Ireland at the Somme: John Horne Asks Why the Heroic Efforts of the Two Irish Divisions, the 16th (Irish) and the 36th (Ulster), in the Bloody Events on the Western Front in 1916, Have Been Viewed So Differently Both at the Time and Since

Article excerpt

THE SOMME BATTLEFIELD CARRIES a range of monuments that form a mosaic of commemoration, where men from around the globe converged in 1916 to fight in one of the greatest battles of the First World War. But unlike many others, the monuments to the Irishman who fell in the battle commemorate the dead in two sharply different registers. One is the proud Ulster Tower, testifying to the mourning of Northern Ireland in the 1920s for those who died in the battle, and especially for the 36th (Ulster) Division, composed almost exclusively of Northern Protestants, which attacked on July 1st, 1916, the first day. The Tower has remained a symbol of Northern unionism ever since. The other is the humble Celtic stone cross that was erected outside the church of Guillemont to the memory of the 16th (Irish) Division, which recruited mainly among Catholics and nationalists and fought later in the battle (Guillemont fell on September 3rd). This monument is unknown to most people in Ireland.

In part this contrast resulted from Partition after the war and from divergent official attitudes to commemorating the war in the two parts of the country. But it also stemmed from the parallel yet different experiences of the war itself by the two traditions, unionist and nationalist.

Irish military recruitment was voluntary throughout the war. In the first two years, Ireland participated like the rest of the United Kingdom (and the British Dominions) in the extraordinary drive to create an army of millions by volunteering. The government only attempted to introduce conscription in Ireland in 1918, two years after Britain, and popular resistance meant that it failed.

Three quarters of the 210,000 Irishmen who served in the British forces joined up in this way, the remainder having already joined the army before the war began. Overall, this response was less than in Britain. While Ulster, Dublin and the hinterland of Leinster provided more volunteers than the agricultural districts of England, rural areas of southern and western Ireland supplied the least recruits of any part of the United Kingdom. A common explanation is that Irish wartime enlistment continued a tradition of recruitment to the much smaller peacetime British army for economic and social reasons, such as unemployment and poverty. There is some truth in this, but that tradition was waning by 1900. Much of the wartime volunteering was not economically motivated but, as elsewhere, reflected the involvement of communities and groups in the war itself.

This meant that Ireland's participation was shaped by the Home Rule crisis. In 1914, Ireland stood on the brink of civil war as unionists in the Protestant districts of Ulster armed and prepared for rebellion against the introduction by the Liberal government of Home Rule. As the nationalists in turn took up arms in support of Home Rule, Irish society became uniquely militarized--though not in the sense of preparing for a European war. The Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), formed under Sir Edward Carson in 1913 to defend the Union, had nearly 100,000 men in 1914, organized on a military basis.

Ironically, war in Europe, which elsewhere meant the suspension of domestic politics, put the Irish conflict back on the political agenda, as recruitment became a test of each side's legitimacy. The British Establishment was deeply divided over Home Rule, which the Liberal government promoted, but which the Conservative party and much of the army opposed. Partition in some form was inevitable. Home Rule was enacted after the outbreak of war but suspended for the duration. The leadership of both sides in Ireland endorsed volunteering for the British army in support of their opposed ends--Home Rule versus the retention of the Union, at least for Ulster. Unionists and Home Rulers channelled the antagonisms of Irish politics into a different kind of volunteering that boosted Irish recruitment and helped shape the 16th and 36th Divisions. …


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