By John Bruton
Recently I visited the battlefields of the Somme in Northern France. In doing so, I was fulfilling a long-held wish.
Last year, I was at the launch of “Meath War Dead,” a book by Noel French, which contains a series of short biographies of the hundreds of natives of my home county of Meath who died in the First World War. They came from every walk of life. Virtually every “Big House “ family in Meath lost a son, but the majority of dead were labourers, fitters, and sons of farmers. I recognised so many family names I knew that it brought home the reality of war in a very personal way. Similar books are published or in preparation for every other Irish county.
(Righ, abovet: A pair of stained-glass windows in the Guildhall in Derry, Ireland, commemorating the national involvement of three Irish (Service) Divisions in the Great War 1914-18. Window left displays the Coat of Arms of the 36th (Ulster) Division, the window right, above, the Arms of the 10th (Irish) Division and below those of the 16th (Irish) Division. On all sides are the names of their many important battle engagements. The windows were completed in the early nineteen-twenties.)
The grief of the families at home must have lasted a lifetime. But there were also stories with happy ends. Willie Connolly of Dunboyne, who fought at the Somme, was reported to his family at home as “missing presumed dead.” But some weeks later, there was a knock on the door and there he was, safe and sound. Bureaucratic mix-ups were not rare in war time!
Fifty thousand French soldiers were killed in this battle, 95,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers, and 164,000 Germans. Despite their heavy casualties, the Allies gained only a dozen square miles of territory, but they did inflict proportionately more casualties on the Germans than they suffered themselves.
Although launched to make a big breakthrough, the Allied offensive became a battle of attrition, wearing out German resources of men and material, and in that it was partially successful. The offensive on the Somme tied up German troops, relieving pressure elsewhere, notably on the French at Verdun, and on Russia in the East.
Artillery fire was more devastating than face-to-face combat. Artillery accounted for 58 percent of all casualties, rifle and machine gun fire for 39 percent, and bayonets for just 0.3 percent.
‘He died for Ireland and for Europe.’
A large number of the 49,000 Irish who died in the Great War did so at the Somme.
One of those who died there, in September 1916, was Tom Kettle, an officer in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, who was a professor of economics in University College Dublin. Kettle had served as an Irish Party MP for East Tyrone. He had written shortly before his death:
“I am calm and happy, but desperately anxious to live. If I live I mean to spend the rest of my life working for perpetual peace. I have seen war, and faced modern artillery, and I know what an outrage it is against simple men.”
A colleague wrote of him to his wife after his death: “He died for Ireland and for Europe.” JB
Read reviews for The Wild Geese by John Bruton.
John Bruton, a former Teachta Dála in Ireland’s Dáil Éireann, served as the nation’s Taoiseach (Prime Minister) from 1994 to 1997, and as Ambassador of the European Union to the United States from 2004 to 2007. He is currently President of IFSC Ireland. A graduate of University College Dublin, with degrees in economics and law, he is a passionate student of history. John has graciously agreed to write book reviews on occasion for The Wild Geese. You can get more of John's perspectives on Irish -- and world -- affairs at http://www.johnbruton.com/.