Written on: 11. 1. 2012 in the category: news

The only lessons that could be learnt were through the grievous expenditure of human life.

I wrote this for the 90th anniversary of the First day on the Somme in 2006. It might help correct some the
Anglcentric/Hibernocentric perceptions of the war

Nightfall, ninety years ago today, and 899 Belfast men who that morning had risen from their trenches, as soldiers and non-commissioned officers of the British army, lay dead on Thiepval ridge, in the Somme valley. One hundred and ninety one of them were from the Shankill Road. Forty six officers lay dead among them. Another hundred officers and men of the Belfast battalions of the 36th Ulster Division were to die of their wounds in the coming week. That day, July 1st, 1916, the British army lost 20,000 dead and 40,000 injured.

The story of these Ulstermen of July 1st is now as widely “known” in the Republic as once it was utterly unknown: of how the former members of the Ulster Volunteer Force, now in the all-Protestant, all-Ulster 36th Division, many of them wearing their orange sashes, swept to and took their objective, the German strongpoint named Schwaben Redoubt. But unsupported by other divisions on either side, the Ulstermen had to retreat, and the day’s gains were soon the day’s losses.

This story is only partly true. Perhaps the bravest officer of the day, Captain William Gallaugher from Manorcunningham in County Donegal, who led the attack on Schwaben Redoubt, was emphatic in a letter home to his family, that absolutely no soldiers wore the sash. Why would they? They really did have had other things on their minds than to be putting target-markers across their chests. Nor was the 36th Ulster Division entirely Protestant, or entirely Ulster. Some Catholics were in the division, as were volunteers from the “Loyal Dublin Volunteers” and the “Loyal Wicklow Volunteers”. So too were many Britons – the 11th battalion, the Inniskilling Fusiliers was 40% British. And perhaps two thousand southerners in different British army divisions also participated in the first day’s attacks.

But what was unquestionably true was the raw courage of the 36th division; and its catastrophic losses brought calamity to so many Ulster communities. Banbridge town lost 33 men killed that day, as did Lisburn. In Donegal, Raphoe lost eight, and little Burt lost three. However, comparable tales could be told of other communities across the United Kingdom. For the Ulsters were not alone in their bravery or their losses: four British battalions and the unfortunate Newfoundlanders suffered more casualties than the worst hit Irish battalion on July 1. And equally, in the course of the war, the British army was not alone in blundering to bloody calamity.

On August 22, 1914, the very day that Corporal E. Thomas, from Nenagh, County Tipperary, of the Royal Irish Dragoons, fired the first shots by a British soldier in the Great War, 27,000 blue-coated, red-trousered French soldiers were killed during insane frontal attacks, on the first day of the “Battle of the Frontiers”. On that week alone, over 75,000 French soldiers were killed, and another 175,000 soldiers wounded, beinging total losses to a quarter of a million.

Four months later, on Christmas Eve, 1914, at Sarikimish high in the Caucauses, a Turkish army attacked at night, when temperatures had reached -35 degrees Celsius, without greatcoats or backpacks for greater speed. They were butchered by the waiting Russians, who later found 30,000 frozen Ottoman corpses on the field. Many thousands more littered the mountain passes leading to and from this icebound Golgotha. Perhaps 50,000 men died that night. Come the spring thaw, the wolves of the Caucasus grew exceeding fat.

For this was a new kind of war, in which every single general, every battalion commander, every platoon subaltern, every section leader, from top to bottom, was a novice, and the only lessons that could be learnt were through the grievous expenditure of human life. The alternative, against an adamant foe – and all the participants were certainly that – was unilateral surrender, and such capitulation is not in the nature of great powers. One can lament and deplore this, just as one can the vileness of human nature, but not usefully.

The Somme was only part of that great learning process, one that has now become utterly fetishised in the public imaginations of the British and Irish peoples. In part this is understandable, for the first day of the battle was truly a ceremony of innocence, dimmed with atrocious bloodshed, polluted with insufferable suffering. But the battle and the war continued nonetheless. In September the largely nationalist 16th Irish Division, followed the melancholy path cut by the Ulsters towards the Somme, and with comparable losses.

But the Somme did not stand alone as an unaccompanied horror. Nearly 230 Dublin Fusiliers died during their week on the Somme in September 1916: but over 300 Dubs had been killed in a single week in April 1915. Six men who enlisted in Naas were killed on the first day of the Somme. Fourteen were killed in the September battles – but overall, 407 ordinary soldiers who enlisted in that small Kildare town were killed in the war.

Moreover, the first day of the Somme was followed by a second, and a third. One hundred days on, the 10th Dublin Fusiliers serving in the last hours of the battle, helped take the village of Beaumont Hamel that should have been taken on the first day. The battalions that had fallen in numbers in that original, vain summer assault were – almost inevitably – the 1st and 2nd battalions of the same regiment: the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. So much Irish blood, shed for so little cause. Yet that said, and at some level of other, these men must have believed in the validity of what they were doing: and for Irishmen at least, little thought has been given to the truth that they fought on gallantly to the end of the war. Why? For it is complex. Certainly, all the Irish veterans I interviewed between 1978 and 1989 were proud of their role in the war. Moreover, the final Irish VC of the war, in autumn 1918, went to the Munster Fusilier, Martin Doyle, from New Ross. Two years later, he was in the IRA.

We can see now that the Great War was part of a thirty-year European civil war, with a twenty-year truce between the combatants. One of those killed on the first day of the Somme was Jack Galbraith, from St Johnston, Donegal, serving with the 11th battalion, Inniskilling Fusiliers. He had two sons, Andrew and Thomas – and they were both killed on the first day of the Normandy landings, on June 6th, 1944. These three men are now an almost invisible footnote in history – and even more invisible is poor Mrs Galbraith, and the millions like her.

Most people in the Republic now appreciate the complexity of our history far more than once they did. We know of the strands which bind Britain and Ireland together, and both islands to the mainland of Europe. Ninety years ago today, those strands violently and tragically gathered beside the river Somme, where our imaginations may now rightly go, to that broad valley where skylarks sing over the countless gardens of carved stone, and where the remains of a million men of a score of nations are perpetually recycled in the food-chain of Picardy.