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'Heaps of wounded and dead. Showers of dust and earth and lead. Deafening explosions and blinding smoke'

More than 3,500 Irish soldiers perished in the Battle of the Somme 100 years ago.

Image: National Library of Ireland

THE BATTLE OF the Somme was the largest battle of World War I on the Western Front. More than one million soldiers died or were injured.

Of the deceased, more than 3,500 were Irish soldiers, with the majority killed on the first day of battle. Nearly 2,000 men from Ulster communities – where much of the 36th Ulster Division was recruited from – were killed within hours on 1 July 1916.

During that horrific day, a total of 19,240 British and Irish soldiers died, making it the bloodiest battle in the history of the British army.

How did that happen?

The Allies assumed that a major break in the German’s defensive line would be a turning point in the war. The months before the first day of battle, the British and French bombarded the German trenches at the Somme with artillery. However, only one third of the shells exploded due to faulty fuses.

By the time the British infantry arrived, the Germans were not as debilitated as the Allies had hoped and they had used the time to get good positions on higher ground.

Source: John Buchan/National Library of Ireland

British and Irish soldiers were sent over the top only to be mown down by German machine guns. The biggest losses were made to the Ulster Battalion, with 2,000 killed and 3,500 injured. Four Victoria Crosses – the highest military decoration for valour in the face of an enemy – were awarded to the division for that one day.

Most of the volunteers had come from the same small towns across Ulster.

Death Cert Death Certificate for Bernard Donaghey, who died at the Somme on 1 July 1916 Source: National Archives of Ireland

There were also losses to the 1st and 2nd battalions of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, whose men were mostly from Dublin, Kildare, Wicklow and Carlow. They had 325 casualties.

In his book ‘Irish on the Somme’, published in 1917, Michael McDonagh describes how the soldiers’ battle-shouts were heard throughout the fight.

Almost immediately they were all scourged – especially the Ulster battalions on the extreme left moving towards Beaumont Hamel – with machine-gun fire poured at them from various points, towards the continuous accompaniment of short, sharp, annihilating knocks. The bullets literally came like water from an immense hose with a perforated top… So searching was the fire that it was useless to seek cover. Through it all their battle-shout was “No surrender.”

Source: National Library of Ireland

In first-person records of the battle, another Inniskillig Fusilier wrote:

One company, recruited mainly from the notorious Shankill road district of Belfast, was going forward, when a wounded man recognised some of his chums in it. ‘Give them it hot for the Shankill road,’ he cried, and his comrades answered with a cheer.

The Ulster men managed to get through to the German trenches and succeeded in capturing the supposedly impregnable Schwaben Redoubt. But the volunteers were too far ahead of the rest of the battalions and were forced to retreat.

The remnants, by magnificent effort, succeeded in getting into the German trenches. They were held up there by an utterly impassable curtain of shells and bullets. It was not their fault that they could not advance any further. They had to face a more terrific ordeal than any body of men have had to encounter in battle before.

Source: National Library of Ireland

A private wrote in a letter to his parents:

How often had I, while on sentry duty in our own trenches, looked out over that same piece of ground. How calm and peaceful it looked then… Now what a ghastly change! Not a level or green spot remained. Great, jagged, gaping craters covered the blackish, smoking ground, furrowed and ploughed by every description of projectile and explosive… Fellows in front, beside, and behind me would fall; some, with a lurch forward, wounded; others, with a sudden abrupt halt, a sickly wheel, would drop, give one eerie twist and lie still – dead.
Heaps of wounded and dead. Showers of dust and earth and lead. Deafening explosions and blinding smoke.

Source: National Library of Ireland

All of the men who fought left behind wills that have since been digitised and released in a special project by the National Archives.

About 9,000 of the wills – which soldiers were encouraged to make to ensure their affairs could be settled easily after their deaths – have survived.

Most of the soldiers were quite young and did not have wives or children, and in many cases the beneficiary was their mother or father, siblings or the friends serving with them.

Of those seen by TheJournal.ie, one left his effects to his local priest, another to his sister.

William and John were the most common names among the soldiers.

Wil 2 The will of Lance Waterman, leaving his property and effects to his mother

Will The will of William Feeley, who left his property and effects to his sister Source: National Archives of Ireland

McDonagh also describes a moving tribute paid to the fallen men in Belfast on 12 July 1916.

For five minutes following the hour of noon all work and movement, business and household, were entirely suspended.
In the flax mills, the linen factories, the shipyards, the munition workshops, men and women paused in their labours. All machinery was stopped, and the huge hammers became silent. In shop and office business ceased; at home the housewife interrupted her round of duties; in the streets traffic was brought to a halt, on the local railways the running trains pulled up.
The whole population stood still and in deep silence, with bowed heads but with uplifted hearts, turned their thoughts to the valleys and slopes of Picardy, where on 1 July the young men of Ulster, the pride and flower of the province, gave their lives for the preservation of the British Empire, the existence of separate and independent State, and the rule of law and justice in international relations.

The Battle of the Somme ended in November 1916 after a war of exhaustion. Any gains made by the British were small and with great cost. In the end the Germans withdrew to the Hindenburg Line in 1917.

Tom Kettle, a poet who fought at the Somme, wrote in his poem ‘To My Daughter Betty, the Gift of God’:

So here, while the mad guns curse overhead,
And tired men sigh with mud for couch and floor,
Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,
Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,
But for a dream, born in a herdsman’s shed,
And for the secret Scripture of the poor.

More poignant moments captured in letters and wills that have survived over the past century give us unprecedented access into the hearts and minds of Irish soldiers who fought during World War I. The whole collection can be perused here.

Read: Appeal after World War One medals stolen during robbery

Read: Check out this fascinating World War I recruitment poster targeting Irish men

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About the author:

Elizabeth O'Malley

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