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 UKs 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 peoples 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.
This author has not written a biography and will not be writing one.
Living History 1968-74
A unique, once-in-a-lifetime 10-week course at Stranmillis University College Belfast featuring live, in-depth interviews with leading figures from this tumultuous era in Northern Ireland’s cultural and political history.
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