The Somme – Counterpoint to the Easter Rising

Pictured: Trench warfare – the Royal Irish Rifles in World War One.

Pictured: Trench warfare – the Royal Irish Rifles in World War One.

The 100th Year anniversary of 1916 has enfolded our focus and many commemorations have brought the stories of the Irish Rebels to the fore once again.

Before and after the significant events of the Easter Rising, Irishmen were encouraged to enlist in the British Army to bring the final part of the Home Rule promise across the line. Many of these men were taking part in a patriotic act that they perceived as contributing to an Ireland of self governance that had so long eluded us as a nation.

The events of Easter 1916 and the executions soon after led to a surge of nationalist feeling towards Sinn Fein in the elections of 1918, and the stories and sacrifice of those who fought in WW1 were washed away into the shadows of history that is only recently coming to light again in a modern Ireland.

It is also interesting to note that the disputed first victim of the Easter Rising was a Margaret Naylor who was shot dead by a Republican sniper who possibly believed that British Soldiers were passing through their positions in disguise as women. Margaret’s husband John Naylor was killed the very same day while fighting with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers at the Battle of Hulluch in April 1916 during a horrific gas attack.

It is also interesting to note that the Irish Volunteer, Michael Malone, (known for his defence of 25 Northumberland Road at the Battle of Mount Street) and his brother William, were an example of a family divided in their loyalties. William served with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers at the Battle of the Mousetrap at Ypres in 1915 where he was killed in action during a German assault and gas attack that left only 22 men alive out of a 658-man fighting outfit.

In contrast to the Easter Rising of 1916, the campaign of the Somme (which came over two months after), was a blood sacrifice of Irish men fighting throughout a five-month campaign in France.

The Irish involvement in the British army of WW1 bore an immense sacrifice at the front lines, where they were at the key engagements of Guillemont, Thiepval and Ginchy from July right through to November. The heroic soldiers have been commemorated more often in the circles and lore of Northern Ireland’s loyalist community, but historically, south of the border, it was a different story altogether.

Notably, there were more Irish volunteers in the British army from outside Ulster than the one division that fought at Thiepval, that has been commemorated more readily, even in such literature as Frank McGuinness’s play Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme.

The heroes who stormed the trenches at Guillemont and Ginchy received little recognition, despite their success in an otherwise costly, disastrous, morally ambiguous, pyrrhic victory.

Again it has been silenced and forgotten until now, because the legacy of 1916 put it in the shade and often people ostracised even those who fought with great distinction. Could one have called the Redmonities patriots of a different king? Patriots who believed that their service abroad would guarantee Ireland Home Rule and that by defending the neutrality of Belgium, Ireland’s example would be nationally and internationally recognised.

Out of the three Divisions that were engaged in France from Kitchener’s New Army (the 10th, 16th and 36th (Ulster) Division) two were based in southern Ireland composed of men from a diversity of backgrounds. Many were Catholic nationalist volunteers encouraged by John Redmond’s promise of Home Rule upon the example of Irish bravery abroad. Men volunteered for the British army in hope that such an example would be considered worthy for the cause of Home Rule as a stepping stone towards an Irish Republic.

Yet many men came from both Catholic and Protestant households, both officer class and working class, who sought a wage or an ‘adventure’ abroad, and were unsuspecting of what was to come in the infamous slaughter that the Somme campaign has been associated with historically.

The 16th Irish Division were trained specifically to be shock troopers, prepared for the grisly hand-to-hand fighting that emerged along the trenches with all the ramifications and demands needed for what was historically called “the first modern war.”

Nationalist politicians and writers who fought in the British Armed forces included Tom Kettle, the Irish Nationalist MP for East Tyrone, who joined Redmond’s Irish Volunteers in hope of gaining Irish independence and to defend Belgium against the atrocities of “Prussian militarism.” Kettle was killed in the thick of the battle of Ginchy on September 9th, 1916 with his beloved comrades of the 9th Dublin Fusiliers. Kettle too had predicted with much emotional irritation that the soldiers of the European conflict would be branded as traitors while the men of 1916 would be remembered as heroes.

James Emmet Dalton (who fought alongside Collins during the War of Independence and with the Irish Free State Army, and became a legendary Irish producer of such films as ‘The Blue Max’ and ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’) served with the 16th Division, 9th Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers at the battle of Ginchy where 4,000 Irish soldiers were either killed or wounded.

Francis Ledwidge, celebrated Irish poet of WW1, was a volunteer who served with the 10th Irish Division, 5th Battalion of the Royal Enniskillen Fusiliers. He received promotion to Lance-Corporal, was a veteran of Gallipoli, served in the Serbian theatre of war before being stationed on the Western Front until his death in 1917 at the battle of Passchendaele. Here we have a man who commemorated Thomas Mc Donagh in a poem fit for an obituary and a poet on a par with both Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon as a commentator and witness to mass industrial warfare.

Locally in Dublin 4, churches like St. Matthew’s Methodist Church in Irishtown, The joint Presbyterian-Methodist church of Sandymount, St. John the Evangelist church near Sydney Parade and the Star of the Sea Catholic church have all put up plaques and memorials, with names listed for those men both local and foreign, who were members of the congregation and also those from other parts of Ireland who are remembered and honoured.

Though these plaques have been largely unknown and remain to a certain degree to be secrets that remain in old antiquated churches, these too should be remembered as heroes who were cut short in the flower of their youth.

By Robert Fullarton