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.