Friends in common troubles: lessons of the Somme


‘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.


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