A Journey Towards the Somme

Posted by The Skibbereen Eagle | November 10, 2019 0


Armistice Day and the wearing of the poppy have always created difficulty for Irish people, a difficulty which echoes the cathartic schism which occurred in Ireland from 1914 to 1918, the years of the “Great War.”

On August 4th, 1914 England declared war on Germany and so began the conflict which became known as the “First World War” or simply the “Great War”. Both expressions speak of the uniqueness of the scale of the conflict in history. On September 20th John Redmond, leader of the Home Rule Parliamentary Party made his infamous ‘recruitment speech’ extolling Irish people to fight in the British Army at Woodenbridge Co. Wicklow. This speech split the nationalistic para-military force known as the Irish Volunteers into two factions. One faction supported John Redmond and his call to fight to secure Home Rule (a degree of self government within the British Empire) and was named the “National Volunteers”, the other supported Eoin McNeill and retained the name the “Irish Volunteers”. Few could have prophesised how the two Ireland’s would diverge over the next four years.

Irish Volunteers

John Redmond MP addressing a recruitment meeting

John Redmond’s call to enlist was heeded by the majority of Irish men who fought for Home Rule and “the defence of small nations” such as Belgium and by extension Ireland, and in the course of the war it is estimated of the 700,000 British military deaths 50,000 were Irish. There are two unique features of the Irish death toll. Firstly, unlike in Britain, there was never conscription in Ireland so every Irish soldier was a volunteer. Secondly, there is no category of “Irish” in the British war records so the number is estimated from the deaths in Irish regiments but also Irish Volunteers, who enrolled in English, Welsh and Scottish regiments. It is notable that proportionately this death toll is as high if not higher than in Britain.

Those who supported Eoin McNeill and the Irish Volunteers formed the nucleus of the 1916 Easter Rising against British Rule, the first major blow by a subject nation against “The Empire on which the sun never sets” and the prelude to Irish Independence being achieved in 1922. This was not independence for all of Ireland as six out of nine counties of the province of Ulster retained the Union with Britain as “Northern Ireland”.

GPO Dublin after the 1916 Easter Rising

The Easter rising was not generally supported in Ireland which witnessed widespread destruction in Dublin as well as 132 dead among the British forces and the police and 318 Irish deaths, mostly civilians. Prisoners were jeered after the surrender, and executions were demanded in motions passed in some Irish local authorities and by many newspapers, including the Irish Independent and The Irish Times. This is not too surprising with thousands of Irish soldiers fighting as volunteers in the British Army and the general view that by striking in time of war the rebels had committed treason. However, the number and swiftness of the executions, combined with the arrests and deportations and the destruction of the centre of Dublin by artillery, led to a surge of support for the rebels.

By 1918 with the end of the Great War and the General Election two Ireland’s had emerged. The general election of 1918 was the first (because of the war) since 1910 and the first (because of the Representation of the People Act) where non property owners and women (albeit, aged 30 or over) could vote and is seen as a key defining moment in modern Irish history. With the electorate increasing from 700,000 to two million in Ireland it saw the overwhelming defeat of the moderate nationalist Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), which had dominated the Irish political landscape since the 1880’s, and a landslide victory for the radical Sinn Fein party, which had never previously enjoyed such significant electoral success but which now won a decisive majority of 73 out of 105 seats in Ireland. The aftermath of the elections saw the convention of an extra-legal parliament, now known as the First Dail, by the elected Sinn Fein candidates, and the outbreak of the Irish War of Independence.

Fricourt 13th October 1916

Delville Wood

By 1922 the Irish Free State was independent and those who had “fought for England” were lambasted as traitors and their sacrifice was largely ignored by the new Irish nation which saw 500,000 people emigrate in the first 5 years of independence. These were a mixture of “loyalists” who did not identify with the “Free State” but also anti-treaty republicans who were on the losing side in the bitter Civil War which followed independence. In Ulster the unnatural partition was reinforced by a Unionist state which practiced a brutal sectarianism on the unwilling nationalists caught within its borders and where the economy of the border areas was destroyed by “Imperial Custom Posts” and cities such as Derry and Newry being cut off from their natural hinterland and declining. In “Ulster” the undoubted bravery and sacrifice of the Ulster regiments was celebrated as a blood sacrifice which proclaimed their loyalty to Britain and their right to union with the “mainland.” Thus the war and its commemoration afterwards served to reinforce and deepen the partition of Ireland and the divisions between the two Irish identities of Nationalism and Unionism.


It is against this background that I found myself with my wife and her aunt travelling across Picardy towards the Somme and the Aisne for both our families had contributed to the fallen in the Great War. We had researched their lives and deaths, found where they were commemorated or buried and were now the first members of our families to visit where they died. The landscape of the Somme battlefields today is pleasant but unprepossessing; if the Somme wasn’t there nobody would need to invent it.

My wife’s great uncle, Private Edward Kenny, originally from Edenderry, Co. Offaly had fallen with the 2nd. Bn. Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, at the Somme on the 27th August 1916 and he’s commemorated alongside 72,088 others at the dramatic “Monument to the Fallen” memorial designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens at Thiepval on the D73 road between Baupaume and Albert. This monument is for soldiers who fell at the Somme who have no known grave or were not identified and his name is inscribed on panel 15C. The entry in “Ireland’s Memorial Record” shows he was 24 when he died.

Private Edward Kenny panel 15C Thiepval Memorial

Edward Kenny – entry in Ireland’s Memorial Record Click to see a larger image

To escape from poverty in Ireland they had moved to Bonnybridge near Glasgow and worked in the summer months as “tattie hoakers”, the term for agricultural labourer’s who worked on the back breaking potato (tatties in the Scots dialect) harvest for bed and board and low wages. He joined up with the venerable Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders who are based at Scotland’s historic Stirling Castle and is commemorated on the Roll of Honour there and at The Scottish War Memorial at Edinburgh Castle. Disgracefully, to visit the latter you now have to pay an expensive admission charge into the tourist theme park which is the modern Edinburgh Castle. We were able to trace his war record from a photo which showed the distinctive hat band of the Argyll and Sutherlands. His brother (my wife’s maternal grandfather) served in the Merchant Navy during the war and survived to live to a ripe old age.

The 8th Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders Memorial at Beaumont-Hamel is in the form of a Celtic cross. It was unveiled in 1923 by the Duke of Argyll. A Gaelic inscription on the memorial reads “The mighty heroes of the Great War  The heroes who went before us”

Argyle and Sutherlands

Beginning in the height of summer, Allied offensive operations on the Somme were brought to an end just over four and half months later by adverse weather conditions: the autumn rains and early winter sleet and snow having turned the battlefield into a barely navigable morass. Attempts merely to exist in such conditions became almost intolerable physical ordeals. The fighting had led to no significant breakthrough for the Allied forces: the territorial results of over four months of relentless assaults on German defence lines had yielded a meager harvest of gains: a strip, approximately twenty miles wide by six miles deep, was wrested from German possession and this at an enormous cost in casualties.
The Battle of the Somme, and especially its calamitous opening day, has come to be regarded by many as symbolic of the wastefulness and tragedy of British First World combat experience. By evening it gradually became apparent that the day had been a disaster for the British Army. The 1st July 1916 witnessed extraordinary gallantry, immeasurable suffering and an unprecedented number of casualties. The British failure to breach the German lines on 1 July 1916 inevitably led to the strategy of attrition. A vital aspect of this change in the nature of waging war the pursuit of victory by means of the deliberate trading of losses.

Ulster Tower, ThiepvalAntiwar writings began appearing in Britain and Germany. In England in 1917, Wilfred Owen, a 24-year-old soldier, wrote:

“Anthem for Doomed Youth”:

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?

Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle

Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?

Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes

Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.

The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;

Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Today travelling along the unremarkable countryside of the Somme on the straight D7 road it takes barely 20 minutes to traverse the 12 miles from the front line on 1st July to where it had moved to by the 18th November when the 12 battles which constitute the Battle of the Somme ended. By that stage British and Commonwealth forces were calculated to have lost 419,654 (dead, wounded and missing); French losses amounted to 204,253. German casualties were estimated to have between 437,000 to 680,000. Edward Kenny died towards the end of August, a month which was characterised by a campaign of attrition of pointless attacks and counter attacks which achieved no strategic or territorial advantage for either side but left thousand of irrecoverable bodies to be churned into the muddy morass of no man’s land. At Thiepval there is a fine and moving visitor centre set trench-like into the ground and not far away there is the Ulster Memorial. This is a replica of “Helen’s Tower” on the Marquis of Clandeboye’s Estate near Bangor in Co. Down where the Ulster regiments did their training. They took particularly brutal casualties in the first week of the Battle of the Somme but were the only forces to actually take their designated objective under General Rawlison’s battle plan. In a bitter blow, because the rest of the army had not advanced, they were forced to retreat from the salient they had created at such cost.

Wifred Owen. He died in 1918 in the same week that WW I ended.

The war was botched on the German side as well. They were pulled into the war unwillingly, because of a defense treaty with Austria. Then they hoped to overrun France quickly, as they’d done in the 1869 in the Franco-Prussian war, and in August 1914, Germany planned a quick, total victory over France, requiring only six weeks — too quick for the British troops to be deployed to stop the advance into France. The plan went fantastically well for about two weeks — but then the Germans sent two corps of soldiers to the eastern front to fight the Russians. Without those soldiers, Germany’s rapid sweep was halted by the French long enough to give the British troops time to reinforce the French. Both the German and French sides dug themselves into static trenches.

The last Allied push began on 15 September, with the British engaged in the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, which also saw the tank make its debut. German defenders were forced to abandon their positions but there was still no breakthrough.


Thiepval Visitor Centre

For many years all that greeted visitors to Thiepval was the 150-foot marble and brick memorial with the names of 72,000 British, Irish and South African soldiers. Now an educational centre has been built with the support of British charities and the Conseil Général of the Département of the Somme. Over 160,000 people visit the site and the centre has a permanent exhibition explaining the history of the battle, a gift shop and improved parking and restrooms. Almost 90% of those commemorated on the memorial died between July and November 1916. They include the composer George Butterworth whose music is played as a background in the Visitor Centre.

George Butterworth was born in London in 1885 to a privileged family. He went to Eton, then to university at Oxford. Already a talented composer, music became more and more important to him. Like his friend Vaughan-Williams, he loved to collect English folk songs. At the outbreak of the First World War, he joined the Durham Light Infantry as a lieutenant in the 13th Battalion. During his year in the trenches, he was mentioned in dispatches for outstanding courage, won the Military Cross for his defence of a trench that was later named after him, and led a raid during the Battle of the Somme. The raid was successful but Butterworth was killed by a sniper’s bullet on August 5th 1916. His body was never recovered. His music captured the spirit of the English countryside that he fought for, and died to preserve.

British Battle Plan 1st July 1916

When I mentioned our forthcoming trip to the battlefield’s to my mother, much to my surprise, she told me she too had an uncle who perished in the war. He was Private James Mc Mahon of the 6th. Bn. Royal Dublin Fusiliers and by coincidence my great uncle hailed from Clara, Co. Offaly, the same county as my wife’s great uncle. Unlike my wife’s relative James McMahon had a grave in the Aisne, the Department beyond the Somme whose capital is Cambrai and where the front line had stopped when the hostilities ended with the Armistice at 11 in the morning on the 11th November 1918.

Certificate commemorating the disbanding of The Dublin Fusiliers in 1922

James McMahon was killed on the 8th October 1918 at a village called Beaurevoir, one of roundly 90 young Dublin Fusiliers who were killed from the 8th to 11th October and are buried with him in the cemetery. He was killed, aged 20, just over 4 weeks from the end of the war taking part in the so called “March to Victory” which lasted for 100 days until the Armistice. While not obvious today when viewing the sleepy countryside, in 1918 this was the last part of the fortified Hindenburg Line being attacked by tired and inexperienced British Troops resulting in disproportionate casualties among the attackers. There were over 254 separate actions by the British forces in this final phase of the war and at that stage there were not too many seasoned soldiers left so young recruits bore the brunt of the action. Heavy casualties ensued totalling over 80,000 deaths among British Forces alone. Indeed, in a telling indication of the attitude among the General Staff to casualties there were more allied deaths on the morning of 11th November 1918 alone than there were on D-Day 1944.

The respected American author Joseph E Persico has calculated a shocking figure that the final day of WWI would produce nearly 11,000 casualties, more than those killed, wounded or missing on D-Day, when Allied forces landed en masse on the shores of occupied France almost 27 years later. What is worse is that hundreds of these soldiers would lose their lives thrown into action by generals who knew that the Armistice had already been signed. The recklessness of General Wright, of the 89th American Division, is a case in point. Seeing his troops were exhausted and dirty, and hearing there were bathing facilities available in the nearby town of Stenay, he decided to take the town so his men could refresh themselves. “That lunatic decision cost something like 300 casualties, many of them battle deaths, for an inconceivable reason,” says Mr Persico.

Beaurevoir, Aisne

Like much of the battlefields Beaurevoir is an unprepossessing and sleepy French “village” which actually straggles over two kilometers and has a population of 3,500 well dispersed inhabitants. In this area it contains 4 military cemeteries, Prospect Hill, Beaurevoir Communal Cemetery, Beaurevoir Extension Cemetery, and Beaurevoir British Cemetery where James McMahon is buried.

Beaurevoir British Cemetery, Aisne, France


James McMahon – entry in “Ireland’s Memorial Record” *Click for a larger image*

Like all the Commonwealth cemeteries it is beautifully maintained and lies on the edge of the village with the standard layout of the Cross of Remembrance and a shelter for visitors which also holds the Book of Remembrance. James lies in a row of other Dublin Fusiliers aged from 18 to 21 with his name on the headstone given as “B. J. McMahon”.

I wasn’t expecting to feel a great deal of connection with somebody who died so many years before I was born but being there among the graves of so many young Irish soldiers who all died on the 8th October 1918 was surprisingly moving. There is great respect shown to these cemeteries by the way they are maintained by the War Graves Commission and by the local French communities. I wrote in the book in French “Thank you for looking after him so well” and we all laid a wreath entwined with a ribbon in the colours of the Irish tricolour and a Poppy Cross on the grave with the inscription “Remembered with respect by his family in Ireland”. We had laid one the previous day at the Thiepval memorial with the same inscription in memory of Edward Kenny.

Surprisingly, given the history and the pathos of the battlefields and cemeteries this is a fine part of France with great interest in the history and the towns. Arras, where we stayed, is a wonderfully atmospheric Flemish town with two superb squares which have been preserved from the 13th Century. It was on the front line for most of the 1st World War with no less than 3 Battles of Arras and is overlooked by Vimy Ridge where the Canadians took terrible casualties. Underneath the town are impressive Roman catacombs much enlarged over the centuries and which served as a huge underground field hospital during the war. It was also occupied by the Germans in 1870 and 1940.

Hotel de Ville Arras

Arras WW1

We now know that the war to end all wars did nothing of the sort and did little for “small nations” either. It is hard to explain the “Causes of the Great War.” In his weighty book of the same name the historian A.J.P. Taylor cannot come to a definitive conclusion but, as he observes, it was the first truly industrialised war and it was industrialisation which made possible the scale of the awful bloodbath as “Defence was mechanised but attack was not,” The aim of the domino effect of the alliances which clicked robot like into action after the assassinations in Sarajevo was to preserve the established order, “For King and Country” as it was expressed in Britain. But after the dust had settled there were no more Hapsburgs, Romanoff’s, Hohenzollern’s or Ottomans and the Saxe-Coburg Gotha’s had become “Windsor’s”. The war and the humiliating peace left a legacy of instability both in Europe and in the former Ottoman territories only some of which has been resolved today. It removed a whole generation and those left behind bore deep scars. They included a French Captain, Charles De Gaulle, left for dead by his own side at Verdun in no-man’s land for two days before being taken prisoner by the Germans, an Austrian corporal Adolph Hitler who was gassed and wounded and unemployed after the war in a collapsed German economy who concluded his country was not defeated on the battlefield but by its own lack of willpower and subversive elements on the home front who were not “proper Germans” The novelist J.R. Tolkien was a survivor of the Somme and wrote a mythological parable of the horror and inhumanity of mechanised warfare and a plea for the decency of humanity, “The Lord of the Rings.”

An Irish poet Francis Ledwidge, who died in 1917 at the battle of Ypres, wrote movingly;

“And here where that sweet poet sleeps,
I hear the songs he left unsung,
When winds are fluttering the flowers,
And summer-bells are rung.

He shall not hear the bittern cry
In the wild sky, where he is lain,
Nor voices of the sweeter birds,
Above the wailing of the rain.

Nor shall he know when loud March blows
Thro’ slanting snows her fanfare shrill,
Blowing to flame the golden cup
Of many an upset daffodil. “

Francis Ledwidge

Thomas McDonagh

Francis Ledwidge, as one of the “War Poets” could have been writing about any of the fallen of the Great War. However, in an illustration of the difficult loyalties of Ireland he was writing in memory of his fellow poet and great friend, Thomas McDonagh. He was one of the leaders of the 1916 rising and a signatory of the Proclamation of Independence of the Irish Republic who was executed by a firing squad of soldiers drawn from the same British Army in which Francis Ledwidge was serving. In our fallen relatives home towns of Edenderry and Clara there are still “British Legion” houses provided for ex-soldiers and their families and in the decades of poverty and economic stagnation many Irish families were quietly grateful for the “War Pensions” they received. Ireland was neutral during the Second World War but many served in the British forces and many also worked in England both to survive and help the war effort including my Grandfather and two uncles who travelled on British Legion travel warrants and worked for the electronics firm Lucas in Birmingham during the war whilst living in a company dormitory. My father at the age of ten and his family on the other hand came in the other direction as refugees from the devastating blitz in Coventry.

See; Moonlight Sonata


As part of the process of reconciliation in Ireland the Irish Dead of the world wars are now commemorated at a service attended by the President and the Government and this issue which has divided in the past has helped make the distance between Belfast and Dublin shorter and contribute to the process of reconciliation on the island of Ireland. On Armistice Day I too will be proud to wear a poppy not in support of British Militarism or to legitimise the wanton waste of life in war. Rather I’ll wear it to remember the great sacrifice of Edward Kenny and James McMahon and all their comrades who made a brave personal choice to fight for the greater freedom of humanity and paid the ultimate price for their beliefs. I will recall the words of the poet John McCrae;

“In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.”











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