Arts

Remembering the men from Ireland who fought side by side at Messines

100 years ago next week men from the unionist 36th Ulster Division and the nationalist 16th Irish Division fought alongside each other at Messines in Belgium. Prof Laurence Kirkpatrick outlines the background to their joint effort in the battle, and its outcome

A bronze plaque, left, showing an overview of the attack and, right, the replica round tower, both in the Island of Ireland Peace Park in Messines, Belgian Flanders

NEXT Wednesday, June 7, marks another centenary in the seemingly endless Irish decade of centenaries, this time the Battle of Messines Ridge. This significant First World War battle has several Irish connections, most notably the success of the 16th Irish and 36th Ulster Divisions, which fought side by side, and the death of MP Major Willie Redmond.

Messines was one of many small villages situated on the saucer rim of hills around Ypres in West Flanders. Since November 1914 the Germans had occupied the hills, offering advantageous positions from which to shell the lower, and therefore vulnerable, Ypres salient.

1917 marked a new allied offensive in Flanders, a determined effort to drive the Germans off the high ground and potentially roll them back to the channel ports and neutralise their submarine attacks from Ostend and Zeebrugge.

From September 1916 twenty-two tunnels had been dug under the German front line along the southern sector ridges and these were packed with 500 tons of ammonal high explosive. Following eight days of intense bombardment in which 2,230 guns fired over 3.5 million shells, at 3:10am on Thursday June 7 19 mines were detonated – with devastating effect.

In the battle plan the 16th Irish Division and the 36th Ulster Division fought adjacent to each other; two of 11 divisions in the first-wave attack. Despite fears in some quarters that the combustible Irish mixture of religion and politics would adversely affect their fighting cohesion, the Irish soldiers fought successfully and achieved their objectives at Wytschaete by 8am.

Irish losses were light by First World War standards and this military triumph, an advance of over two miles, in conquering the southern salient ridge, was widely celebrated and brought prestige and status to the Irish divisions. The hopes of some Irish politicians that this military co-operation was a portent of future Irish harmony was not fulfilled.

Victory at Messines Ridge was tinged with immense sadness at the death of Major Willie Redmond, brother of Irish Parliamentary Party leader John Redmond. The fifty-six year old, MP for East Clare, had badgered his superiors in order to obtain special permission to attack with his men. Within 20 minutes of leaving the trench he incurred shrapnel wounds to his left arm and leg.

Redmond’s 6th Royal Irish Regiment was the flank battalion of the 16th Division, abutting men of the 36th division. He was carried by 36th division stretcher-bearers to their aid post at Dranoutre and attended by Irish Anglican chaplain John Redmond (no relation) where, although no vital organs had been damaged, he died of shock that evening.

Redmond’s fame is demonstrated by the fact that four generals attended his funeral service at Locre on the following evening and he was buried in the grotto of nun’s garden of Locre Hospice. Appropriately, men from the 2nd Royal Irish Regiment (16th Division) and the 10th Royal Inniskillings (36th Division) formed the guard of honour. Again, hopes that this bond of co-operation in mourning might be an omen for a brighter Ireland were not to blossom.

Three days later British Prime Minister Lloyd George announced plans for an Irish Convention and several politicians voiced the aspiration that a successful resolution of Ireland’s turmoil would be a fitting monument to the late Willie Redmond. However, on July 10 1917 Sinn Fein candidate Eamon de Valera was elected MP for East Clare, Willie Redmond’s former seat, and the Convention failed to bring peace and stability for the island.

Additionally, a few weeks later, the 16th division and 36th division again fought together but were soundly defeated by the Germans at the Battle of Langemarck on August 16. Langemarck produced another famous Irish martyr, Fr Willie Doyle, Jesuit priest and much revered military chaplain. The reality of war poured cold water on the earlier idealism for Ireland.

In 1918 Locre Hospice was virtually destroyed and Willie Redmond’s grave was moved to its present location within yards of Locre Hospice Cemetery which contains 260 graves of First World War combatants. Willie Redmond’s ‘lonely grave’ is a popular tourist attraction today and stands, somehow appropriately symbolising Ireland’s anachronistic position as a combatant to the allied cause in that war but also a people in process of winning independence and freedom from the colonial power.

On November 11 1998 President McAleese, Queen Elizabeth II and King Albert of Belgium opened the ‘Island of Ireland Peace Park’ on Messines Ridge. This park is part of a renewed wider general interest in the Great War and bears a distinctive Irish stamp in the locality. A traditional Irish round tower, dressed in stone blocks transported from Mullingar Workhouse, dominates the site which also contains casualty data for the three Irish Divisions, pertinent quotations from Irish combatants and a peace pledge for contemporary Ireland.

One distinctive hallmark is that the Irish war registers in the tower, according to locals, are regularly stolen by disapproving Irish tourists. Additionally it is an Irish quirk that the park is situated about three miles from where the Irish divisions actually fought.

It is surely not too much to hope that now, after 100 years, Irish citizens can understand that our history is a complex tapestry of many threads and that each historical opinion and action adds to the multiplicity and enrichment of our society.

:: Professor Laurence S Kirkpatrick teaches Church History at Queen’s University Belfast. He will be a keynote speaker, along with Irish News columnist Dr Éamon Phoenix, at an event in the Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich Library, Armagh, on Wednesday June 7 at 7.30pm marking the arrival there of the Ginchy Cross, a memorial made by men of the 16th Irish Division during the First World War. For booking and more information email rhegarty@btinternet.com or call 028 3752 2981.

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