Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

The Somme and Modern Memory

The Battle of the Somme was part of a major contribution by Irishmen, both Catholic and Protestant, to the British Imperial war effort during the First World War. It came midway through the campaign in Europe, and was itself a catastrophe. At that point in history, the biggest British army ever sent into battle – indeed the biggest army ever, anywhere – achieved a few miles of advance, here and there along a fifteen mile front, at a cost of 60,000 casualties, sixty per cent of them officers, forty per cent other ranks.

In all, there were 26 divisions, all of them made up of volunteers. An additional 40 divisions were promised by the French. Such was the damage, however, inflicted on the French forces at the Battle of Verdun, which preceded the Somme, their divisions were reduced in number to eighteen.

The flower of English and Irish manhood was mown down by a superior German defensive strategy, and the texture and quality of future generations deeply impaired. War itself was discredited and the system of command as well as the quality of leadership and the methods of appointment thrown into doubt.

Ireland’s contribution on the day the Battle of the Somme was launched was largely that of Ulstermen. The 36th Ulster Division was made up of 30,000 Ulstermen who had volunteered. Their encampment below Thiepval exposed their advance up the steep hillside to the cruel, raking fire of German machine guns in heavily protected positions. They suffered huge losses. More than 5,000 were killed on the first two days.

There were two predominantly Catholic and nationalist divisions, the 10th and the 16th. The 10th fought also on the Somme, but only from late summer when the battle had settled down into a war of attrition across the difficult plains of Picardy.

The Irish contribution was very substantial. The Belfast historian, Keith Jeffery, estimates that some 206,000 Irishmen served in the war and that about 30,000 died. He also points out that the country was overwhelmingly supportive of the British imperial cause and that it had substantial benefits, stimulating the Irish economy in terms of food production, both for the troops and the animals at the Front. Because Ireland had no conscription, the male population dominated employment, and the involvement of women – which in Britain generally transformed the profile of the work force, bringing forward the emancipation of women in an irreversible way – did not occur here.

The Rising did not change the support throughout Ireland for the war. Recruitment continued, with 10,000 joining up in the last three months before the Armistice in November 1918. The rebellion in Dublin had been an embarrassment to a majority of the population, the reaction to it was a series of catastrophic misjudgements that changed the hostility into sympathy. The British oppression was limited and surprisingly short-lived, emphasising the small nature of the threat. But entirely different forces – those of heroism and anecdote, combined with political activity – cleared the way for a much more serious and, in the end, successful rising against the British after the end of the war.

The Battle of the Somme itself was uniquely captured, in words and images, by Ireland’s greatest painter, William Orpen. He set out to achieve this as a war artist at the Front after the battle itself was over and when the British Army had moved on to the north-east. It was a huge task, involving the living and the dead. The battlefields themselves, scenes of immeasurable carnage, provided him with quite remarkable landscape material, and he made it beautiful. Being a realist, he invented nothing, but recorded everything. Dead soldiers, left in desolate dugouts, their corpses stripped by the rats of flesh but otherwise lying where they had died, were painted against the white chalky soil, the vivid green growth of new summer grass and the debris of war.

He set against the dead remnants of battle the living. And he painted, in addition to the many ‘semi-official’ portraits of leaders, a remarkable series of human studies. He did two wonderful drawings of a soldier from the Royal Irish Fusiliers, his eyes filled with a remembered horror of combat and of seeing his comrades killed on either side. He did a superb drawing of a Dubliner, a soldier in the South Irish Horse, again showing the inner conflict and how it changed for ever the way the men looked out on the perpetual, endless battlefield that faced them. He painted life in the trenches, the effects of shell shock, the relief of smoking a cigarette, the madness of mental damage from bombardment.

It did not satisfy him. He became obsessed with the fighting man and with the idea of sacrifice. Though he had only a modest sense of his abilities as a writer he embarked on a book, An Onlooker in France, which, combined with his paintings, watercolours and drawings, is as close as it is possible to get to the experience of war.

We have been reluctant and confused in our response to this series of events between 1914 and 1918 in which more than 200,000 Irishmen took part. Certitude about 1916 is in marked contrast. The two events do not compare.