Irish and the Battle of the Somme
Prior to November 11 we see a lot of the BBC newsreaders
and presenters along with those taking part in other programmes
wearing the Poppy. It was only when a girl of about seven
years old asked the question What sort of flower are
they wearing, that I realised that a number of children
and maybe some that have long passed childhood might not
know what the significance of wearing the Poppy meant. I
then asked her did she know what the wearing of the Easter
Lily meant, and although she told me her daddy wears one
at Easter she wasnt too sure about that either. So
I told her it was in memory of the men of 1916 who rebelled
against English rule and died fighting for their country.
By this time I knew I had put my two feet in it and realised
I was going to have some explaining to do, such as Why
didnt the people on the TV wear a lily? Well,
after some talking I think she sort of got the reason for
the poppy, and why some Irishmen wear it as well as the
Easter Lily at different times of the year.
As well as remembering the men of 1916 and the sacrifice
they made we should also remember that thousands of Irishmen
died in that particular year on the banks of a river in
North/East France, most of them had never heard of the Somme.
As far as the Allied Forces of France and England were concerned
up to now the war had been a slogging match as both sides
had dug in on a line 400 miles long from the Channel to
the Swiss frontier. In the west from the beginning of 1915
the dominant factors were trenches, barbed wire, artillery,
machine guns and mud. The war of mobility gave way to a
war of attrition. One entrenched man with a machine gun
was more than a match for a hundred men advancing across
open country. The railway lines could bring up troops faster
than slowly-moving troops could advance into the front line
gaps which had been created at such high human cost. The
German occupation of Belgium and northern France gave them
a tremendous advantage over the Allies.
It was now that the joint command decided upon a massive
offensive on the Somme, but the Germans struck first, at
Verdun, with the intention of bleeding the French army to
death. Then, on the 1st July, 1016, 90 years ago this year,
the British launched their mass offensive of the war, on
the Somme. The fighting lasted until November and the casualties
totalled at least 1,000,000, yet failed to break the stalemate.
Confronted by failure in the west the Allies sought success
on other fronts, but they all ended in failure. The Somme
had turned into a slaughtering yard with Generals and commanders
from a past war and with no conception of how to fight the
present one, sending thousands of the finest of men to their
Thousands of Irish lads gave their lives in this awful slaughter.
The letters arriving to homes in the south of Ireland were
not bringing the money that they had joined for. Instead
they brought heartbreaking news of the death of s son, a
father, a brother or some other loved one. The honey-sweet
articles in some papers about the glory and the honour they
were bringing their home and country did little to replace
the vacant chair or the empty bed or the broken heart in
the homes of Ireland.
As far as Northern Ireland went the sweet talk and the statements
that the young men of Ulster were doing their country proud
with their heroism and self-sacrifice was doing little to
cheer up a worrying mother or wife as the days went by and
the longed for letter did not arrive. Perhaps it was true
that the Sons of Ulster were making a name for themselves
and that the price paid would be high, but that the lads
would pay it with a steadfast heart. They were now north
of the Somme and within the sound of the guns of the British
between Ancre and the Somme.
When we pause to think about the arguments concerning the
thousands of Irish fighting and dying on the Somme and in
other places for The Freedom of Small Nations
and the handful of men who raised the Green, White and Orange
over the GPO it is surely only fair to give both groups
the credit they deserve. Both were fighting for a cause.
Thinking of the lads from Northern Ireland, the 36th (Ulster)
Division (made up of the Ulster Volunteer Force) suffered
over 5,500 casualties on the Somme in the first two days
of fighting. The Dublins and the Munsters also suffered
severely. There were some strange facts that connected the
rising in 1916 with the battle of the Somme. One such concerns
Lieutenant TJ Kennedy who commanded the British forces in
the region of the Catholic Pro-Cathedral and tried to save
those who went there from being harmed and was mentioned
in dispatches. He was killed a few months later while serving
with the Ulster Division on the Somme. Graveyards were another
problem on the Somme. Men were being killed so quickly that
it was impossible to keep them buried and mass graves were
being dug in regions before those who were to be buried
in them were dead.
On the Western Front, months after the battle of the Somme
had ended, John Masefield wrote how the dead still lay
three or four deep and the bluebottles had made their faces
black. Bad as were those scenes, the sigh of blind
soldiers trying to follow a comrade by the first man holding
onto him and the remainder grasping the man in front in
the hope of getting out of the danger area, knowing that
if they get out they would never see things they loved again.
It was after seeing such a line machine-gunned that the
following lines were written:
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace,
behind the wagon that we flung him in,
and watch the white eyes writing in his face,
then ask whats left for him.
So as we conclude our thinking of the Battle of the Somme
and the thousands of Irish who died, maybe the wearing of
the Poppy deserves attention, and maybe the little girl
was right to ask what it meant.
Courtesy of Willie White