Kerr's Corner

Kerr's Corner is a regular feature in East Antrim and Newtownabbey editions of The Wizard. David Kerr would like to hear your memories of life in your own area. Maybe you'll trigger some thoughts for a future column. kerrscorner@ulsteronline.org.uk

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Ireland At The Somme

1916 WAS PROBABLY the most important year in Irish Twentieth Century history. The events of that year still reverberate ninety years later. Easter saw insurrection break out on the streets of Dublin as when a hardcore of Irish republican revolutionaries declared an independent Irish Republic. This Easter Rising was soon suppressed and its leaders , Padraig Pearse, Thomas Clarke and James Connolly were shot by the British authorities.

Part of the reason for the harsh treatment of the Dublin insurrectionists was that their rebellion took place while Great Britain was at war with Germany. Tens of thousands of Irishmen were serving overseas in British uniform. It was feared that the Irish rebellion could cause mutiny in the ranks if it wasn’t crushed immediately.

When the Great War broke out in August 1914 it had the effect of forestalling a civil war in Ireland. Since the Home Rule Crisis in 1912, Ireland became an armed camp. Sir Edward Carson had formed a Provisional Government of Ulster to resist the authority of any Dublin-based Home Rule parliament and had raised and armed a militia - the Ulster Volunteer Force - to give teeth to that resistance.

In a parallel move, John Redmond of the Irish Parliamentary Party had raised and armed his own Irish Volunteers. Civil war seemed inevitabl e until events in Europe intervened.

When war broke out, the leaders of both of these militias pledged their support to the British Empire’s war effort and encouraged their respective volunteers to enlist en masse in the British forces. The UVF were incorporated into the 36th (Ulster) Division and the Irish National Volunteers became the nucleus of the 10th and the 16th (Irish) Divisions.

In 1916 the British tried to end the war with a ‘Big Push’ at the Somme in northern France. The idea was that a massive artillery barrage would wipe out the enemy so that the Allied troops could walk across no-man’s land and on to Berlin. It didn’t work out that way as the men of the 36th (Ulster) Divison found to their cost. Four Victoria Crosses were awarded to men from the Ulster Division for their courage on July 1st.

Fighting next to the 36th (Ulster), was the 1st Royal Dublin Fusiliers, behind the 2nd Royal Fusiliers and the Lancashire Fusiliers.They went over the top at 9am but were trapped in the British barbed wire. The 2nd Battalion also attacked in the second wave and were stopped by German fire. Their combined casualties came to 479 with many others missing.

Guillemont was assigned to the 47th Brigade of the 16th (Irish), comprised of the 6th Royal Irish Regiment, 6th Connaught Rangers, 7th Leinsters and 8th Munster Fusiliers. September 1st, 1916, saw Guillemont shelled before an infantry attack. Many shells fell short, killing 200 allied troops. Athy man, Lieutenant John Holland won the 16th's first VC for leading his 7th Leinsters ahead of the barrage, surprising the enemy. 6th Connaught Ranger, Private Thomas Hughes took a machine gun post and three German prisoners, earning a VC. 1,147 of the Brigade's 2,400 soldiers were killed, wounded or missing.

On September 9th, poet Tom Kettle died leading Dublin Fusiliers at the Battle of Ginchy. A month later, close to Ginchy, the 2nd RDF captured their target by hand-to-hand fighting in the trenches. The 10th Dublins, attached to the 2nd Royal Marines, engaged the enemy near Hamel. Fog gave them cover, then a hail storm followed by rain, saw the 10th RDF capture 400 prisoners, with 242 casualties. Four months of fighting at the Somme cost 146,404 Allied dead: the British army, 95,675. The Germans lost 164,055.

Later that winter, the Ulstermen and the 16th Irishmen fought together on the Messines Ridge to take the Belgian village of Wytschaete.

A prominent casualty of the Battle of Messines was Major Willie Redmond, the brother of the Irish Parliamentary Party leader, John Redmond. Despite his age he joined the 6th Royal Irish Regiment at its formation. Although in his fifties he had insisted on being allowed to lead his men forward in the battle at Messines on 7 June 1917 where he wass wounded. By chance the stretcher bearers were from the 36th (Ulster) Division. Private John Meeke from the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, had noticed Redmond falling wounded. Meeke was a former UVF member. At home they would have been on opposing sides but thing were differnt on the battlefield.Whilst looking after Redmond, Meeke was himself hit by shrapnel but managed to get Redmond back to the 36th Division's dressing station but his wounds were so serious that he died from the shock. John Meeke survived the war, although he died quite young in December 1923, aged just 28.

A memorial round tower now stands in Messines to commemorate all the men from this island who died in Flanders and France. A Celtic Cross in memory of the 16th (Irish) Division stands beside the church in Ginchy and a replica of Helen’s Tower stands in Thiepval to commemorate the men of the 36th (Ulster) Division.

It’s only recently that the role of the Irish in the GreatWar has been acknowledged as their sacrifice was regarded as a shameful thing in a republic set up by the heirs of the 1916 insurrectionists. This is a welcome change.

On Saturday September 3rd there will be a Somme day in Dublin to remember Lieut. Tom Kettle MP of the 9th Royal Dublin Fusiliers who was killed on 9 September 1916 during the attack on Ginchy.

The Royal Dublin Fusiliers Association will hold a ceremony at the bust of Tom Kettle in St. Stephen's Green at 11:00 a.m. At 2:00 p.m. there will be a brief lecture on The Battle of the Somme followed by a more detailed lecture and discussion titled, The Somme in Irish Memory. This will be presented by Jane Leonard, who is an expert on Ireland in the Great War. Venue: Dublin City Library and Archive, Gilbert Library, 138-144 Pearse Street, Dublin 2.

Interested readers can contact the Royal Dublin Fusiliers Association,c/o Mr Brian Moroney,11 Ayrfield Court, AyrfieldDublin 13, Ireland.e-mail: rdfa@eircom.net

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