I will confess, I really struggled with this theme. It’s just this whole subject of war, how incredibly depressing it has been to see the acts of brutality and destruction over the past six weeks. What a sad saga the history of human independence has been and still is. Even at a stage when we would hope that there is an “enlightened” conscience in society that can speak out and voice being incensed by these horrendous crimes being played out before our eyes – the gross inadequacy of current rulerships is manifest yet again.
I did think of a song, and a band that I discovered on a trip to Aberdeenshire back in the year 2000 (during the petrol crisis). The Battlefield Band produced around thirty albums over almost five decades (band members changed during the course of those long years), but the only album of theirs I ever owned was called “Rain, Hail Or Shine”. I fell in love with that album and listened to it over and over for months.
There is a song on the album called “The Beaches of St Valery”, which tells the sad World War II story of the 51st (Scottish) Division’s struggle to reach Saint-Valéry-en-Caux in 1940 only to find that no ships had been sent to evacuate them.
There are a few lines that I always thought are especially poignant:
‘Til the 51st Highlanders found themselves back
On the banks of the Somme one more time.
It still bore the scars of that war to end wars.
The old soldier’s scars deep in their minds.– THE BEACHES OF ST VALERY
It was not that long before that World War I (“the war to end all wars”) with the devastating death-toll that occurred during trench warfare and the infamous Somme…and the song refers to older soldiers of World War II who were back in that same spot in 1940, the landscape scarred, and the minds of the soldiers deeply scarred by what they had seen years earlier.
Those lines contain the frustrating tragedy that for all we have learnt from this bloody history of human dominance…wars are one of the most awful proofs that man is not qualified to independently care for this planet and it’s creatures.
It was in 1940, the last days of Spring. We were sent to the Maginot line, A fortress in France, built to halt the advance, Of an army from a different time. But we were soon overrun, out-thought and outgunned. Pushed further back every day. But we never believed high command would just leave us. So we fought every inch of the way, 'Til the 51st Highlanders found themselves back On the banks of the Somme one more time. It still bore the scars of that war to end wars. The old soldier's scars deep in their minds. But we couldn't stay long for the Panzers rolled on As the battle raged west t'wards the sea, Until on June the 10th when sapped of all strength I entered St. Valery. And all I recall is the last boat leavin'! My brother on board waving and calling to me And the Jocks stranded there wi' their hands in the air On the beaches of St. Valery. So I huddled all night in a hammered old house As the shells and the bullets rained down 'Til just before dawn our hopes were still strong For we moved to the beach from the town But the boat that had left on the day we arrived Was the only one that we'd ever see An' with no ammo or food we had done all we could So we surrendered at St. Valery. And all I recall is the last boat leavin'! My brother on board waving and calling to me And the Jocks stranded there wi' their hands in the air On the beaches of St. Valery. When I returned at the end of the war, From the Stalag where I'd been confined, I read of the battles the allies had fought, Stalingrad, Alamein, and the Rhine. And with pride in their hearts people spoke of Dunkirk How defeat had become victory But nobody mentioned that Highland Division. They'd never heard of St.Valery. No stories no statues for those that were killed. No honours for those who were caught. Just a deep sense of shame as though we were to blame, Though I knew in my heart we were not. So I've moved to a country I've come to call home But my homeland lies far o'er the sea. I will never return while my memory still burns On the beaches of St. Valery. And all I recall is the last boat leavin'! My brother on board waving and calling to me And the Jocks stranded there wi' their hands in the air On the beaches of St. Valery. Written by: Davy Steele