The Somme is the most inauspicious of places. Rolling French farmland interspersed with woodlands traversed by the Somme River and some minor canals and railways dotted with quiet villages and towns which were once important and still possess an air of historic grandeur. Nobody planned that this area of little strategic significance would be a front line in the greatest conflict the world had ever seen. At the beginning of the First World War, during the Race to the sea of September and November 1914, the Somme became the site of the Battle of Albert. The battle was a five-day engagement between 25 and 29 September, with the French Tenth Army attacking at Albert and pushing toward Bapaume, and the German Sixth Army counter-attacking back towards Albert. The line settled around the town of Thiepval and remained there until July 1916, when the Battle of the Somme was fought on and around the same ground. The Germans never made it to the sea in 1914 as they planned to cut off France from British reinforcements as they diverted two divisions to the East to attack the Russian Army and Allied counter offensives meant their assault ground to a halt along a 1,000 mile front from Switzerland to the Belgian coast – “The Western Front.”
The accidental front line having settled at the Somme River all remained largely quiet for almost two years with the French Army taking the initiative on offensives and bearing most of the casualties. Britain had a desperate struggle to recruit and train a land army of a size and critical mass to form a front line which would hold in a war of attrition and successfully launch offensives against a resourceful, well equipped and trained foe who had two years to prepare for such an attack and build up their defensive positions. Britain’s peacetime army was relatively small and under resourced as the bulk of the military budget had gone to the Royal Navy to ensure Britain’s control of its trade routes and Empire. So the British soldiers who had fought in the earlier engagements were seasoned professional soldiers but now from Officer down to Private the thousands who were to get their first taste of deadly combat at the Somme were inexperienced volunteers. Volunteers who had signed up in a patriotic flush or seeking adventure who were told they could do their bit for King and Country and when the war was over hold their heads high as they went home to be hailed as heroes.
So there were the chums and pals battalions, whole factories, whole mines, the shipyards of Belfast and the Clyde, football supporters who were going to stand with their chums, do the right thing and go home to their families. In their midst was a 26 year old Irishman Private Edward Kenny. His family were poor tenants and agricultural labourers from Edenderry Co. Offaly, then called “King’s County.” The King was not an English King but rather Philip II of Spain, husband of Mary Tudor, known as “Bloody Mary”, Queen of England and daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. The former county town of Daingean was called Philipstown. The adjoining county of Laois was called Queen’s County and its county town of Portlaoise was called Maryborough. Edward Kenny’s father had no land but was a tenant of the Robinson’s of Newberry Hall just down the road from Edenderry in Carbury, Co. Kildare.
To escape from poverty in Ireland some of the family had moved to Bonnybridge near Glasgow and worked in the summer months as “Tattie-Hookers”, 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. It was not work you did if you had choices.
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. You can imagine the sense of pride and purpose this young Irish lad must have felt as he joined in basic training with one of Scotland’s oldest and most venerable regiments. You can imagine he felt lifted up and his pride shown in his passing out photo is obvious. That excitement must have been greater as he embarked in battle dress and full kit for France, passing through the Port of Folkstone as millions did in the four years of what history would call “The Great War.” You can imagine how he felt knowing they were going to strike a blow against tyranny and march through their home town with pride when victory was theirs.
So with his friends he heeded the call to action, to defend small countries. One of those countries was Belgium but another one was Ireland. The Westminster Parliament had passed Home Rule for Ireland in 1914. So after 750 years Britain’s oldest colony would have self governing Dominion status under the Crown just like Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Over 250,000 young Irish men enlisted on that promise and when they went home they found events and the 1916 Rising against British Rule had intervened. For those who returned found that in Republican Ireland they were regarded as traitors even though they had gone abroad, as they saw it, to fight for Ireland’s future and the rights of small nations, including their own. All the Irish soldiers were volunteers (there was never conscription in the Island of Ireland) and it is worth noting that proportionately as many fought in the war from Ireland as they did in England where conscription was introduced. There were over 50,000 Irish deaths during WWI but their sacrifice is not fully recognised for two reasons. Firstly there is no “Irish” category in British War Records as there is for say “Australian” or “Canadian.” Irish soldiers did fight with Irish regiments but many, like Edward Kenny, signed up with English, Welsh or Scottish regiments. Secondly the Irish Free State after 1922 turned its back on these soldiers, was nor part of the “Imperial” War Graves organisation and there were few commemorative events in Irish towns and villages.
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.
The scale of the loss and the lives sacrificed is only too apparent at the Thiepval Memoral to the Missing of the Somme. Thiepval was one of the main theatres of the Battle of the Somme, whose casualties were enormous. In 1932, the Memorial was inaugurated to commemorate the loss of more than 73,367 fighters missing British, Irish and South African soldiers who fell in the battle and who have no known grave. It is now the largest British war memorial in the world and more than 160,000 visitors to the Somme battlefields come here every year, many to pay their respects to relatives whose names are inscribed on the pillars of the great arch.
Their names of the fallen are engraved on the 16 pillars that form the basis of the arch, 45 meters high. This is the most important monument in France designed by the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens. This “Memorial to the Missing” is a place of pilgrimage for many.
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 meagre 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.
By the 18th November 1916 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. The military cemetery reflects the principles of the British memorials: names engraved on a stele or monument, uniform headstones and lack of any distinction between the dead, regardless of military rank, social status, or religion. The Cross of Sacrifice set on an octagonal base has at its centre a bronze broadsword, blade down. Finally, the Stone of Remembrance bears the inscription from the Book of Ecclesiastes: “Their name will live forever” (Their Name Liveth for Evermore).
For many years all that greeted visitors to Thiepval was the 150-foot marble and brick memorial with the names of the fallen. 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 annually 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.
That Battle of the Somme was one of the most costly battles of World War I, by the number of troop casualties, as Allied forces attempted to break through the German lines along a 25-mile (40 km) front north and south of the River Somme. The Allies had originally intended the Somme to be the site of one of several simultaneous major offensives by Allied powers against the Central Powers in 1916. However, before these offensives could begin, the Germans attacked first, engaging the Allies at the Battle of Verdun. As this battle dragged on, the purpose of the Somme campaign (which was still in the planning stage) shifted from striking a decisive blow against Germany to drawing German forces away from Verdun and relieving the Allied forces there. By its end the losses on the Somme had exceeded those at Verdun. The soldiers were inexperienced as were the Officers so they were to advance in formation rather than use their initiative as you could with battle hardened combatants. The high command set great store by shelling to destroy the German defences. Unfortunately the artillery control was not sophisticated, 70% of the shells did not explode and the well prepared Germans were alerted to impending attack. As the historian AJP Taylor remarked “Defence was mechanised, attack was not.”
My wife’s great uncle, Private Edward Kenny, fell with the 2nd. Bn. Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, at the Somme on the 27th August 1916 and he’s commemorated alongside 73,088 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 15A. 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.
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.
In Edward Kenny’s home town of Edenderry 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. His brother (my wife’s maternal grandfather) served in the Merchant Navy during the war and survived to live to a ripe old age. When my wife and her sister visited during the school holidays he was always delighted when they picked poppies in the surrounding fields and would look wistfully at them in the vase on the window sill, they being young didn’t understand why. There was a picture of Edward on the wall and he named his eldest son Edward and he in turn has carried on this tradition.
Private Edward Kenny, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, was commemorated at the reading of the Roll of Honour at the Poppy Field at the Tower of London on 20th October 2014. No 34 at 3.45 minutes on the video.
Walking around the Somme and Thiepval today you are aware this is hallowed ground and for better or worse the scene of unbelievable sacrifice. There are the impressive monuments to commemorate that sacrifice such as the Thiepval Memorial and The Ulster Tower. There are the numerous immaculate cemeteries with their Cross of Remembrance and their identical Portland Stone gravestones which make no distinction between rank and religion. But above all there is the heavy, clodding clay beneath your feet, the clay which turns so easily to sticky mud when wet.
Then you look at Mouquet Farm near what was the German fortress of Thiepval. It was taken and lost four times during the Battle of the Somme before being captured at the very end in late September. On this small farm there were 6,300 casualties. You look at this and realise that the bones of Edward Kenny and many others are all around you, blasted by shells and mines and ground into the mud and craters. We cannot imagine what they endured and they had no idea, absolutely no idea what lay ahead of them as they disembarked in France full of youthful confidence singing “It’s a long way to Tipperary.”
So last month on the Centenary of The Great War and 98 years since his sacrifice we felt both proud and humbled to travel to Thiepval and lay a Poppy Wreath by Edward Kenny’s name on the Thiepval Memorial as the bugler played the Last Post to honour his memory and his bravery.
Private Edward Kenny, 2nd Bn. , Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders ,
Born: Carbury, Co. Kildare, Ireland 1889 – Died, Thiepval, Somme, France 27 August 1916
Remembered with pride by his family in Ireland.
Thiepval Visitor Centre
They shall grow not old,
As those that are left grow old,
Age shall not weary them,
Nor the years condemn,
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,
We will remember them
For my perspective on a trip to the battlefields and the traumatic effect of The Great War on Ireland see;
Towards the Somme: A Personal Journey
Royal Irish Regiment play “Killaloe” at Thiepval Memorial in France. Filmed on 1st July 2006, the 90th Anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.
Today, powered by its readers and contributors, from its cyber eyries in Ireland and the centres of the Irish Diaspora The Eagle casts its Cold Eye on Life and Death and much in between.