Instant History: Ulstermen at the Somme, July 1916

By David Fitzpatrick

What historian of revolutionary Ireland can claim to have remained utterly impervious to seduction during the current orgy of centennial commemoration? The study of how distant events have been remembered is suddenly both popular and profitable, offering almost irresistible attractions. The core documentation for public commemorative practices is typically compact and easily accessible: downloadable press reports of anniversary or jubilee events, perhaps a few boxes of official files. The focus of interest in commemorative studies has long since shifted from the original episodes and participants to politicised constructions of the past and the political functions of current ceremonies. Though of some intrinsic interest as well as ‘relevance’ in the eyes of funders, this genre tends to produce soft, easily digestible history. The hard questions of history (what actually happened and who thought what, why, and with what consequences) are neatly avoided. Released from tiresome delving into the distant past, historians easily mutate into columnists and pundits, accorded spurious authority because of their past credentials as scholars. Most of us will probably emerge only slightly scathed, to document another day when public interest wanes and the orgy fizzles out. However, the most prudent strategy for scrupulous historians is to avoid binge-commemorating and limit self-indulgence to the occasional review, hedge-school, or blog.

In current work, I have begun to chart an intermediate course between the study of events and that of their commemoration, by scrutinising ‘instant history’. By this I mean the ways in which actors and observers experienced contemporary events as if they were living out history and in history. Ulster Day (28 September 1912), Easter Week (24–29 April 1916), and Anti-Conscription Day (21 April 1918), were all ‘historic’ moments for contemporaries as well as for later generations. Each whipped up a widespread sense of excitement, even awe, social solidarity, and confidence that Irish politics and life could be transformed through mass participation in a novel and dangerous experiment. The meanings attributed by contemporaries to these episodes were not mere products of political manipulation, but shaped by personal observation and experience. To make sense of ‘instant history’, one must rehearse all those hard questions. How did both organisers and observers express and enact their sense of being history-makers? How important were embedded beliefs about past history in gathering communities into these collective performances? How did the experience of optimism and solidarity, however evanescent, mould Ireland’s subsequent political development? My purpose is not to answer these questions, but to propose and illustrate a tentative taxonomy for some future study of Ireland’s instant histories. Here I shall discuss the applicability of this model to Ulster’s sacrifice at the Somme (1–2 July 1916).

Each of the episodes under discussion was theatrical, in several senses. First came the script, minutely revised and choreographed to engage and engross as many contemporaries as possible. Second came the performance, in which participants performed their assigned parts in public. Performance generated interaction with the audience, whether positive or negative, so drawing the wider public into the experience of living out history. Very soon after the curtain fell, the sense of history-making was reinforced by the production of historical and biographical studies by journalists and polemicists, feeding the public appetite for information and explanation. Popular consumption of history was not restricted to reading books and articles, but took more intimate forms (medals, souvenirs, postcard portraits, parchments, poems, personal relics and tokens). Finally came the inevitable anniversary and jubilee commemorations, gradually losing their personal significance and changing their meaning as instant history became formulaic observance.

To what extent is my categorisation of ‘instant history’ applicable to Irish involvement in the Great War, most dramatically exhibited at the Somme in July 1916? In several respects, the performance of war differed radically from home protests and rebellions. First, the basic plot was determined not by Irishmen but by the politicians, strategists, and commanders whose decisions embroiled millions in the attritional trench warfare epitomised by the first battle of the Somme. Second, the Irish element was only part of a multi-ethnic drama in which it was difficult to distinguish the relative intensity of suffering, heroism, and bravura displayed by Irish and non-Irish participants. Third, the Irish audience neither witnessed the performance nor interacted with the performers, being reliant on censored and highly coloured retrospective reports.

Despite these impediments, the advocates of Ulster’s mobilisation in the Great War did their best to convert the First Day of the Somme into almost instant history, in the hope of bolstering home support for the war effort. Since the attack failed, at appalling human cost, to achieve any significant military gain, the Somme advance (like the Dublin rebellion) was best imagined as a glorious failure. Germans continued to control Thiepval, British politicians and generals continued to recriminate, but Ireland’s military reputation prospered. Stories of personal heroism and esprit de corps in the Ulster division seemed all the more impressive in the context of reckless planning, poor intelligence, and other command failures that were gradually revealed after an initial surge of optimism. As in the case of the Anzacs, whose first blooding at Gallipoli was promptly perceived as a national rite de passage in both Australia and New Zealand, national pride and loyalty to imperial ideals proved compatible with resentment at the arrogance and incompetence of the British government and high command. Whether in Australasia or Ulster, such strategic failures demonstrated that the British empire was too valuable to be left under solely British control. If Australasia and Ulster needed the empire, the empire needed their full involvement if it were truly to become a commonwealth.

The heroic if futile endeavours of the 36th (Ulster) division provided an irresistible loyalist narrative, with Thiepval as the latest instalment in Ulster’s age-old struggle for civil and religious liberty. Despite Ulster’s relatively weak tradition of service in the pre-war British army, and the fact that Ulster unionism was dominated by merchant and manufacturing families with typically shallow military roots, propagandists were able to sacralise the Somme by joining it with the Boyne. Incorporation of the Somme into the Orange litany of commemoration was eased by the accident that the Somme offensive of 1 July, having been postponed for two days because of rain, coincided with the 226th anniversary of the battle of the Boyne (old-style).

The assimilation of the ‘charge of the Ulster division’ into the serial narrative of Protestant loyalism was easily accomplished. After all, most members of the division in July 1916 were indeed veterans of the UVF and therefore signatories of the Ulster Covenant. Throughout almost two years of training, the activities and spirit of the Ulster division had been minutely chronicled by every unionist newspaper in Ulster: they had become heroes long before facing the enemy. Many belonged to the Loyal Orange Institution, often joining military lodges formed during training in Ireland or England. For such men, their first (and often last) taste of combat at the Somme was an opportunity to demonstrate Ulster’s once questionable loyalty, unsapped by the poor leadership offered by English commanders and the inadequacy of supporting units and artillery. The fact that many members carried Bibles distributed in camp by the English Orange Institution, while some allegedly sported orange handkerchiefs or favours, gave dramatic form to the equation of their battle of the Somme with Ulster’s unending struggle for liberty.

This equation was promptly and widely asserted in the unionist press, providing a powerful narrative of instant history and the framework for commemoration over the next century. Unlike the landings at Helles and Suvla in April and August 1915, the long-awaited attempt to break through the German lines on the Somme was almost immediately the subject of detailed press despatches and personal accounts. Within a week of the Thiepval advance, provincial newspapers carried an anonymous tribute written on the second day, evidently by an officer of the 36th division: ‘How Ulster Troops Led the Attack. An Eye-Witness’s Stirring Story.’ This became a foundation text for commemoration: ‘I am not an Ulsterman, but yesterday, the 1st July, as I followed their amazing attack I felt that I would rather be an Ulsterman than anything else in this world.’

The Ulstermen had been ‘suddenly let loose as they charged over the two front lines of enemy trenches, shouting “No Surrender, boys”. . . battalion after battalion came out of the awful wood as steadily as I have seen them at Ballykinlar, Clandeboye, or Shane’s Castle.’ Having cleared the fourth line without sufficient support from the flanks, they had gone ahead regardless of an order to halt:

The order arrived too late, or perhaps the Ulstermen, mindful that it was the anniversary of the Boyne, would not be denied, but pressed on. I could see only a small portion of this advance, but could watch our men work forward, seem to escape the shell fire by miracle, and now, much reduced indeed, enter the fifth line of the enemy trenches, our final objective. It could not be held, however, as the Division had advanced into a narrow salient.

All key elements of the Somme story were already present: echoes of the siege of Derry and battle of the Boyne, reckless courage, astonishing feats undermined by inadequate planning. The tragic narrative was sustained, week after week, by publication of shocking local casualty lists, elegiac verses, official despatches honouring the Ulstermen, and letters from the front showing little sign of censorship beyond absence of placenames. Such was the torrent of information that those at home could visualise the battle more colourfully, if less accurately, than the participants themselves.

By comparison with the rapid proliferation of works purporting to explain the Dublin rebellion, detailed chronicles of the Ulster division on the Somme were slow to appear. The first sustained treatment was three chapters in Michael MacDonagh’s The Irish on the Somme, introduced by John Redmond and published in 1917. Though devoting twice as much space and vastly more enthusiasm to the daredevil feats and genial characteristics of the 16th division, MacDonagh’s book made a point of being inclusive. This was in keeping with Redmond’s view of the war as a path towards reconciliation in Ireland: ‘I am as proud of the Ulster regiments as I am of the Nationalist regiments.’

The next sustained narrative was a surprisingly balanced ‘souvenir of Peace Day’ (6 August 1919), ‘presented on behalf of the Citizens of Belfast by the Citizens’ Committee to the Ulster Service Men’. Though this emphatically unionist publication gave what might be deemed ‘undue prominence’ to the Ulster division, the space allotted to the two Irish divisions and the ‘Old Contemptibles’ was actually greater. Echoing Redmond’s sentiments, the preface declared that ‘no distinction is made in the measure of praise that is due to Irishmen of all creeds and classes who joined His Majesty’s Forces in a period of great national emergency’.

A divisional history by Captain Cyril Falls appeared three years later, ‘under the patronage’ of Lord Carson, Sir James Craig, and the divisional commander Sir Oliver Nugent. In his introduction, Field-Marshal the Lord Plumer drily noted the focus on ‘glorious failures’, and the lack of ‘reference to any great strategical movements or brilliant tactical operations, because there were none such to describe’. Though Falls devoted only one of his sixteen chapters to ‘The Battle of the Somme’, it was that catastrophic initiation which most captured public imagination and shaped subsequent remembrance of the Ulster division.

The religious thrust of Ulster’s sacrifice was immediately expressed in the Orange anniversary services that replaced the cancelled Twelfth processions in 1916. In Ballycarry Presbyterian church, Co. Antrim, on the preceding Sunday, the anniversary service was ‘both commemorative and intercessional’. An additional memorial service for ‘Carrick’s dead heroes’ was held at St Nicholas’s parish church on 13 August, the ‘musical part of the service’ being supplied by the band of the 4th battalion, Royal Irish Rifles, while the offertory was devoted to the UVF Patriotic Fund. Having declared that ‘the choice was between war and dishonour’, Frederick MacNeice spoke of the ‘price paid’ for the safety of those at home: ‘the price is the blood of our townsmen. Their sacrifice on the fields of France should be followed by our conservation here in Ireland. . . . Henceforth let life be fuller of love and sympathy, let your aims be higher, your interests wider.’

By July 1917, commemoration of the Somme was embedded in Orange services and platform resolutions as well as anniversary services of intercession. A year later, J. P. Beadle’s celebrated painting of the charge of the Ulster division was first reproduced on a lodge banner. And so Ulster’s Somme story was projected forwards as a renewed inspiration for Orangemen and unionists, incorporated into a growing portfolio of commemorative events. Though the cult of 1 July 1916 has never faltered, its political meaning (like that of most episodes discussed in this paper) was to be bitterly contested as paramilitary groups and their apologists claimed the Somme heritage.

By contrast, the heroism and suffering of the Irish at Gallipoli never became the stuff of national legend, despite the strenuous efforts of Redmond, the early historians of the 10th division, and survivors of the campaign. This reminds us that Irish history is littered with instant histories which misfired, as well as those which periodically revitalised familiar historical narratives and, in some cases, transformed Ireland’s political history. Is Ireland exceptional in the extent to which politics has been performed through historical re-enactment? Is the current commemorative obsession proof of Irish exceptionalism in this respect, or merely the outcome of a political calculation, designed to improve Anglo–Irish and North–South relations by identifying common ground in a neutralised past? And, finally, when and where will it all end?

David Fitzpatrick is a Professor of Modern History at Trinity College Dublin. In 2014, he published Descendancy: Irish Protestant Histories since 1795 with CUP.


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