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Ireland and the Battle of the Somme
British troops making their way through the barbed wire entanglements Photo: Illustrated London News [London, England] 26 August 1916.

Ireland and the Battle of the Somme

By Myles Dungan

It used to be a Roman road, hence the arrow-like straightness. Today it is the D929. You will pass cemeteries, British, Australian and Canadian war memorials and a cafe called Le Tommy.  Even for a superannuated MAMIL (Middle-aged man in lycra to the uninitiated) it takes barely 30 minutes to cycle from the town of Albert across the flat, exposed and relatively featureless countryside, along the route to nearby Bapaume, before one reaches a modest sign by the side of the road. You might be delayed by a minute or two if a brisk Picardy wind blows in your face. The sign tells you that this was the limit of the allied advance in the infamous Somme offensive of 1916, abandoned on 18 November 1916. One hundred years ago it took the British army and its Colonial allies 141 days to make the same journey.

The Thiepval Memorial near the towns of Albert and Bapaume is the site of a major ceremony held each year on 1 July to commeorate the Battle of the Somme. (Image: Commonwealth War Graves Commission)

You might lose a welcome ounce or two en route. The British and Colonials permanently lost almost 100,000 men and were temporarily deprived of the services of 320,000 more. Which statistic ignores the French casualties of just over 200,000 (50,000 dead) and the German losses of 465,000 (165,000 dead). That's more than a million men killed or wounded. The population of Greater Dublin.

And for what?

The statistics are so stark as to be virtually meaningless. Almost 20,000 of the British dead came on the first day (1 July). Australia lost as many men (23,000) in six weeks on the Somme as in the entire Gallipoli campaign. The inexperience of the volunteer soldiers, the inadequacy of the massive artillery barrage - despite more than one and a half million shells being fired in seven days - the underestimation of German resistance, Anglo-French strategic differences and basic leadership errors, all conspired to turn an inoffensive French river into a synonym for carnage and incompetence.

Half the 4,000 or so Irishmen who never returned from the junction of the rivers Ancre and Somme have been feted and commemorated on an annual basis. They are the 'sons of Ulster', the fallen of the loyalist 36th (Ulster) Division, Carson's UVF in khaki.

Their date with Nemesis came on the first day of the battle. Their initial assignment was a potentially unprofitable assault on the heavily fortified German defensive position known as the Schwaben redoubt. An inspired decision by their commanding officer, Major General Sir Oliver Nugent meant that most of the members of the 12,000 strong division did not, technically, go 'over the top' that day. They were already in No Man's Land when the British artillery fell silent and it was the turn of the infantry to take the German trenches in front of them. Nugent's order was both the making and the breaking of his division that day. Their proximity to their initial targets when the shelling ended meant they won the all-important race. They reached the German front lines before the enemy machine gunners could get from their dugouts to their deadly weapons.

British soldiers dead in a trench at the Somme. The opening days of the battle saw huge losses for the British forces. (Image: Imperial War Museum)

Elsewhere, on either side of the 36th for example, the British assault force was not so fortunate. They had been promised the enemy barbed wire would be shredded by the artillery bombardment, that most of the German defenders would be atomised and that they would merely have to walk into the German trenches unopposed. How easy it is to be optimistic when you are a General ensconced many kilometres behind the front lines. Two thirds of the shells were ineffective - spreading largely useless anti personnel shrapnel - and many of the potentially deadly high explosive shells were duds, churned out by British factories yet to perfect their lethal trade.

The 36th took their initial targets. But the 32nd and 29th divisions on either side, like most other British units that day, failed to do so. This left the flanks of the 36th woefully exposed. In addition German guns shelled No Man's Land behind them mercilessly, preventing reinforcement of the forward positions. Because of the abject failure of the offensive the trenches taken by the 36th became the focus of most German counter attacks. The Ulstermen became the victims of their own success. By the end of the day most of the survivors were, more or less, back where they started, but without many of their comrades. Two thousand Ulstermen died that day, almost half the members of the division were killed or wounded. It is no wonder that the 1 July 1916 (which under the old Julian calendar, the one not promulgated by a Roman Pope, was actually 12 July) is commemorated so passionately in Northern Ireland each year.

It took some time for the immensity of British losses on 1 July to become apparent. Realisation that a crushing defeat had been suffered was not helped by the unduly optimistic tone of the initial newspaper reports emanating from Picardy. It took days for the 'embedded' press corps to begin to acknowledge the immensity of the losses. Typical of the reportage was this gem from the doyen of the British press corps, William Beach Thomas.

The very attitudes of the dead, fallen eagerly forward, have a look of expectant hope. You would say that they died with the light of victory in their eyes.'

Any residual light in the eyes of the victims of such a military debacle was more likely to have been one of fury at such a pointless waste of human life. In 1925 Beach Thomas apologised for his coverage of the conflict when he wrote in his memoir of the Great War that … 'I was thoroughly and deeply ashamed of what I had written, for the good reason that it was not true.'

The British commanders, Haig and Rawlinson, were, like Macbeth, 'in blood stepped in so far ... Returning were as tedious as go o'er' so the ill-fated Somme offensive didn't end after Day 1. To relieve French agonies at the Battle of Verdun it had to continue. There were 140 days left.

Troops of the 16th Irish Division halt for breakfast. (Image: Imperial War Museum)

The less celebrated (that's another story) but no less shattered nationalist 16th (Irish) Division was pitched into the morass on Day 65. Two battalions of the 'southern' division, the 7th Leinsters and the 6th Connaughts - the latter included many Belfast Catholics – joined the main assaulting force aimed at the razed village of Guillemont, less than ten kilometres west of Albert. Seven previous attempts to take the town had failed. The two Irish battalions were successful in seizing Guillemont from the Germans, but at enormous cost. Two Victoria Crosses - the 36th won four on 1 July, but it's not a competition - was scant consolation for casualties of more than 40%.

Six days later both battalions were back in action at the nearby hamlet of Ginchy. Once again the obdurately defended town was taken. One of the many Irishman to die that day was the former nationalist MP, poet, barrister and UCD economist, Thomas Kettle. A highly successful recruiter in the early days of the war Kettle, in poor health - partly due to his personal struggle with alcohol - had declined an opportunity to take up a rear echelon position to remain at the head of his company of the 9th Dublin Fusiliers. A couple of days before he died Kettle had penned a beautiful sonnet to his young child, 'To my daughter Betty, a gift from God'. Part elegy, part apologia, it concludes with the memorable lines...

'Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,
Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,
But for a dream born in a herdsman's shed,
And for the secret scripture of the poor.'

With Kettle as he died was an 18 year old Lieutenant, Emmet Dalton. Dalton took command of the company and won a Military Cross that day. Later he joined the IRA, fought through the Anglo-Irish war and was with Michael Collins when he died at Beal na Blath in 1922. Nothing more graphically illustrates the glorious complexities of Irish history.

Kettle, disillusioned with the British over-reaction to the events of Easter Week 1916 had written of the executed leaders of the Rising, 'they will be remembered as heroes, while I will be remembered, if I am remembered at all, as a bloody British soldier.' For many years it was the middle part of that eerily accurate prophecy that applied. Kettle, and the other 1200 Irish fatalities of Guillemont and Ginchy were forgotten. That tragic amnesia, never as calculated as has been alleged, has clearly been rectified in recent years. Atonement has taken the form of an acknowledgement that service in the British Army in the Great War was not a 'stain' on the Irish escutcheon.

Dr Senia Paseta, University of Oxford, discusses the life and death of Professor Thomas Kettle.

Military historians might argue, and some do, that the Somme offensive was 'a strategic success' for the Allies (for example Gary Sheffield in Forgotten War: the First World War, myths and realities) but it is difficult for those not blessed with the mindset of the military historian to see the five month campaign in such terms. The lessons learned may have contributed to the ultimate victory over Germany but the experience thus gained was at the expense of hundreds of thousands of lives.

The name 'Somme' apparently derives from a Celtic word that means 'tranquility'. The description might accurately describe this placid pastoral region of rural Picardy today but a century ago it could not have been more inappropriate. There is nothing tranquil about a human abattoir.

Myles Dungan is a historian and broadcaster. The presenter of The History Show on RTÉ Radio 1, his books include Irish Voices of the Great War.


Century Ireland

The Century Ireland project is an online historical newspaper that tells the story of the events of Irish life a century ago.