We will remember them

Tomorrow is the 92nd anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. I will not go over the brutal details of that awful battle, I suspect most people know a little of them. The ongoing resonance of the First World War in these islands is interesting and worth having a look at.There is clearly the particular relevance that this war has for people who live on this island: many nationalists and unionists volunteered (remember that there was no conscription throughout Ireland) and fought at times side by side. There is also of course the iconic status of the Easter Rising for nationalists and republicans and the equally iconic status of the Somme for unionists.

Understanding the at times collective near obsession with the First World War throughout GB and Ireland is complicated. The ongoing years and the now so few people left who remember anything about it; let alone the (maybe only two) very few remaining who fought: Harry Patch and Henry Allingham might make people think it would fade from memory only to be remembered by historians professional or amateur and the armed forces. However, this has not happened and interest in the First World War has remained high.

I have heard it suggested that this is in part because it was a war which we, looking back, cannot understand. The rise of Hitler etc. and the Second World War can be understood but why the First World War broke out is so extremely complex. Obviously many of you will be able to explain the assassination of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand and indeed the nature of the rivalries between the imperial powers. Whilst factually this may explain the road to war it seems inadequate to explain the cataclysm which was to follow. The pictures of people so delighted and cheering the announcement of war, many of whom were to die in it also seems so bizarre and unfathomable to us now. This ambiguity as to why we went to war and the feeling that all those young men on both sides lost their lives for so little reason may well both fascinate us and make us feel in some way if not guilty, at least uneasy.

Added to that is the sheer scale of the then UK’s losses (almost one million) to which must be added the losses of the other nations of the empire. The numbers of mainly young men who died and were wounded on both sides is truly staggering. The apparently needless and ineffectual nature of many of those deaths is also important. The apparent pointlessness of many of the attacks during which men holding rifles charged (or walked) towards lines of barbed wire and machine guns is quite horrifying.

These factors together may help explain the dreadful iconic status that the war had and still retains. I have heard the reaction to it compared to, (for British and Irish people) a combination of the American reactions to the American Civil War (in terms of causalities) and the Vietnam War (in terms of people’s ambiguity regarding the reasons for fighting it).

An additional peculiarly British and Protestant analysis I have heard and read is that as Protestants are not meant to pray for the dead and indeed personal salvation requires personally accepting Christ. As such we fear that many of these young men went to a lost eternity and there is nothing at all we can now do for them. In this context the war memorials become altars, those laying the wreaths the priests, the wreaths become the sacrifice and we feel that we are almost allowed to pray for the souls of those who died. This analysis may well have had significant relevance in the immediate aftermath of the war.

Whatever the truth of the above this dreadful war almost one hundred years ago is of great significance even today.

In closing I want to mention one hero of that war whom I hope all can honour for his courage. He is William McFadzean. On the morning of the 1st of July 1916 he was in a trench when a box of grenades was spilled and the pins came out of two. McFadzean threw himself on top of the grenades and was killed but due to his heroic and selfless actions only one of his comrades was injured. Finally a mention that Dr. Paisley has been to lay a wreath at the grave of William Redmond killed at the Battle of Messines.

  • Rory

    There may have been “ambiguity”, Turgon, among the conscripted ranks of the US, Australian and British covert forces opposing that stage of Vietnamese national liberation that is known to the West as the “Vietnamese War” merely because it was a theatre of US military interference. But I assure you there was no ambiguity among the Vietnamese people who waged that war of liberation other than the very human one of ” I wish I did not have to face this awful thing today”.

    Nor, I suspect was there any ambiguity of intent among those who chose to wage war on the people of Vietnam for reasons of profit, regardless of human sacrifice from either side, until the resistance caused them to “go on homewards and think again”.

  • Dewi

    Be fair to Paisley for laying a wreath at Captain Redmond’s grave – would that have happened even 10 years ago?

  • billie-Joe Remarkable

    Still, it gave us Black Adder 4. So, not a total waste, then.

  • Garibaldy

    See, as I’ve said before, and won’t go into again, it is exactly the attitude about Paisley and the wreath that drives me up the wall about the way the real story of WWI – of brutal imperial war – is forgotten in the rush to view it in terms of protestant and catholic in NI.

  • EWI

    Understanding the at times collective near obsession with the First World War throughout GB and Ireland is complicated.

    In some parts of Norn Iron, perhaps, but not in the rest of Ireland.

  • Dewi

    BTW Turgon – I posted this elsewhere but finally found a video of “Pantyfedwen” – the most glorious hymn ever – and written in 1967.

    Sends shivers down my spine

  • EWI

    (The preceding referred to the “collective near obsession”, not the “understanding”).

    As to Paisley laying a wreath at Redmond’s graves, well, the Redmonds merely wanted their slices of the the pies of Home Rule (i.e. patronage and privilege) and Empire. Calling them ‘Irish nationalists’ is misleading, given the more usual independence-seeking connotations of the phrase.

  • KieranJ

    “Calling them ‘Irish nationalists’ is misleading”

    Too right, EWI. It would appear Turgon doesn’t know his Irish history.

  • Nationalist

    These were the Nationalist Party leaders, elected to represent them by the Irish people.

    Not good enough for extreme Nationalists, masquerading as ‘republicans’, catapulted into power by stupid British reactionaries.

    Thatcher was another one who sent the Shinners on 20 years of glory.

  • KieranJ

    Johnnie Redmond was nothing but a recruiting sargeant for the British Prime Minister.

  • Harry Flashman

    John Redmond was the hugely popular and democratically mandated head of Irish Nationalism and in 1914 had just secured more for Ireland than all the “republicans” of the physical force tradition had achieved in the previous two hundred years.

  • ben

    Wouldn’t it be great if “Turgon” had his own blog, “subliterate-bore.co.uk” or something, and Slugger could go back to being the half-way decent site it used to be? Because this is just awful, getting update after update of these tedious, windy crimes against the English language.

  • heck

    Turgon,

    That is indeed a moving expression of your views on the British and Nor Iron soldiers who died in the trenches of Europe in WW1. Those of us on the nationalist side of our divide will readily acknowledge that those who went over the trenches knowing they would die were motivated by their desire to sacrifice for “king and country”. These young men went willingly to their deaths and are viewed as heroes by most of the unionist community.

    Why then do Unionists not recognize that republicans also hold their dead in similar esteem and see the same degree of courage in their heroes? Why can’t unionists see a similar motivation in those young men who died during the H-Block hunger strike? Why do they have to reply to discussion of the hunger strike with such venom?

    Those who died at the Somme were suicide riflemen and much as Islamic “militants” are suicide bombers. Why can we recognize that a young Palestinian is motivated by the same desire to sacrifice for their beliefs and community and are not motivated by “72 virgins”.

    That recognition of the humanity of both sides in a conflict is the first step to dialog and political accommodation.

  • adele

    Another excuse for the blue bag brigade and WKD drinkers to wander aimlessly through East Belfast.

    Hardly a fitting memory to those who gave their lives in this, the most pointless of wars.

  • willowfield

    HECK

    Why then do Unionists not recognize that republicans also hold their dead in similar esteem and see the same degree of courage in their heroes? Why can’t unionists see a similar motivation in those young men who died during the H-Block hunger strike? Why do they have to reply to discussion of the hunger strike with such venom?

    Because the hunger-strikers were convicted terrorists who had been engaging in murder and other serious crimes against unionists and others in NI.

  • marksi

    I had a go last year at a member of the Oragne Order (a respectable one who should have known better) when they referred to the parade in East Belfast on the 1st July as the “mini-Twelfth”.

    Sadly it seems the significance of what should be a commemoration is rapidly being lost.

  • picador

    This week it’s the Battle of the Somme. Next week it’s the Battle of the Boyne. Whatever next? Zzzzz…

  • Greagoir O Frainclin

    Kevin Myers was constantly writing about the Battle of the Somme etc…in his Irishman’s Diary in the Irish Times.

    Here’s a good link with related stories for avid enthusiasts…..

    http://www.irishtimes.com/focus/thesomme/

    However it would be good to focus on the great contribution of all the volunteers throughout Ireland, particularly Irish Catholics/Home Rulers. There is an over emphasis on the exploits of the Ulster Volunteers/36th Division. One would think that they alone fought WWI.

  • Harry Flashman

    “However it would be good to focus on the great contribution of all the volunteers throughout Ireland, particularly Irish Catholics/Home Rulers. There is an over emphasis on the exploits of the Ulster Volunteers/36th Division. One would think that they alone fought WWI.”

    Indeed, it is a sad anomaly but the tens of thousands of Irish nationalists who fought and died in the First World War were as equally convinced that they were fighting to secure Home Rule for Ireland as the Unionists were convinced that they were fighting to resist precisely the same outcome, both were to be disappointed in the long run.

  • Greenflag

    turgon ,

    ‘why the First World War broke out is so extremely complex.

    Britain did not want to see Germany outstrip her in naval power as Germany had with it’s land army .

    Britain historically was against any possibility of the continental powers being united under German leadership . In earlier centuries Britain also fought wars against Spanish and French hegemonistic intent over Europe .

    By 1914 there had already been a few ‘near misses’ for a World War breaking out e.g the Moroccan crisis .

    We should remember that since 1870 there had been peace between all the major European powers . Bismarck’s ‘balance of power ‘ held the peace . Bismarck was quoted at the time as saying that if ever a major war broke out in Europe again it would be because of some stupid incident in the Balkans .

    Closer to home such was the outlook for permanent peace in Europe that gun cotton manufacturers Kynochs , (owned by the Chamberlains (yes related to Neville of Munich fame ) decided to close down their Arklow , Co Wicklow plant in 1910 and move to Umbogintwini near Durban in South Africa ,as thats were ‘future’ wars would be fought .

    Quite a number of their Arklow employees (100 plus ) went out to Umbogintwini with families in tow ‘for’ the adventure and a change of climate i.e to hold on to their jobs .

  • Greenflag

    ‘the most pointless of wars.’

    That it was . Those who choose to remember the bravery of those who fought at the Somme and other battles need to temper their enthusiasm for brave men with the fact that many had a choice to die later across no man’s land by German machine gun or here and now by a pistol shot in the head from their officer . And the same applied on the Axis side of the trenches . Much of the correspondence from soldiers in the trenches was heavily censored and all expressions of ‘defeatism’ or doubt about the war’s aims were erased .

    We need also to remember that in those times European ‘imperialism ‘ was running at it’s ‘jingoistic’ maximum on all sides and popular mass communication/propaganda was in it’s infancy.

    By all means remember those who fell for what they believed to be in their country’s interest . But far better to use the occassion as an opportunity to contemplate the utter stupidity of most wars – with WW1 ranking up there with the worst of them 🙁

  • willowfield

    Is that not what people already do?

  • Harry Flashman

    “We should remember that since 1870 there had been peace between all the major European powers . Bismarck’s ‘balance of power ‘ held the peace .”

    I think you’ll find that German occupation of French territory in Alsace and Lorraine meant that France was far from convinced that Bismarck had created a peaceful settlement of Europe.

    The war which started in August 1914 was no more or less pointless when it started than its second manifestation which broke out again in September 1939 after a twenty year break.

  • earnan

    Harry

    the physical force republicans got more for the Gaels in 5 years than anyone had gotten since Cromwell’s reconquest

    Redmond didn’t even get home rule implemented yet he was responsible for 10s of thousands of irishmen going to waste their lives for the crown.

  • Greenflag

    ‘I think you’ll find that German occupation of French territory in Alsace and Lorraine meant that France was far from convinced that Bismarck had created a peaceful settlement of Europe.”

    Perhaps but they were convinced enough to hold the ‘peace’ until 1914.

    ‘The war which started in August 1914 was no more or less pointless ‘

    So you see a point in 21 million people losing their lives but you don’t see the point in 4,000 people losing their lives in the NI troubles or a similar number losing their lives 1916 to 1922 ?

    The people of this region Alsace Lorraine have been transferred back and forth between german and french rule since Holy Roman Emperor days . They speak both languages -share the same religious backgrond etc etc . It was customary for Alsatians and Lorrainers regardless of their language to fight for whichever ruler(French or German ) was in power at the time . It was also customary that if captured by the other side they would be accused of treason and executed unless of course they volunteered to fight for their former enemy which they usually did . Some were even unfortunate enough to be captured once again by their former colleagues and had to do the ‘change ‘ over once again . There is IIRC a case of one poor Alsatian who changed sides 4 times in the one war and lived to tell the tale .

    As I said wars are mostly stupid and what’s worse is that stupid wars lead to even more stupid wars . Of all the stupid wars of the 20 th century other than perhaps the war over ‘birdshit’ between Chile and Bolivia- WW1 ranks up there with the most senseless if only because of the 21 million unnecessary deaths.

    World War 2 had at least a point to it i.e the defeat of totalitarian nazism .

  • Harry Flashman

    “World War 2 had at least a point to it i.e the defeat of totalitarian nazism .”

    And if the “defeat of totalitarian nazism” had been the reason why the Second World War was fought I might agree with you.

    But it wasn’t, so I don’t.

    If you’re a pacifist do come out and say so, but if you believe that wars can be justified then WW1 was no more or less pointless than any other conflict.

  • Prionsa Eoghan

    Turgon

    Your Wiki link to war deaths is dodgy. I had always though that Britain’s war dead was in the region of 600 odd thousand. However it was the civilian casualties that really points toward error, or as I suspect including casualties of the conflict in Africa. For example Portugal is reputed to have lost 82,000 civilians, yet Portugal did not have warring armies on her soil apart from her African colonies. Considering that Belgium had much less civilian casualties according to the link. And I’d seriously question the civilian casualties of Italy(590,000) and Britain(109,000) I understand many British civilian casualties occurred due to the U-boats, but that much? And Italian civilians were displaced in Tyrolia and Venezia, but again that many deaths?

    Wiki answers even contradicts mother wiki;

    http://wiki.answers.com/Q/How_many_people_died_in_World_War_1

    And the irony in according Turkey all those civilian casualties. Since she herself carried out this genocide, primarily against the Armenians.

  • Greenflag

    ‘If you’re a pacifist do come out and say so’

    I’m not. In some cases war is justified but WWI was not one of them. I’ve read enough about it and had relatives who fought in it.

    Neither btw is the war in Iraq nor will the upcoming war /strike on Iran be ‘justified’.

  • Quagmire

    “who had been engaging in murder and other serious crimes against unionists and others in NI.”
    Posted by willowfield on Jul 01, 2008 @ 08:41 AM

    Is this a reference to the despicable policy of collusion carried out by various elements of the British establishment ,loyalist paramilitaries and members of her majesty’s security forces upon citizens within the Island of Ireland? I’m happy that you have began the process of crawling out from under your rock Willowfield and finally now have started to see the light.

  • EWI

    These were the Nationalist Party leaders, elected to represent them by the Irish people.

    Not good enough for extreme Nationalists, masquerading as ‘republicans’, catapulted into power by stupid British reactionaries.

    Those “extreme Nationalists, masquerading as ‘republicans’” were an intrinsic part of a pan-nationalist front from the time of the Land War up until the First World War. And I disagree with the portrayal of the British response as ‘stupid […] reactionaries’. The British were merely conforming to the centuries-old reality of the true nature of the “relationship”.

    Go read a history book, please. I suggest you start with looking up the phrase ‘New Departure’. (The recent revelations about the Fenian outrages of the latter half of the nineteenth century being the result of English agents provacateurs bear looking up as well.)

    John Redmond was the hugely popular and democratically mandated head of Irish Nationalism

    In much the same sense that Gordon Brown is the “hugely popular and democratically mandated head” of the British people, one suspects. Oh, for the idealism and naivety of youth.

    and in 1914 had just secured more for Ireland than all the “republicans” of the physical force tradition had achieved in the previous two hundred years.

    What exactly had Redmond achieved, Harry? Indulge us, please. I’m always game for a good laugh.

  • RepublicanStones

    ‘Because the hunger-strikers were convicted terrorists who had been engaging in murder and other serious crimes against unionists and others in NI.’

    So its fair to say then that as the british crown forces/establishment had been engaged in many campaigns of murder and intimidation, land grabbing, disenfranchisement etc against the irish people for centuries that they too should not be honoured. Or is it only if your convicted, that your guilty of such things. Or only if the victim is a unionist, only then is it bad? The world knows fine well, and decided long ago who was to play the role of ‘bad guy’ here in Ireland. No doubt it rankles a little with the colonial lackeys.

  • willowfield

    Remembrance of war dead has got nothing to do with “land-grabbing, disenfranchisement etc against the Irish people”!

  • In 2006, when I was editor of Lá, the newspaper published three commemorative supplements. One was an Irish language version of the 1916 Declaration to commemorate the 1916 Rising, another was a special poster to mark the 25th anniversary of the H-Blocks Hunger Strike, incorporating some ‘comms’ from Bobby Sands and a third supplement marked the slaughter which occurred on the Somme from July 1916.

    It was an effort to reach out to all political and historical traditions on the island and it was well intentioned.

  • Reader

    Concubhar O Liatháin: It was an effort to reach out to all political and historical traditions on the island and it was well intentioned.
    Good for you, then. It seems from your description that you gave the rebels and the hunger strikers a voice – representing their own views in their own words. Did you do the same for the dead of the Somme?

  • the supplement featured an article from Ian Malcolm and others remembering the dead of the Somme. While there is a wealth of material in English from the Somme – the war poets such as Sassoon, Owen, Ledwith – I’m not aware of any material as Gaeilge.

    They weren’t denied a voice for the want of trying – we did our best to remember them with honour.