This year marks the hundredth anniversary of one of the bloodiest episodes in Ireland’s and Europe’s history. On 1 July, 1916, the Battle of the Somme began and the carnage was to last until November that year resulting in a casualty list which, to this day, still defies comprehension, writes Eamonn Duggan
The Irish people have enthusiastically embraced the 1916 Easter Rising commemorations and have remembered all of the men and women who fought for the cause of Irish Independence. It is clear that they have not been forgotten and their reputations as people who were willing to make a sacrifice for a noble cause have been greatly enhanced.
But this year also sees the hundredth anniversary of an even bloodier episode in Ireland’s and Europe’s history which took the lives of some 3,500 Irishmen from all parts of the country. On 1 July, 1916, the Battle of the Somme began and the carnage was to last until November that year, resulting in a casualty list which, to this day, still defies comprehension.
In recent years Ireland and her people have come to a greater understanding of the different strands which make up the nation’s history and it is only right that we remember those Irishmen who lost their lives fighting for the cause of democracy across Europe.
With that in mind the coalition government of Fine Gael and Labour, under the leadership of Enda Kenny, deemed it appropriate that the nation’s commemoration of the Somme complement the programme for the centenary of the Easter Rising.
The Somme offensive campaign was conceived as a joint Anglo-French advance designed to breech the German lines and open up a route to Berlin. Though of little strategic importance, the area chosen for the action was the point where the English and French trenches came together.
On 24 June 1916, the British and French opened up a bombardment on the German lines with 1,537 artillery pieces and the action continued until 7.30am on 1 July.
It was the first ever large scale bombardment action and the British High Command was fully confident that the exercise would decimate the German troops to the extent that the survivors would have no option but to surrender.
What the British did not realise was that the Germans had been busy constructing bunkers up to forty feet deep in the chalk sub-soil. These bunkers gave great protection to the six German divisions in the area. As a result, only six British fifteen-inch Howitzers could penetrate the bunkers, rendering the remaining pieces of artillery almost ineffective.
This proved to be disastrous for the sixteen British divisions which went over the top on 1 July 1916. Fully believing they would have little difficulty in dealing with a handful of German troops who had survived the barrage, they were instead confronted by six well-prepared and competent German divisions.
What followed was an absolute blood bath never before experienced by a British army which included more than a fair share of brave Irishmen.
For many decades the predominant view in nationalist Ireland was that only Ulster Protestants from the 36th (Ulster) Division took part in the ‘big push’ of 1 July 1916. However, if one looks more closely at the British army units involved, it is clear that other Irish infantry units participated.
The 36th (Ulster) Division had twelve battalions and there were seven regular Irish battalions to be found in other Divisions and added to those numbers were the four battalions of the Tyneside Irish, making a total of twenty three Irish battalions which saw action at the Somme.
On that terrible first day of the battle around 100,000 soldiers climbed out of the trenches expecting little or no opposition. Their commanding officers had, in the preceding days, confidently predicted that the Germans would be wiped out by the constant barrage of shells unleashed upon the trenches and lines. How wrong they were.
As the men made their way into No Man’s Land on that early and bright mid-summer morning they were met by a hail of machine-gun fire, resulting in instant death for many and terrible wounds for others. They were destined never to reach the German Lines.
The British army casualty list of 57,470 men on the first day of the Battle of the Somme was the worst ever recorded for one single day. This was about half the number who went into battle and 19,240 men were killed or died of their wounds. Carnage, death and suffering was everywhere and the plans of those in charge of the operation lay in ruins.
As far as the Irish were concerned there was some success for the men of the 36th (Ulster) Division when they captured their German front line objectives, including the well-fortified Schwaben Redoubt.
The Ulster division had been raised from the Ulster Volunteers and was the largest unit of Irish soldiers to fight on the first day of the battle. The division was made up of nine battalions of the Royal Irish Rifles, three of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and one of the Royal Irish Fusiliers.