Thursday, 30 June 2016

Who were the Irish at the Somme?

By E.M. Powell

2016 marks the centenary of Ireland’s Easter Rising. The events of Easter 1916 marked a crucial turning point in Irish history and ultimately led to Irish independence. But while the Rising was indeed pivotal in Irish history, it was taking place against a background of one of history’s bloodiest and most horrific conflicts: the First World War, in which around 17 million soldiers and civilians were killed. That Ireland supplied 200,000 men to fight Britain's cause against Germany is often overlooked. Many lost their lives or were terribly wounded.

Much of that grievous loss and harm took place at the Battle of the Somme, in Northern France, in which Irishmen from both sides of the political divide fought.

The first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1 1916, was the worst in British military history. Some 19,240 men were killed. By the time the battle ended in November of 1916, over 3,500 Irish soldiers had died, with thousands more wounded.

It was Ulstermen who suffered the worst casualties on that first day. The 36th Ulster Division lost 5,500 officers and men—killed, wounded or missing. The men of that division behaved with the utmost bravery. Four Victoria Crosses were awarded to officers and men of the Division for their gallantry, two of them posthumously. But their sacrifices counted for little. They were the only British division to reach the German second lines, yet made little ground overall.

But Ulster was not the only Irish province to suffer losses. The 16th Irish Division, consisting mainly of men from Munster, Leinster and Connacht had 4,330 casualties in September at the Somme, of whom 1,200 were killed. There were also Irish soldiers who fought in other divisions as part of the regular army or in the newly raised battalions. The total number of Irish casualties will never be known.

Neither was it just Irish men who were at the Somme. Irish women were there, too. Professional nurses and volunteers in the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) and the Red Cross tended to the dying and wounded, and drove ambulances. One estimate puts the number of Irishwomen who served as VADs at 4,500. Some lost their lives or were wounded.

The dead and wounded Irish may have come from both sides of the political divide in an Ireland that was in political turmoil in 1916. For those who did return, that turmoil would continue. Home did not bring peace.

It is easy to claim or blame the dead for one’s own political ends. Yet on this, the evening before the centenary of that appalling battle, perhaps we should pause to consider these words from those who were there: one statement from one side of the Irish struggle, one from the other:

'There is nothing but the mud and the gaping shell-holes - a chaotic wilderness of shell-holes, rim overlapping rim - and, in the bottom of many, the bodies of the dead.'
‘Not a few of the men cried and I cried.’

These words have no politics. They are what we should commemorate. And strive to never have to utter them again.
Images courtesy of & © Alison Morton.

MIW member E.M. Powell was born in Cork City into the family of Michael Collins.
She now lives in Manchester with her husband, daughter and a Facebook-friendly dog. Her medieval thriller Fifth Knight series has reached bestseller lists in the U.S., the U.K. and Germany.
Book #3, THE LORD OF IRELAND, was published by Thomas & Mercer on April 5 2016. She is also a contributing editor to International Thriller Writers The Big Thrill magazine, blogs for English Historical Fiction Authors, and reviews fiction & non-fiction for the Historical Novel Society and is part of the HNS social media team. Her website can be found at

To find out more about MIW's Somme 100 Commemoration, please click here.

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