Friends in common troubles: lessons of the Somme

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‘War is not a personal affair, else there would be no war’: The Battle of the Somme

Few years in Irish history are more potent than 1916. So deeply is that year ingrained in our collective psyche that the number alone is enough to describe it. It needs no elaboration.

Like many aspects of our bi-polar society, 1916 means strikingly different things to this island’s two main traditions.

We have come through the commemorations of the Easter Rising more or less with our dignity intact. Now Easter yields to July 1 and the 100th anniversary of the beginning of one of the bloodiest episodes in European history: the Battle of the Somme.

It would be a mistake to see the two events as separate. The Easter Rising and the Somme are part of the same narrative – a convulsion in world history as it grappled with the transition from autocracy to democracy, and from empire to self-determination.

Unionists have nurtured the Ulster Division’s blood sacrifice on the Somme. It is part of their narrative. History has been crueller to the nationalists who died in the war. Lost in the melee, their deaths were seen as individual acts rather than a collective sacrifice for a common cause. And crueller still, their own people – stunned by the aftermath of the Rising – shunned them.

Private Arthur Baxter, writing of an Irish comrade at the time, said: “When he had his leave from France, he daren’t go home, you know. There was a place in London where the like of him went. He told us he’d be killed if he went home, being in the British Army, you see.”

The new Ireland that rose from the ashes of Easter 1916 wrote these soldiers out of history. Only in recent years has there been a coming to terms with their lives and loss.

Many Irishmen on the front had torn loyalties. Wearing a British uniform, their cause was Irish home rule. Among them was the poet Francis Ledwidge who died in Passchendaele. His lament for Thomas MacDonagh is one of the most powerful poems of the Rising. “He shall not hear the bittern cry/in the wild sky, where he is lain.”

Like the Rising commemoration, it is important that the Somme anniversary is treated with respect and marked with dignity. It must be used as an opportunity for healing rather than further division.

In that context, the decision by deputy first minister Martin McGuinness to accept an invitation to visit Flanders and the Somme next week is a welcome one.

For too long we have been trapped by history, this visit represents an opportunity to be liberated by it; to reach an understanding of the enormity of the Somme and its impact on the lives of those who fought and died there, those who survived, and their families.

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Martin McGuinness: Deputy First Minister

At a most basic human level the Somme is a story of loss and man’s inhumanity to man. On the first day 19,240 allied forces soldiers died, and more than 35,000 were wounded; 141 days later more than a million allied and German troops had been injured, and over 300,000 lay dead.

But at another level the Somme is part of our common history – unionist and nationalist, loyalist and republican, militarist and pacifist. By understanding the past, we gain insights that give us a better understanding of today. If we are to take full advantage of that, we need leaders who are brave enough to take risks and who are willing to face up to the past.

The Queen demonstrated that eloquently during her historic visit to the Republic. In the Garden of Remembrance she set the bar high when she had reason enough to demure. Her own family has faced tragedy in Ireland. Mr McGuiness too has reason enough to turn the other way. That he has taken the more difficult course is to his credit.

In conclusion, I’d like to leave you with the words of a private who fought at the Somme. Arthur Wrench wrote these words in November 1916. “Coming through Mailly, I saw a wounded kilty of the Argylls walking arm in arm with a wounded German and passing the coffee stall there. One man ran out with a cup of coffee which he handed to the Argyll. He in turn handed it to his stricken companion after which they limped on their way together, smiling. Enemies an hour ago, but friends in their common troubles. After all, this war is not a personal affair, else there would be no war.”

“Friends in their common troubles.” I can think of no better description of us today.

  • This article appeared in The Irish News on May 27 2016

Is Ireland still fighting its own 100 years war?

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Over the top: the Battle of the Somme 1916

They say history never repeats itself, but historians often do. Much the same can be said for journalists. We love a big story. Breaking news is still the stuff of newspapers, it sets pulses racing and fingers dancing across keyboards.

But not every day is a big news day, and needs must. In the absence of anything else we fall back on old news, repackaged. The anniversary is a brilliant excuse to fill the airwaves and to decorate acres of newsprint.

It will hardly have escaped your notice that, had he lived, Frank Sinatra would have been 100 this month – inconveniently he died in 1998, but the marketers never let that get in in the way of a retrospective. The 80th anniversary of Elvis’s birth was marked with a ‘new’ release where he was backed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra karaoke style.

This past year we were invited to remember the battle of Waterloo, VE Day and the anniversary of Churchill’s death.Those of a literary disposition will know that the Irish ambassador to the Court of St James has tweeted a quote from Yeats every day this year to mark the 150th anniversary of the poet’s birth, and  why not.

This coming year there are a couple of significant ones: the 20th anniversary of the Docklands bombing at Canary Wharf and the 25th of the release of the Birmingham Six among them. But the year will be overshadowed by two events that had a profound effect on history. In a strange way they are intertwined.

The Easter Rising exploited that familiar Irish republican political observation: England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity. With all its resources focused on the battle against Germany in France, England was certainly in difficulty in 1916.

The justness of the First World War is less clear-cut than the second, but the Kaiser was not a particularly pleasant man, nor was he a champion of the principles of the civil liberties we now expect of an enlightened modern leader. Right might well have been on England’s side, but we must remember history is suspect, it is written by the victors. (Irish history is the exception to that rule, ours is a victims’ narrative.)

For the mass of Irish people, while there may have been a general desire for independence, there was no imperative to strike a blow for freedom in 1916. The leaders of the Rising had no mandate (they earned it retrospectively).

Needless to say, there is competition for the position of ‘rightful heir’ to the legacy of 1916, and there is a risk that the commemorations of the rising will reopen some of the wounds in Irish society that appeared in its aftermath.

The greater risk is that they will exacerbate the rift in political cultures in the north of the island – a rift which shows little sign of healing it is sad to say. And here we come to the second great anniversary of the year.

Countless Irishmen lost their lives on the bloodied fields on the banks of the Somme in 1916. Their blood sacrifice is as entrenched in loyalist history and mythology, as that of the 1916 leaders in nationalism’s. The loss of so many in the Ulster brigades has fuelled the sense of betrayal at the actions in the GPO and done much to sustain the bitterness that underscores so much of our politics.

Yet many nationalists lost their lives in the same battle – Redmondites trusting their willingness to fight for the crown would secure home role.

Is it too much to ask that this year be seen as an opportunity to reflect on past events rather than glory in them; to recognise that events are usually more complex than we remember them; and to come to a realisation that history belongs in the past and not in the present?

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In finishing, I would like to add my own tribute to the journalist Liam Clarke who died this week. I met Liam when I was a rookie working at the News Letter and the Sunday News in the 1980s. To me then he seemed like a seasoned hack but he cannot have been much older than me. He was intelligent and never afraid to challenge orthodoxies. In a political system where there is no real opposition, journalists like him are a critical part of the body politic and he will be missed.

  • A version of this article appeared in The Irish News on December 31 2015