keeping with a family custom handed down to me from
my maternal grandfather I attended the Somme Commemoration
in my home town last Wednesday (3rd July) evening.
I did so, as I have always done, as a personal acknowledgement
of the sacrifice of those who served their country
and, who rightly or wrongly, believed that they had
a duty to answer the call of their country.
I stated in my recent article on The Pity of
War, the Somme Commemoration for me is not about
politics, religion or cultural identity. It is not
about the glorification or war or about the causes
of war. It is about the pity of war. For me, as it
was for my grandparents and my mother, it is about
ordinary people who, guided by the value base of their
upbringing, decided that it was right for them to
bear arms in time of conflict. In my grandfathers
day the general consensus of public opinion was that
the place for a young man was in the ranks, doing
his patriotic duty. It is in their memory that I continue
to remember the Somme and the horror of war.
Mc Intyre (It was our First World War Too; You
Know) stereotypes people like my grandfather
as the storm troopers of British Imperialism.
I would respectfully suggest that, if anything, my
granda was a victim of Imperialism. I would also suggest
that the British were not the only imperialists. My
grandfather was a simple working man, an Iron Checker
by trade, who lived for his young wife and family.
As such he had no desire to wage war or to become
a professional soldier. The events in Saraejvo that
provided the excuse for politicians and generals to
wage war in Europe were far removed from the life
of my grandfather. They were an intrusion into his
life and into his plans for the future of his family.
He was neither a political analyst nor a political
activist. Yet those events, and the four years of
bloody carnage that they triggered, had devastating
and unasked for consequences for people like my grandfather.
issues like the 1907 strike, and constitutional issues
like the proposed imposition of Home Rule, were local
issues that affected him. Those things he could understand
and respond to. The political intrigue of Europe was
somebody elses problem. Perhaps if he had have
been a political analyst he might have queried why
he was going to France to fight for England and not
staying at home to ensure that the unionist community
was not betrayed by England. Carson may have believed
the promises of his Prime Minister, but who could
really trust the word of someone whose promises many
believed to be as firm as shifting sand?
if he had have been a political analyst he would have
examined more closely the arguments of the leaders
of the Independent Labour Party who courageously questioned
their country's participation in the war. He wasnt.
Although an ILP labour man he followed the line of
the mainstream labour and trade union leaders who
were as attached to the war effort as were the government
and the generals.
so many thousands of his generation he believed that
his loyalty to the Crown demanded that he answer the
call to service. Perhaps he genuinely believed that
this was a war being fought on behalf of the small
vulnerable nations. But I suspect that it was simply
out of a sense of loyalty and duty that he enlisted
with the Royal Irish Rifles and set sail for Europe
leaving behind his young wife and newly born daughter
(my mother). Had I have been in his place, guided
by the same values and captivated by the mood of the
time, I would probably have taken the same course
South Antrim where my grandparents grew up, the offspring
of those who had responded to the call of Mc Cracken
in 1798 responded with similar enthusiasm to the call
of Carson in 1912. The cause may have been different.
The allegiances may have changed. But the nature of
the people remained the same. The South Antrim Volunteers
provided the core of the 11th Battalion Royal Irish
Rifles which formed part of the 108th Brigade of the
36th (Ulster) Division. What began as a volunteer
movement set up to resist the impositions of a treacherous
government became a core division serving the interests
of that same government. One wonders how the volunteers
from Cavan and Monaghan, who served with the 9th Battalion
Royal Irish Fusiliers as part of the 108th Brigade,
felt in later years when their counties were treacherously
excluded from the Union.
108th Brigade saw action in a number of battles alongside
the 16th (Irish) Division, which included the Irish
Volunteers, raised in response to the formation of
the Ulster Volunteers. Recruited and trained to oppose
each other at home, they ended up fighting, bleeding
and dying together against a common foe. As Michael
Hall has noted, " from all over the island, Irishmen,
Protestant and Catholic, Northerner and Southerner,
came forward in their thousands to enlist. In some
towns the Ulster Volunteers and the Irish Volunteers
marched side by side to send off departing troops"
(Sacrifice on the Somme, p.4, 1993). The fighting
Irish, unionist and nationalist, served together and
in the mud and blood of distant shell-torn battlefields
they grew to respect each other.
devastating effects of the Great War in terms of human
suffering is almost incalculable. The grim Reaper
who stalked the battlefields of Europe drew in a bountiful
harvest of human souls. Novelist and poet, Winifred
Holtby, has captured for us a graphic "before"
and "after" scene of one such battlefield.
harvest fields of fair Lorraine
Were crowned with yellow corn,
And midst the gold were crimson heads
By poppy stems up borne.
In dewy morn the peasants reap,
In quivering heat of noon,
Till oer the purple hill-top glides
The primrose harvest moon.
The harvest fields of fair Lorraine
Are not so gold as then,
And midst the gold are crimson stains,
The blood of fallen men;
And by the light of one lone star
And the chill winds sobbing breath,
A reaper gathers his harvest there -
And the reapers name is Death.
- Winifred Holtby
the gruesome Reaper garnered in his harvest of death
from the Great War some 50,000 Irishmen, Unionist
and Nationalist/ Protestant and Catholic, were among
the fallen. Hundreds of thousands more were injured
and brought home with them the physical and psychological
scars of the war. There is nothing to glorify in a
war of such a nature. Indeed there is nothing to glorify
in any war. The people of my grandfathers generation
were led to believe that they were fighting a war
to end all wars. History has certainly shown that
such was not the case. Within a generation Irishmen
and women were drawn into yet another world war where
thousands of our people from both political jurisdictions
once again paid the ultimate sacrifice.
the years that followed 1918 the unionist community
has faithfully remembered the sacrifice that its community
made during the Great War. The nationalist community,
on the other hand, was encouraged to regard Irish
Nationalists who served in the 10th and 16th Irish
Divisions and the Connaught Rangers as traitors to
Ireland. It is only in recent years that attempts
have been made by
Irish nationalists to rehabilitate the memory of their
fallen. Surely this is to be welcomed
by all sections of our community. The West Belfast
men who died in the mud and trenches of France and
Belgium as part of the Connaught Rangers were no more
storm trooper(s) of British Imperialism
than the West Belfast men who met a similar fate as
part of the 36th (Ulster) Division. As the title to
Anthony Mc Intyres recent article suggests,
It was Our war Too. Nationalist and Unionist,
Republican and Loyalist ought to be able to remember
their dead without all the prejudicial humbug that
emanates from predictable quarters.
the recent memorial service for Tom Williams, the
President of Sinn Fein said that republicans had a
right to honour their dead volunteers. He was absolutely
right. Communities not only have a right to honour
their dead, they have a solemn duty to do so. Alex
Maskeys decision to lay a wreath in memory of
the dead of the Great War may well have been a political
decision - indeed a calculated political risk - but
it is a decision that I, as a loyalist, am willing
to endorse. If it serves no other purpose than to
give Irish nationalists the freedom to remember their
dead who fought and died alongside our
dead it will have been a worthwhile exercise.
repeat, the Somme Commemoration for me is about remembering
people. It is not about victory or defeat. It is not
about sides or causes. It is about ordinary people
for whom war was an intrusion into their lives. It
is about remembering the courage and the sacrifice
made by ordinary men and women for doing what they
believed was their patriotic duty.
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