The Irish on the Somme

Many words have been written about the Battle of the Somme, which began 100 years ago in July. But an interesting and lesser-studied aspect of the early part of the Somme Offensive was the contribution made by Irish soldiers – particularly, two Irish Divisions: the 36th (Ulster) Division and the 16th Irish Division.  The former was heavily involved in the traumatic first day of battle, the latter in capturing two German-held villages in September 1916. My own research – which will culminate in a panel display at The National Archives in July  – explores the participation and commemoration of the two divisions and their crucial part in the conflict.  It also looks at how the memorialisation and perception of sacrifice has differed between the unionist and nationalist communities of Ireland.

My research draws together a range of sources from The National Archives, the Public Records Office Northern Ireland the Ulster Museum, as well as the National Library of Ireland, in order to tell a more complete narrative of the events from the first day of this most significant of battles:

On the morning of 1 July 1916, the soldiers of 14th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles, part of the 36th Ulster Division, climbed out of their trenches into ‘no mans land’ to attack the enemy and capture a fortified installation – the Schwaben Redoubt; a network of machine-gun emplacements near Thiepval. George Hackney was a member of this battalion and was able to take a photograph early on the first day of the capture of numerous German prisoners. The incident is also recorded through official war diary entries, with reference to ‘prisoners passing down the trench’ (WO 95/2511/1)  and ‘prisoners now coming in very fast…received word at 9.30am that 200 prisoners had passed through [Brigade Headquarters]’ (WO 95/2507/2).

Capture of German Prisoners 1 July 1916. George Hackney, permission of National Museums Northern Ireland.

Capture of German Prisoners 1 July 1916. George Hackney, permission of National Museums Northern Ireland.

Further embellishment of the first day can be gleaned from reading the war diary of the 109th Infantry Brigade (WO 95/2507/2) and an account written by the Commanding Officer of the 10th Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers(‘The Derrys’), Major Sam Macrory (WO 95/2491/5). Macrory’s account exemplifies both the pride in his men but also the confusion of minute by minute battlefield manoeuvres. He describes, for example, the intermingling of Ulster battalions at a particular location on the battlefield –the “Crucifix”: ‘Portions of the left Coys were at least 200 yards left of their objective, having followed the wrong direction from the start. The men of our battalion were more or less intermingled with representatives of all other Brigades of the Ulster Division.’ Sadly, all four of the battalions’ commanders were killed or wounded on the morning of 1 July.

Macrory also highlighted the bravery of one particular individual, Lieutenant Ernest McClure, who failed to receive any recognition for his actions as no officer witnessed his courage in holding the Crucifix position. McClure’s body was never recovered.

Image by kind permission of United Services Club, Limavardy, Northern Ireland.

Photograph of officers of ‘The Derrys’, including McClure and Macrory. Image by kind permission of United Services Club, Limavady, Northern Ireland.

 

Crucifix corner, Theipval Wood (present day)

Crucifix corner, Theipval Wood (present day)

The display also informs the viewer of the part played by the 16th Irish Division and their heroism at Guillemont and Ginchy, south of Thiepval. Both battles are recorded in detail in our WO 95/1969, WO 95/1970 and WO 95/1955/3 records, describing the men of the 47th and 48th Brigades launching an assault with bombs and bayonets, but enduring heavy casualties as part of their own barrage. Part of this attack was Private Thomas Hughes of the 6th Connaughts, who, despite being wounded, took out a machine-gun post and captured several prisoners. He was awarded the Victoria Cross.

Emmett Dalton was a member of the 16th Division, a division composed of mainly Catholic Nationalists who hoped for a form of Home Rule once the war was concluded. Dalton, of the 9th Royal Dublin Fusiliers, was awarded a Military Cross at the battle of Ginchy for ‘conspicuous gallantry in action’. Yet after the war in 1919, he would join the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and fight in the War of Independence (1919-21) against the British state. In WO 35/206, a War Office and Army of Ireland record, he is described as being the co-ordinator of several prisoner escapes during the War of Independence and as a Major-General in the Free State Army during the Irish Civil War. Such was the complexity of the period that men once fighting side by side were later at odds.

The final element of the display explains how  the commemoration of the war became so problematic in Ireland as a consequence of the revolutionary movement, which ultimately led to the partition of the country. Using images and letters from the inter-war period specifically, the research compares the fascinatingly different rationales employed by the new Free State and the province of Ulster in remembering the fallen.

The war was fought by many countries for many reasons, and my research on the Irish contribution to the Battle of the Somme attempts to bring into focus the stories of the individuals on the ground, as well as the intense backdrop of political and social motivation that proved a particularly unique endurance for Irish soldiers.

‘It’s a Long Way From Tipperary: The Irish on the Somme’ will be on display in the first floor reading rooms, 1 July-17 September.

The panel display also touches on many of the themes discussed in The National Archives’ upcoming symposium Ireland and 1916: Isle of Saints and Soldiers? (Saturday 18 June). For more information or to book tickets, visit our website.

 

10 comments

  1. Dconway says:

    This looks fascinating timely and well thought through. Important that we remember the human stories behind the monuments. Hope the young get to read this and visit valuable exhibition. Very well done

  2. Joanne Waters says:

    My grandfather, William Hartigan, was a Sergeant in the 6th Royal Irish Regiment, 47th Brigade, 16th (Irish) Division. He was gassed but served until the end of the war and died in 1940 so unfortunately I never got to meet him. My grandparents had been living in Wales for 12 years by the time of the war and never returned to live in Ireland but William still chose to enlist in the Irish Regiment. When I was researching William’s war service I wondered why there was no 6th Royal Irish Regimental Museum that I could go to, unlike my English grandfather’s regimental museum. I got an answer to that after I read Terence Denman’s book ‘Ireland’s Unknown Soldiers, the 16th (Irish) Division’ who maintained that the 16th Irish Division didn’t get the recognition it deserved from either the British or Irish. The latter, after the establishment of the Irish Free State, were not interested in remembering or honouring the Irish soldiers in the 16th (Irish) Division who fought or died because they were connected to the British army. I reckon that’s rough treatment and soldiers like my grandfather deserve that recognition now.

    1. Michael Mahoney says:

      Hi Joanne can I suggest that you go to Westminister Catholic Cathedral where there is a chapel dedicated to the Irish Regiments during the First World War. There is also the Islandbridge War Memorial Park in Dublin which has rooms with artefacts and a book of remembrance of all men killed in Irish Regiments during the First World War. You are correct to say that the Irish State up until the last 10 or 15 years largely ignored the memory of the Irishmen who served for the British during the First World War. There is a great book by Kevin Myers here : Ireland’s-great-war-relating how Ireland was involved and how the memory of the war became controversial in the post war period.

  3. Joanne Waters says:

    Thank you Michael for those references. I live In New Zealand and going to UK in Sept but unfortunately wont get to London until 19th September so JUST miss your display! However, I AM going to Dublin so I will certainly go to the Islandbridge War Memorial Park in Dublin and will check out the Westminster Catholic Cathedral too. Appreciate that, thanks.

  4. Brian Hill says:

    We should also remember the battalions of “exiles” within English regiments. e.g., Tyneside Irish
    London Irish Rifles.
    Liverpool Irish .

    These tend be forgotten when concentrating on the Ireland raised Divisions and Battalions.

  5. C Berry says:

    I was fortunate enough to visit The National Archives and see your display, ‘It’s a Long Way From Tipperary: The Irish on the Somme’, Like your article I have found them both interesting and informative. Until now I never knew much about the participation of the Irish Regiments during WW1 and the battle of the Somme, so thank you for sharing this.

  6. Eileen McGough says:

    Congratulations on this well-researched and informative study of the Irish involvement in WW1.
    Living on the south coast in a rural community which spawned some of the more dedicated Republicans of 1916, we are also aware of those other local men, brothers, friends and neighbours of the same Republicans, who chose another career route- they joined the British Navy and Army in their dozens- it was a secure career move and meant a guaranteed income.In our very recent 1916 Exhibition we also honoured and commemorated those men who chose that different path in 1916.This exemplifies the new mood in Ireland, 2016, to acknowledge the sincerity of all activists in 1916.
    Michael’s study is a further step in this more mature commemoration.

    1. Michael Mahoney says:

      Dear Eileen, thank you for your kind comments regarding the display. You are correct to highlight the multitude of reasons for joining the British Army in 1914. I would be delighted if you could send me a link to your 1916 exhibition recognising the role of both Republican rebels and Allied army combatants.

  7. Jamie Cross says:

    My Great Grand Uncle, Lieutenant Philip Frederick Cross fought and died at the battle for Ginchy on the 9th of September 2016. He was in the Royal Irish Regiment 4th Battalion. As an Englishman born in Dorset it puzzled me why he was part of an Irish regiment, until through will and probate records I found out his address was St Columba’s College in Rathfarnham near Dublin where he was a French teacher. I got in touch with the college and they were able to supply me with a photograph of him in his uniform, I didn’t know what he looked like and was shocked to find he looked very much like my brother, with the addition of a moustache!
    I am going to the Thiepval memorial this Friday to attend a small service and lay a wreath in his honour on what will be the 100th anniversary of his death.
    I definitely want to come and see your exhibition before it ends.

  8. Stephen Pollock-Hill says:

    Have you forgotten the quite extraordinary rearguard defense by the Royal Munster Fusiliers of the 27th August 1914 when less than 300 soldiers delayed about 10,000 Germans from crossing the Sambre Canal for 10 hours allowing the British Expeditionary Force to withdraw and regroup.
    To my mind this was the most heroic action of World War 1 by a company which sacrificed its self and the company should have been awarded the VC. the few survivors were taken prisoner but the German commander did not believe how few soldiers delayed his advance!
    I have a water colour painting of the Sambre done on 12.11.2018. the first day of peace by a British 2nd Lieutenant , and have visited the site .

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