The 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 wasn’t 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 didn’t 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 deaths.

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 what’s 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
Carlow Nationalist
November 2005