In France the human tragedy of Verdun would soon dispel any doubts that may have remained by then that modern warfare, particularly as it was fought out in the mud-filled trenches, was anything other than a man-made obscenity. As the intense German pressure on the French army at Verdun took an ever-increasing toll not just in young French lives but on the very fighting spirit of a once proud army, a new offensive was launched to see if the deadlock could be broken. The place chosen for this offensive was the River Somme.
On the morning of 1 July 1916 a hundred thousand Allied soldiers left their trenches and began a lonely walk across the no-man’s-land which separated them from the German positions. By the end of that day the British Army had suffered 60,000 casualties, 20,000 of them killed — the greatest loss ever suffered in a single day by the British Army or by any army in the First World War. The 36th (Ulster) Division was one of the few units to achieve its objectives that day, yet not only was their gallant success not followed up, but the price they paid was high – with casualties of over five thousand five hundred officers and men, the dead accounting for half of this number.
As Captain W.B. Spender wrote: “I am not an Ulsterman, but yesterday, the 1st July, as I followed their amazing attack, I felt that I would rather be an Ulsterman than anything else in the world. My pen cannot describe adequately the hundreds of heroic acts that I witnessed… The Ulster Volunteer Force, from which the Division was made, has won a name which equals any in history. Their devotion deserves the gratitude of the British Empire.”
It was some days before the closely-knit communities in Ulster became aware of the extent of the sacrifice in young lives. As A.T.Q. Stewart wrote: “In the long streets of Belfast mothers looked out in dread for the red bicycles of the telegram boys. In house after house blinds were drawn down, until it seemed that every family in the city had been bereaved.” A few months later it was the turn of other Irishmen to be flung into the battle, this time the men of the 16th (Irish) Division. This Division included five Ulster battalions and also the 6th Battalion The Connaught Rangers, which contained over 600 Ulstermen recruited mainly from the Falls Road district of West Belfast. The 16th Division is most prominently identified with the capture of the villages of Guillemont and Ginchy.
In his history of the Great War, Frank A. Mumby described the Irish effort: “Our greatest success [on the 3rd September 1916] was the capture of Guillemont by the Irish troops. They advanced on Guillemont with an impetuosity which carried all before it: charged through the German positions with the wild music of their pipes playing them on. Before the afternoon was out the 2000 Prussians who constituted the garrison — with imperative orders to hold the ground at all cost — were killed, wounded, or captured… The same Irish troops charged into Ginchy as they had charged into Guillemont, through the barrage of shells and the storm of machine-gun fire, clambering over shell-holes, fallen trees, and the great mounds of bricks and rubble which were all that remained of the village itself; cheering like mad, and driving the enemy before them in a fierce assault against which nothing could stand.”
Altogether the Battle of the Somme dragged on for four and a half months — a series of offences in a savage war of attrition which resulted in more than 400,000 British casualties for an advance of only six miles. Yet German casualties were probably as high as 700,000 and constituted a severe blow to the German Army. The irony was that soon after the battle ended, the Germans withdrew to the newly constructed Hindenburg Line, giving up ten times more ground than was won at such a cost in 1916. Furthermore, during the German offensive of March 1918, their Army swept over the old Somme battlefield in one day.
It is scarcely surprising, therefore, that the Battle of the Somme came to exert such a strong hold on the popular imagination, albeit largely based on myths perpetuated by those who wished to apportion blame for the failure of the offensive, in particular the then Prime Minister David Lloyd George, who had political motives for attacking the generals’ conduct of the war. In Ulster, the Somme came to hold a special place in the national consciousness of ordinary people, comparable to that of Gallipoli to the Australians and New Zealanders, Vimy Ridge to the Canadians and Delville Wood to the citizens of South Africa. In fact the Somme became the new Northern Ireland.
On 7 June 1917 the Battle of Messines took place, the first completely successful single operation on the British front, and as H.E.D. Harris has pointed out: “It is also memorable to Irishmen as largely an all-Irish achievement; two of the three divisions in the attacking line were Irish, the 36th on the right and the 16th in the centre of IX Corps, a unique line-up of Irish fighting men, and the largest in modern history. They showed to the world the sight of nearly 30,000 Irishmen shoulder to shoulder, men of all four provinces, and the only rivalry that existed between them was that of gallantry. In his book As from Kemmel Hill, Andrew Behrend wrote: ‘I should like to put on record one further memory of the Battle of Messines. However little it interested me then, it fascinates me today, that during this battle and for weeks before, the 16th (Irish) and the 36th (Ulster) Divisions lived and fought side by side, got on with each other splendidly and at times even pulled each other’s chestnuts out of the fire…’.”
A year later, both Divisions were to receive yet another battering. As Brigadier A.E.C. Bredin commented, the 16th and 36th Divisions “suffered the heaviest losses of any formation during the great German offensive of March, 1918.” A genuine comradeship-in-arms had developed between many Irishmen because of their experiences during the war, but the political situation to which they returned would not suffer such friendships gladly, for Ireland was now heading for its inevitable crisis.
In recent years I was honoured to take Dr Ian Paisley, the Lord Bannside and Baroness Paisley to a Commemoration Service organised by John Ballard of the Orangemen of my native village of Conlig for their Brethren of Ards and North Down (Dal Fiatach) at the Somme Museum at Whitespots. This is held annually on 24th June when the Barrage commenced signalling the start of the Somme Campaign. The date is also significant in that on Tuesday, 24th June 637 was fought the great Battle of Moira in County Down. Such important dates have been lost to us in the Academic Suppression but thankfully we are now able to speak of our own history.
To be continued