Easter Rising

1916: Unionists and nationalists fought together at the Somme – but for different reasons

A still from film footage of the Battle of the Somme (The Imperial War Museum)
John Monaghan

THE Battle of the Somme was one of the most horrific battles in history; by the time it ended on November 18 1916 – less than five months after it had begun on July 1 – more than a million men had been killed, including thousands from across the island of Ireland.

Occurring within three months of the Easter Rising, the battle both united and divided unionists and nationalists. The groups fought side by side for the same cause, but had differing aspirations for the future of Ireland post-war.

The 36th Ulster Division was comprised mainly of members of the UVF, although many northern Catholics also fought and died with that division on the Somme.

The 16th Irish Division was born out of the Irish Volunteers, which had been pushing for Home Rule. It consisted predominantly of Catholics from across the island, including many northern nationalists.

Following Irish Parliamentary Party leader John Redmond's call to enlist in the British war effort, the Volunteers split in September 1914. Although the vast majority backed Redmond, a militant rump opposed to his call was formed, totalling around 3,000 members, and many of these were involved in the Easter Rising.

Both the 36th Ulster and the 16th Irish divisions believed the British government would reward them for loyalty to the crown in its hour of need, with unionists hoping to kill off Home Rule and nationalists seeking to revive it.

The Battle of the Somme is widely regarded as a colossal failure, with huge loss of life and minimal territorial gain for the Allied forces. Almost 88,000 Allied soldiers died for every one mile gained.

Video courtesy of Creative Centenaries/The Nerve Centre

Preparations for the battle began late in 1915 as a joint French and British enterprise. The Allied High Command believed that an attack at the Somme would assist the French, who were suffering heavy losses in Verdun, to the east of Paris.

The French were so concerned at their loss of manpower in Verdun that they demanded that the launch of the Somme offensive be brought forward to July 1, rather than the previously agreed date of August 1.

Territorial gain was considered a largely secondary aim, with the priority being to divert and drain the German forces of reserves.

It has been reported that the head of the French army, General Foch, believed the attack would achieve little, a concern shared by some leading British commanders, but political considerations ensured the battle went ahead.

There were differences between the British and the French about the length and nature of the Somme offensive, meaning that the adopted plan represented an ill-co-ordinated compromise in parts.

After a week of artillery bombardment, on July 1 the British attacked north of the Somme with 14 infantry divisions, while the French attempted to advance to the south with five. In response, the Germans deployed seven divisions.

On the first day of the offensive, the 36th Ulster Division was tasked with taking a German fortification called the Schwaben Redoubt. Leaving their trenches early, they were among a few British units to achieve success, but, once the site had been taken, promised reinforcements never appeared.

German divisions had fought back at Thiepval and Beaumont Hamel against other British units, and their guns were turned on the Ulster unit. Eventually, isolated and surrounded, the Ulster Division was forced into a retreat.

On July 2, the Ulster Division was relieved of its duties, having suffered more than 5,500 casualties, including more than 2,000 deaths.

Of the nine Victoria Crosses awarded, three went to the Ulster Division – two posthumously.

The losses of the Ulster Volunteers at the Somme have come to occupy a central place in the history of Ulster unionism. Murals in tribute to the men feature in loyalist areas, while the annual Orange Order march at Drumcree is a commemoration of the first day of the Somme.

The Royal Dublin Fusiliers were among the Irish units fighting on the first day, and in September the 16th Irish Division was sent in. Within 10 days, of its original 11,000 number, 1,200 were dead and more than 3,000 wounded or missing.

On the first day of the Somme alone, the British suffered more than 57,000 deaths, greater losses than its combined losses in the Crimean, Boer and Korean wars. In total, the British suffered 420,000 casualties, the French 200,000, and the Germans around 450,000.

At the end of the battle, the initial Allied target of breaching the Bapaume line still lay six miles off.

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