The Corner

REMEMBERING THE SOMME — IN IRELAND

Via the Daily Telegraph:

“The thousands of Irish soldiers who fell during the Battle of the Somme were remembered at the weekend in a ceremony that finally acknowledged Ireland’s sacrifice during the Great War. The gathering of 2,200 people at the National Memorial Gardens in Islandbridge, Dublin, provided more evidence that Ireland is coming to terms with its past and that old animosities are being reconciled. Politicians from across the religious divide saluted the 3,500 Irishmen who gave up their lives.The heroism of the men of the 36th Ulster Division, who suffered appalling casualties on the first day of the Somme, has long been a potent symbol of Unionist Britishness in Northern Ireland.”

The Telegraph adds this:

“Here is a statistic that you won’t hear quoted often: more Irishmen died in British uniform during the first two days of the Somme offensive than participated in the Easter Rising. The reason it is rarely cited is that it doesn’t really suit anyone. The Republic of Ireland, like every country, has a foundation myth. The image of a people rising as one against their old oppressors doesn’t fit terribly well with the fact that, in 1914, the Irish Volunteers enlisted almost en masse to fight for the Crown. Meanwhile, Northern Irish politicians, keen to portray the republic as alien, tend to remember the Somme as an exclusively Ulster affair. It is true that some of the bravest deeds of the whole war were done by the 36th (Ulster) Division, whose soldiers won four Victoria Crosses at the Somme. But Ulstermen were a minority of the 140,000 volunteers who enlisted in Irish regiments – not counting the many Irish units raised in Great Britain, such as the 1st/8th (Irish) Kings Liverpool and the Tyneside (Irish) Battalions of the Northumberland Fusiliers.It was precisely this rallying of Irish patriots to the British cause that catalysed the 1916 rising. Republican leaders could see that war against a common foe would weld the two islands together, and needed to act at once. It worked: the British authorities dealt so brutally with the rebels that Irish opinion swung decisively behind the separatists.Only now, 90 years later, has Dublin officially honoured the volunteers who had thought, by their sacrifices on Britain’s behalf, to win the right to constitutional autonomy. The ceremony marks the final regularisation of relations between two nations commingled in their blood, culture and outlook. “God save Ireland!” called an MP when John Redmond, the Nationalist leader, urged the Volunteers to fight for Britain. “God save England, too!” replied Redmond.”

The Irish Times has much more here: “Much of the German line was either waiting, or rushing back to their trenches. “The English came walking, as though they were going to theatre or as though they were on a parade ground,” observed one German soldier. “We felt they were mad. Our orders were given in complete calm and every man took careful aim to avoid wasting ammunition.”…Meanwhile, the 36th (Ulster) Division – aiming for a fortress called the Schwaben Redoubt – had been among the few to adopt different tactics, and before Zero Hour crawled into the grass, wire and shell-holes of No Man’s Land and got as close as possible to the enemy lines so as to rush them.Either side of the River Ancre, the Ulstermen had then moved towards the German line. To the north, the first wave met little opposition but as the Ulstermen passed the first line of German trenches, hoping that successive waves would mop them up and secure them, the defenders were instead intact enough to pop up and shoot at them from behind. Successive waves, however, found it far stickier. As the Germans returned to their positions, and with the Allied artillery barrage now trained elsewhere, they began to rain bullets upon the Ulstermen moving towards them. Despite reaching the German trenches, the Ulstermen would soon be under attack from three sides and forced into a frantic retreat. To the south of the Ancre, the Ulstermen captured Schwaben Redoubt in a chaotic, hand-to-hand fight. Their success – and failures either side of them – had created a dangerous bulge that left them open to attacks on either flank. Nevertheless, commanding officer Maj Gen Nugent was ordered to send the reserve 107th into the battle as planned at 8.30am. Three-quarters of an hour later, the order was rescinded, but it was too late. Four battalions, representing the four corners of Belfast, were already in No Man’s Land. Many of them were wiped out almost immediately. Among those in this wave was David Starret, batman to the West Belfast Volunteers’ commanding officer Lieut Col Percy Crozier. They moved into an “inferno of screaming shells and machine-gun bullets. Crouching, we slowly moved across No Man’s Land. The colonel stood giving last orders to his company commanders, and I beside him. Bullets cutting up the ground at his feet he watched the advance through his glasses. Then he went off the deep end and I danced everywhere at his rear. Something had gone wrong. When the fumes lifted we saw what it was – a couple of battalions wiped out. Masses of dead and dying instead of ranks moving steadily forward.”

July 1, 1916. Never forget.

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