Somme Memories – The Formation of the Somme Association

Last year, the  Conference in Monte Carlo, Monaco…Ireland in the Decade of the Great War, 1912 – 1923: Towards Commemoration resulted in the publication of an important book Towards Commemoration: Ireland in War and Revolution, edited by John Horne and Edward Madigan, published by the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin 2013. I contributed a chapter on Somme Memories. I used this  last night as the basis of a talk to the Men’s Group of my own Conlig Presbyterian Church, at the request of my relatives Cecil Connell and Heather Lyons.
William Sloan was born in Newtownards, County Down, in 1897. He was the only son of Anthony and Lizzie Sloan who lived in Roseneath Cottage, Main Street, Conlig, Co Down, near my father’s shop, at the corner of the Tower Road. This leads past Clandeboye Golf Club to Helen’s Tower. The couple were married on 24 August 1896 in Ballygilbert Presbyterian Church. Anthony worked as a general labourer, and his two nieces Martha and Isabella, eventually became my two grannies. Anthony and Lizzie had two children, William and Lillah, to whom my grannies were therefore cousins.
Shortly after the outbreak of the Great War, at the age of 17, William enlisted at Clandeboye without his parent’s permission and, like other young men from Conlig, came home already wearing his uniform. He served with the 11th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles in 108 Brigade of the 36th (Ulster) Division and was killed in action on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, aged then only 19 years. Initially, he was reported missing in action but his mother Lizzie never accepted that he was dead and until the day she died in January 1932, the front door of the cottage was left unlocked, day and night, just in case her son came home. He has no known grave and is commemorated at home in Conlig Presbyterian Church and in France on the Thiepval Memorial Arch to the Missing of the Somme.

But the story does not end there. Following William’s death, Lillah went with two of her cousins, my granny Isabella and her sister, Cecil’s granny, my Aunt Hannah, whose husband Herbie was in the 36th (Ulster) Division until the end of the War, to work on munitions at the Alfred Nobel Dynamite factory at Ardeer in Ayrshire, Scotland. When I was a boy, I used to deliver daily newspapers to Lillah in Roseneath Cottage. We often talked about her brother and she told me that we looked alike and that I reminded her of him – which is perhaps not surprising in view of the family connection. It was from Lillah, my Granny Isabella and Aunt Hannah that I learned most about the Great War. Granny helped inform my views on my identity as a British Unionist, an Irish Royalist and an Ulster Loyalist, as well as my own principles. Always, she instructed, vote for the “Cloth Cap.”

Only much later, however, did that interest in the war turn into something more active. In 1975 I was contacted by a leading French academic in the study of Ireland, Professor René Frechet, following the publication of my book The Cruthin – the Ancient Kindred (1974). This was the beginning of a long and productive correspondence that lasted until René Frechet’s death in 1992. It is no exaggeration to say that as Professor of English at the Sorbonne, and the spirit behind the University’s Institute of Irish Studies, set up in 1979, he served as guide and councillor to the increasing number of French students engaged in research into Irish themes. His Histoire de l’Irlande (1970) was only one facet of his numerous activities in the field of Irish studies. Apart from his love of Irish literature – his translation of the poetical works of Yeats (1989) is a model of precision and sensibility – he followed closely events in Northern Ireland which he covered in a series of often outspoken articles published in the French Protestant weekly, Réforme. An acute knowledge of facts as well as an indefectible affection for every aspect of life in the region guided his particular interest in the North. As a young lecturer he had spent two years at Queens’ University Belfast. The experience he acquired, and the long-lasting friendships he made at that time gave him an indisputable authority to comment on developments in the political situation there. There is no doubt that it was through him that the point of view of the Ulster Protestant found its most articulate and sympathetic spokesman in France. His convictions and courageous declarations did much to counter-balance the, often superficial, representations of this community in the mainstream, essentially pro-Republican French press.

I was greatly honoured that René Frechet should take an interest in my work. Commenting on my Identity of Ulster [i], he wrote:

“What an interesting, curious piece of work this is. Generally, if we are told it is not a question of a war of religion in Ulster, we are told about opposition between Catholics, whom people think of as mostly wishing for the unification of the island, and Protestants who want to remain British. Adamson however, does not militate in favour of the bringing together of two quite distinct communities. He says that their division is artificial, that they are all more or less descendants of pre-Celtic peoples, and in particular of the Cruthin, who were constantly moving backwards and forwards between Ulster and Scotland, where they were called Picts, a fact that did not prevent their homeland becoming the most Gaelic part of Ireland. “British”, as far as he is concerned, takes on a meaning that Ulster people tend to forget. Here are some interesting phrases for comparison. “‘Old British’ was displaced in Ireland by Gaelic just as English displaced Gaelic”; “the people of the Shankill Road speak an English which is almost a literal translation of Gaelic”; “the majority of Scottish Gaelic speakers are Protestants.” In fact the author is especially interested in Protestants, but those Protestants who have worked or are working towards reconciliation (could these even be the United Irishmen of the 1790’s?), for a co-operative movement, for a kind of popular autonomy or self-management. He shows the paradoxical confusion of antagonistic, partly mythical traditions, and is trying to convince people of the fundamental unity of Ulster”. 

Throughout the 1980s, Fréchet followed my involvement in the creation of several community organisations to promote my ideals of mutual respect, common identity, co-operation and self-help. These included the Farset Youth Project. The idea behind the project was to bring together young people from both sides of the community and allow them to follow in the footsteps of Saint Columbanus from Bangor in the North of Ireland to Reims and Luxeuil in France, through St Gallen in Switzerland, to Bregenz in Austria, and finally on to Bobbio in Italy. In a country where violence was dividing the people, it was important to point to a shared past. This project became possible thanks in no small measure to the help of my friend Tomás Cardinal Ó Fiaich, whose foreword to the second edition of my book, Bangor Light of the World, in 1987 [ii] is testimony to his commitment to the cross-community line we saw as so vital.

On our way back to Ulster during our first trip to France with Young People from the Shankill and Falls Road areas of Belfast and from Tallaght and Inchicore in Dublin, during the height of The Troubles, I asked the group to make a detour to the Ulster Memorial Tower to explain the part played by Irishmen of all persuasions in the First World War in France, Belgium and the Dardanelles. From our Farset Somme Project developed the idea of a Somme Association, which was to be supported by an international organisation, Friends of the Somme. [iii] This Association took root at a press conference held under the auspices of the then Lord Mayor of Belfast, Sammy Wilson and the Lady Mayoress, Rhonda Paisley, on the 70th Anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, 1 July, 1986, when a Somme Commemoration Committee was initiated.

Having grown up in sight of Helen’s Tower at Clandeboye, where the Belfast Brigade of the 36th (Ulster) Division had trained, and on which the Ulster Memorial Tower at Thiepval had been modelled, I proposed that museum complexes close to both towers could be built, that Thiepval Wood could be purchased and that Helen’s Tower could be opened up to the public under the stewardship of the Dufferin family. Ian Paisley explained his own position as a European MP and emphasised that this was a project to honour everyone who had fought at the Somme, both Unionist and Nationalist, Catholic and Protestant. He helped the project to achieve its aims through the good offices of the European Parliament, the French Embassy and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

And so, on 1 July, 1989, the Ulster Memorial Tower at Thiepval in France, the second Helen’s Tower, built by public subscription and completed in 1922, was re-dedicated under the auspices of our Farset Somme Project by HRH Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester. Hundreds of pilgrims from Ulster made the journey, among them veterans of the 36th (Ulster) Division and public representatives from throughout Northern Ireland. We were delighted that the Duchess continued to be associated with our work by consenting to become the first President of The Somme Association, formally established in 1990, and that her son Prince Richard agreed to follow her in this role following her death in October 2004. He had opened our Somme Heritage Centre at Whitespots, Conlig in 1994. This also contains an exhibition on Nationalist and Republican Ireland, centring on the Easter Rising of 1916, to show both sides of the story as part of our shared history.

As founding Chairman of the Somme Association, I have travelled to France and Belgium every year since its inception to remember the ordinary soldiers from throughout Ireland who fought and died there. Prince Richard has accompanied us many times, officiating at our ceremonies of Remembrance in both France and Gallipoli, and meeting with President Mary McAleese in Turkey. In commemorating the 90th anniversary of the end of the First World War in 2008, I was especially privileged to attend three Services of Remembrance in Belgium and France. The first took place on Sunday 29 June at the memorial at Wytschaete (Belgium) for the 16th (Irish) Division, the Catholic and largely Nationalist division that had fought there alongside the Loyalist 36th (Ulster) Division at the Battle of Messines in June 1917.

Dr Ian and Baroness Eileen Paisley attended this service and Dr Paisley laid a wreath at the grave of Major Willie Redmond at Locre. On Tuesday 1 July we attended the British and French Service at Thiepval Memorial led by the then Secretary of State, the Right Honourable Sean Woodward. As Chairman of the Somme Association I also officiated at the Ulster Tower Service in memory of the 36th (Ulster) Division and of their comrades in arms who had fought there at the Battle of the Somme. On Sunday 7 September 2008, the Association held a further service of remembrance at the 16th (Irish) Division memorial at Guillemont in honour its members who fought at Guillemont and Ginchy during the Battle of the Somme in September 1916. This service was attended by the Mayor of Derry, and by dignitaries from throughout Northern Ireland.

Helen’s Tower at Clandeboye contains a beautiful room in which are inscribed poems by Lady Helen Dufferin, Lord Alfred Tennyson and Rudyard Kipling, amongst others. Tennyson’s verse reads:

Helen’s Tower here I stand,

Dominant over sea and land.

Son’s love built me, and I hold

Mother’s love in letter’d gold.

Love is in and out of time,

I am mortal stone and lime.

Would my granite girth were strong

As either love, to last as long

I would wear my crown entire

To and thro’ the Doomsday fire,

And be found of angel eyes

In earth’s recurring Paradise.

This poem is replicated in the Ulster Tower at Thiepval, but slightly altered to make it a fitting tribute to the Sons of Ulster and their comrades–in–arms who fought and died in the First World War:

Helen’s Tower here I stand

Dominant over sea and land

Son’s love built me, and I hold

Ulster’s love in letter’d gold.

This suggested to me the importance of literature as a means of understanding the experience of those who fought in the Great War and of paying tribute to them. To this end, I established the Somme Association’s “Battlelines” journal. This regular publication also kept the “Friends of the Somme” and general public informed as to developments within our organisation and included interviews with First World War veterans, biographies of Irish V.C. holders, features on cemeteries and memorials, reprints of prominent newspaper headlines and general historical articles.  Amongst the soldier authors so remembered were Tom Kettle, journalist and professor at the National University of Ireland, who died as a Lieutenant with the 9th Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers at Ginchy in September 1916, and Francis Ledwidge, who was killed while labouring with a working party in Flanders on 31 July 1917. These two poets were specially remembered at our services in 2008. Captain Lord Dunsany, Ledwidge’s patron and senior officer in the Royal Inniskillngs, wrote at the time: “I gave my opinion that if Ledwidge had lived, this lover of all seasons in which the blackbird sings would have surpassed even Burns, and Ireland would lawfully have claimed, as she may do even yet, the greatest of the peasant singers.”

In September of that year we also remembered J. R. R. Tolkien and his two groups of friends, the first in the pre-war Tea Club and Barrovian Society (TCBS) and the second after the war in the Inklings, the latter including C. S. Lewis, from Belfast. Tolkien never forgot what he called the “animal horror of trench warfare.” The sights that he witnessed at the Somme, the images, sounds and the people he met stayed with him until his death in 1973. But from that horror came the inspiration of his great works including The Lord of the Rings.

During the war, Tolkien served as a 2nd Lieutenant with the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers, where he took part in the Battle of the Somme. Tolkien’s battalion disembarked in Amiens, the capital of the Somme, and marched to a hamlet called Rubempré ten miles away. On Friday 30 June they moved near to the front line. The great offensive began early the next morning but the men of Tolkien’s Battalion were held in reserve. They were to go into battle several days later when, if all had gone according to plan, the German line would have been smashed open and the Allied troops would have penetrated deep into enemy territory. In reality, of course, the British went over the top at 7:30am on 1July to be met by a storm of unsuppressed German fire. The famous 36th (Ulster) Division attacked from Thiepval Wood. Soon the awful truth dawned that on the first day of battle the British had 57,000 casualties (5,500 from the 36th Ulster Division), with 20,000 of them dead. Rob Gilson, a close school friend of Tolkien’s and member of the TCBS, had been killed at La Boisselle, where a great mine had been detonated in No Man’s Land.  Aided by unusually effective artillery fire, the men of the 36th (Ulster) Division managed to penetrate further than any other British unit, reaching the formidable Schwaben redoubt.

When Tolkien went into action with the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers on 14 July in an unsuccessful attack on the ruined hamlet of Ovillers many men of his battalion were killed around him. Day followed day on the same pattern – a rest period, back to the trenches, and more attacks. Tolkien was among those in the support at the eventually successful storming of the Schwaben Redoubt, upon which Northern Ireland’s National War Memorial – the Ulster Tower – now stands. He was rescued in the end by “trench fever,” a highly infectious disease carried by lice, and invalided back to England in early November. Sadly however his other friend from the TCBS, Geoffrey Bache Smith of the Salford Pals, was killed in the last days of the battle.

C. S. Lewis arrived at the front line trenches on his 19th birthday, 29 November 1917.  Lewis also suffered from trench fever at the beginning of February 1918 but returned to the front on 28 February. The Germans launched their great spring offensive on 21 March, utilising additional troops that had been withdrawn from the eastern front following the Russian Revolution. During the first Battle of Arras from 21 to 28 March 1918, Lewis was in or near the front line and next saw action in the Battle of Hazebrouck from 12 to 15 April, when he was wounded by a British shell exploding behind him. The Medical Board described his wounds thus: “shell fragments caused three wounds in the left side of his chest, his left wrist and left leg,” and on 25 May 1918 he arrived by stretcher in London.

The experiences of the First World War drew Tolkien and Lewis together in Oxford in a legendary friendship that culminated in the Inklings, a new literary club to replace the vanished TCBS and in which Lewis substituted for both Gilson and Smith. Tolkien’s first story, written early in 1917 during his convalescence, was the Fall of Gondolin, which deals with the assault of the last elvish stronghold by Morgoth, the prime power of evil. These are the elves that form the basis of the Silmarillion in the Lord of the Rings. Many years later, Tolkien remarked of one of his principal characters: “My Sam Gamgee is indeed is a reflection of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war and recognised as so far superior to myself.”

Although the centenary of the Great War is upon us, the great works of Tolkien and Lewis have left us an extraordinary evocation of the atmosphere of pre-battle tension and watchfulness, the plunge from peace into terrifying peril, the mass movement of thousands of men, and the love, comradeship and wonderful courage of ordinary people on a battlefield that was dominated by great machines and swept by airborne killers, ruthless and without pity. This understanding of the war has been at the heart of the work undertaken by the Somme Heritage Association, work that has borne important fruit over the years, and not least in reconciliation within the island of Ireland.

On Monday 10 September 2007, Dr Paisley, as First Minister of Northern Ireland, and President Mary McAleese, as head of state of the Irish Republic, shook hands for the first time – another symbolic milestone on Ireland’s road to reconciliation – on the occasion of an exhibition held at the Somme Heritage Centre on the role of the 16th (Irish) Division and its largely Catholic and nationalist soldiers in the Battle of the Somme. President McAleese paid tribute both to the event and to the museum, stating that:

It is an honour to be here at the opening of this exhibition commemorating the Battles of Guillemont and Ginchy, part of the heroic struggle of the Battle of the Somme fought over ninety years ago. Congratulations to Dr Ian Adamson, Carol Walker and all the members of the Somme Association for this labour of love, which allows the stories of those who fought and died to be honoured and respected and better known by a new generation.

As Dr Paisley’s Advisor on History and Culture, this gave me the greatest of pleasure. The event also helped pave the way for the visit of Her Majesty The Queen to the National Irish War Memorial at Islandbridge, Dublin, on 18 May 2011, where I felt no less honoured to be presented to her by President McAleese on behalf of our Association. I knew that William, Lillah and Granny Kerr would have been pleased.


[i]Ian Adamson, The Identity of Ulster: The Land, the Language and the People (Bangor, 1982); reviewed by René Frechet in Réforme, no. 1811, April 1982.

[ii] Ian Adamson (1987), Bangor, Light of the World (Belfast, 1979).

[iii] See Battle Lines: Journal of the Somme Association, no. 1, 1990.

This entry was posted in Article. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.