Here are two pictures from my father’s head
–I have kept them like secrets until now:
First, the Ulster Division at the Somme
Going over the top with fuck the Pope!
’‘No Surrender!’: a boy about to die,
Screaming ‘Give ‘em one for the Shankill!
’‘Wilder than Gurkhas’ were my father’s words
Of admiration and bewilderment.... .
(*Michael Longley )
The most successful troops on that first day of the battle of the Somme July 1 1916, were the French and the 36th Ulster Division, consisting of the Royal Irish Rifles, Inniskillings and Royal Irish Fusiliers, who were situated close to the centre of the attack. The Ulstermen advanced together. Despite intensive German machinegun fire, which swept across their line, they succeeded in reaching and capturing the first line trenches, moving forward into the second and third line of trenches as well. It was an outstounding achievement in the face of withering machinegun fire.
But because none of the other units was able to advance alongside them the Ulsters were isolated, and had to retreat, abandoning their hard earned ground. Their commanding officer, Major-General Oliver Nugent later stated that ‘none but troops of the best quality could have faced the fire which was brought to bear on them, or losses suffered during the advance.’**
The Ulsters suffered more than 5,000 casualties that day, of whom 2,069 were killed. Tattered and traumatised, the Ulster Division withdrew from the battlefield to re-group, and march directly into the political mythology of Ulster Unionism. Their ‘blood sacrifice’ was seen as Ulster’s side of a deal in which Britain would somehow ‘see the loyal province right’ in the agonising over Home Rule, which was scheduled to resume after the fighting was done.
The legend lives on. The annual Orange march at Drumcree in County Armagh every year, which raises eyebrows of disbelief in the south of Ireland, is, nevertheless, a commemoration of that first, nightmare day on the Somme.
Irish nationalists, who fought at the same battle, also believed that their sacrifice would win Home Rule for Ireland. This is what they were promised, this is what the sacrifice for many was all about. Few believed that ideal more than the poet, journalist, barrister and Home Rule politician Tom Kettle.***
Dedicated to the constitutional movement towards an All-Ireland Home Rule, Kettle was a passionate believer in Ireland’s place as an independent country in the new Europe that would emerge after the war. Fighting together would bring Ireland and Great Britain, Protestant Ulster with Catholic Ireland, closer together. To achieve Home Rule he advocated voluntary recruitment. Despite ill health, he joined the Royal Dublin Fusilliers. Although he had sympathy with the Irish Volunteer movement, he was dismayed at the Rising, but he became outraged at the subsequent executions of its leaders. ‘I would have died for Thomas MacDonagh’, he wrote, who was his friend since college days.
By September the battle of the Somme had moved forward, but at great loss of life. On September 9 the Royal Dublin Fusilliers with other Irish regiments, succeeded in taking a heavily fortified German position at Ginchy which is about 1km from Guillemont. This was the only success of the British attack on that day which had cost 4,330 casualties, including 50 per cent of its officers. Among them was the brilliant young Tom Kettle, aged 36, leading a company of his men towards the enemy. He has no known grave.
Tom Kettle had a premonition that he would be killed. He wrote to a friend that he preferred to die ‘out there’ for Ireland with his ‘Dubliners’. Having assessed the mayhem, endless slaughter, and tragedy of the war, he wrote a remarkable and moving poem to his infant daughter.
To My Daughter Betty, The Gift of God
IN wiser days, my darling rosebud, blown
To beauty proud as was your mother’s prime,
In that desired, delayed, incredible time,
You’ll ask why I abandoned you, my own,
And the dear heart that was your baby throne,
To dice with death.
And oh! they’ll give you rhyme
And reason: some will call the thing sublime,
And some decry it in a knowing tone.
So here, while the mad guns curse overhead,
And tired men sigh with mud for couch and floor,
Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,
Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,—
But for a dream, born in a herdsman’s shed,
And for the secret Scripture of the poor.
NOTES: Michael Longley’s father served in the London-Scottish regiment during World War I.
** I am taking this from Galway and the Great War, by William Henry, published by Mercier Press 2006
***Tom Kettle is regarded as a major war poet, and was much admired around Dublin for being great company, a gifted speaker with a sharp wit. At University College Dublin he quickly established himself as a leading student politician and a brilliant scholar. He was elected to the prestigious position as auditor of the Literary and Historical Society. He became the first professor of national economics at UCD, a member of parliament, and a barrister. He was a friend of James Joyce who considered him to be his best friend in Ireland, as well as friends with Francis Sheehy Skeffington and Oliver St Gogarty.
He married Mary Sheehy, a suffragist. They had one child Elizabeth (Betty ) who was born in 1913.