Remembering 3,500 Irish soldiers at Somme centenary
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme, the World War I battle which lasted almost five months and wounded and killed over a million soldiers.
Of these, over 3,500 soldiers were Irish, with an unknown number injured, which affected the entire island of Ireland.
The Battle of the Somme is the most infamous in history, and was orchestrated with the intention of bringing the war to an end with a major victory.
In fact on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1 1916, the first phase of the so-called Battle Albert resulted in 57,470 British casualties, greater than the total combined British casualties in the Crimean, Boer and Korean wars put together.
On that first day the 36th (Ulster) Division lost 5,500 men, of whom almost 2,000 were killed. It was the largest unit of Irish soldiers to fight on that day, and consisted of three battalions of the Royal Inniskilling Fusilliers, Royal Irish Rifles and one of the Royal Irish Fusilliers.
— RTÉ News (@rtenews) July 1, 2016
The Ulster Volunteers were noted for their brave manoeuvre in which they broke through the strongest German defences, and penetrated deep into rear positions to take 500 German prisoners.
But as the rest of the army were unable to make progress to the front of this area, the Ulstermen had to abandon their positions, and ended up with 5,500 casualties. That Division were awarded four Victoria Crosses for that day alone, and the losses were felt throughout the entire Ulster community.
Soldiers from the south also fought in the Battle of the Somme, and the next notable involvement was from the mainly Irish Catholic 16th Division on September 3.
Within ten days the Division, fighting with the same bravery as the 36th Division lost half of its 11,000 men in the bid to take Guillemont and Ginchy after being brought in from Loos in Belgium.
The Battle came to an end in the snow of November 1916. During the final attack on the 13th, the 10th Royal Dublin Fusiliers helped to capture Beaumont Hamel, with 50 per cent casualties.
The Battle, and the War itself, resulted in huge Irish losses at a time when the country was still suffering from the aftermath of the 1916 Rising.
One notable Irish loss was of MP and nationalist Tom Kettle, who missed out on playing a political role in his own country alongside the many who refused to fight for Britain. Notably, his final letter to his wife read: “he carried his pack for Ireland and Europe. Now his pack-carrying is over. He has held the line.”
At the time the prospect of Irish conscription, to make up for the huge loss of life along the Western Front before the American armies intervened, seemed very real, prompting Kettle to write:
“Used with the wisdom which is sown in tears and blood, this tragedy of Europe may be and must be the prologue to the two reconciliations of which all statesmen have dreamed, the reconciliation of Protestant Ulster with Ireland, and the reconciliation of Ireland with Great Britain.”