after waiting an hour for these things to circulate round the body, half an hour or more of lying flat, arms raised above one’s head, inside a noisy metal tube. A three-dimensional image of the body is produced, which enables an assessment to be made of the progress of disease and how individual organs are affected.


15 thoughts on “The Battle of the Somme: Thoughts from Inside a P.E.T. Scanner”

  1. Your words express a valid and valuable point of view, that when those in nominal power seem to be running round in circles, the rest of us should make even more effort to practise the Christian virtues in our own small patch. Thank you.

  2. I am sorry to hear your experience in the P.E.T. scanner was so distressing and hope earnestly that the results will be less so.

    The results of the recent E.U. Referendum make me fearful of a break-up of that institution and where it could lead once more if we start looking out for only ourselves instead of being good neighbours.

      • Bless you for this. Fortunate enough not to have had PET scan but when having MI scanthe onlyt thing that stopped me hitting panic button was knowledge that if I did I would have to redo the whole thing. You are in my prayers. . Bet Bro Duncan was relieved that PET didn’t refer to him! BW

  3. Sister your thoughts are very moving. From my limited understanding of history, I gather that the First World War was one of the greater examples of the utter failure diplomacy and reason. The assassination of a member of Austria’s royal family by a revolutionary, a more or less local squabble, followed by a demand for satisfaction of this crime and an unrelenting lining up of allies who harbor end outlived and forgotten grievances. Both World War One and two, and perhaps even the Cold War with it’s own collection of proxy wars, could have conceivably been prevented or at least greatly mitigated if only the predisposition had been peace instead of war. Millions of lives lost, countless lives ruined, all for some set of ideals fully lost on those poor guys in the muddy, rat infested trenches. Such a loss.

  4. Having spent a lifetime in the Army, our education included the lessons learned both from the 1st World War, many of which had to be relearned in the 2nd World War. I thank God that my experience of operations did not include the sort of war experienced by those in either war. When I read about the Glory earned by those who died, I despair because it trivialises the suffering that you so ably describe and the impact of on those left behind, as well as the huge social cost to us as things changed so radically – it can never be the same after such a war.

    Today’s situation doesn’t in the least represent the inter-war years, but it does give us pause for thought on the fallibility of only too human politician, those who aspire to lead and to govern. I don’t think that we can improvise a reliability test for our future politicians or leaders, unless we refer to scripture. And the Servant Leadership of Jesus Christ shouts out to us of what such service should be – perhaps we need to pray, united in faith that our Leaders will at least pay for guidance from the Holy Spirit before they make an decisions, major or minor?

  5. Thinking of you and the community. 1916 is a long time ago. Thank you for reminding us of the meaning of the day. Thanks for the reminder of the present moment as well

  6. Amen.
    I add my prayers to the many others who pray for you, Quiet Nun, Brother Duncan and our troubled and troubling world.

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