By Richard Grayson
The nationalist 16th (Irish) and unionist 36th (Ulster) Divisions on the Somme in 1916: two divisions, two phases of the British army’s most infamous battle of war, very different results, and disparate memories. But what if their experiences had been different? What if, instead of fighting on the disastrous first day of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916, the 36th had seen action in place of the 16th in successful advances at Guillemont and Ginchy in September? Would a crucial foundation story of the new Northern Ireland state have been lost, and how would that have affected memory of the war? What if, in their place, the 16th Division had incurred heavy casualties in a doomed attack on July 1916? How would that have affected public opinion already shifting from parliamentary nationalism to militant republicanism? To explore these issues, we need first to understand what did happen and how it has been remembered.
For the 36th, that ‘memory’ is publicly expressed on the murals of gable ends in loyalist communities of Northern Ireland, and in countless other ways from flags and badges to the naming of Thiepval Memorial Orange Lodge. At its core is the idea that the Ulster Volunteer Force formed the division in September 1914, and deployed to France in October 1915. Then, on 1st July 1916, in its first major engagement of the war, it was ordered to take and hold the Schwaben Redoubt, a German strongpoint overlooked by the tiny settlement of Thiepval. They did achieve their goal, but only temporarily, since units to their left and right had not secured their targets and the 36th came under German fire from three sides. By nightfall, they had been forced to retreat. From an initial strength of around 16,000, the division suffered around 5,000 casualties of whom about 2,000 were dead. As this was memorialised, the military prowess of the 36th in taking the Schwaben Redoubt was celebrated, and the huge sacrifice commemorated. In 1921 the Ulster Tower was among the first British army memorials to be dedicated on the Western Front. In time, the story would be linked to service in the Troubles-era paramilitaries in a direct line which ran from the 1913-14 UVF, through the Ulster Division to the group which took the name ‘UVF’ from the late 1960s.
The 16th (Irish) Division was similarly formed from a paramilitary group, the pro-Home Rule Irish National Volunteers. It did not arrive in France until December 1915 but saw serious action before the 36th, facing a gas attack at Hulluch in April 1916, while the Easter Rising was taking place. Its battle on the Somme took place in September 1916, specifically at Guillemont on 3rd and Ginchy on 9th. There, both its targets were achieved. Losses were far from minimal: 4,000 casualties of whom around 1,000 were killed, but the deaths were half of those of the 36th two months earlier. The 16th’s successes would not, however, gain a place in the public mind. Certainly the veterans remembered, with battlefield memorials and a later a fixed stone cross being erected. But stories of service in the British army by nationalists were overwritten by the republican heroes of 1916. Not until journalists and historians began to resurrect their memory from the late 1980s were they brought to wider public attention, and only with the launch of the 6th Connaught Rangers Research Project in 2006 was service by Irish nationalists as Irish nationalists actively commemorated by a nationalist community group.
For an alternative history in which the two divisions had swapped places on the Somme to be plausible it has to be possible that that they could have done. This was certainly the case since units which arrived in France at a similar time to the 16th were in action on 1st July, and with the 16th and 36th of similar volunteer composition they were interchangeable. However, there is significant reason to believe that had the 16th Division been attacking the Schwaben Redoubt on 1st July 1916 they might have had a different experience to the 36th. One of the key factors in the advance of the 36th was a decision taken by one man, Major General Oliver Nugent, the divisional commander. According to the broad plan of attack, Nugent was supposed to have his men advance at ‘zero hour’ (7.30am) but he sent some of them out into no man’s land from 7.10am. A widely known aspect of the battle’s first day is that the halting of the British artillery bombardment prior to the infantry advance gave the Germans time to emerge from their dugouts and man the lines. In the area facing the 36th, this still happened, but the Ulstermen were much closer to the enemy front by this time and had gained a significant advantage. Put simply, many more were able to reach German lines because the Germans had less time to fire at them. While Major General William Hickie commanding the 16th could have made this decision, there is no evidence of him doing so in other battles.
So in all likelihood, had the 16th Division attempted to take the Schwaben Redoubt they would have ventured forward at zero hour and faced enemy fire from the moment they advanced, just as British army divisions did across the Somme. That need not have led to more casualties in total than the 36th actually incurred on that day, but they would have come earlier in the day without even the hint of a successful advance. As such, the 16th’s story would have been one simply of futility and loss, rather than the 36th’s more complex story.
Such a story of loss would have reached an Ireland in which the public’s initial hostility to the Easter Rising was beginning to turn in the aftermath of the execution of its rebels. It is possible that some people might have found their views against republicans hardened in the wake of the Somme. Among those who saw the Rising as a ‘stab in the back’ for nationalists fighting on the Western Front for the rights of small nations and to advance Home Rule, heavy losses on 1st July among nationalists could have strengthened the view that anything other than full support for the war effort was insult and betrayal.
However, just as likely, probably more likely, is that losses at the front would contribute to public disillusion with the war as people asked precisely what Ireland was gaining for its sacrifice. That would certainly be seen anyway in the aftermath of the September Somme battles, as the introduction of conscription for Ireland came more on to the agenda. With heavier losses at an earlier stage of the war, the most likely change to history seems to be a speeding up of Irish nationalist hostility to the war and a shift towards republicanism. That could have made the West Cork by-election of November 1916 a significant moment. As it was, the Redmondite candidate held it against a challenge from an ‘All for Ireland League’ candidate, yet with a change in public mood earlier it might have been an opportunity for Sinn Féin to make their first gain from the Irish Parliamentary Party instead of that taking place in February 1917 in North Roscommon. Whether those few months would have made any difference to politics over 1917 and 1918 is hard to claim: Sinn Féin’s electoral victory in December 1918 was almost total, but perhaps the IPP would have won ever fewer than its six seats if there had been an earlier and even larger surge of support for republican candidates. That said, it is hard to see the British government choosing to negotiate with Sinn Féin earlier than it did simply because it won a few more seats.
Had the 36th Division seen action in September rather than July, some aspects of its commemoration would have remained the same. The narrative of military prowess would have remained intact since the 36th’s targets, Guillemont and Ginchy would have been taken. Perhaps the narrative would have become something like that for the Canadians at Vimy. They commemorate the capture of Vimy Ridge by Canadian troops after successive failures to do so by the British and the French. It is possible that the advances on the Somme in September would have been contrasted to failures by the wider British army (and of course the 16th (Irish) Division) as an indicator of Ulster men’s skill on the battlefield. It is possible also that losses would have been lower in the 36th in September 1916 than they had actually been in the 16th if Nugent had ordered his men to advance early as he had done in July.
Yet even with lower losses in September, the numbers would still have been high and it might be the case that one of the two September dates would have been chosen in Ulster for some kind of special commemoration. If so, there might still be a markedly unionist commemoration of the battle, yet there would be one crucial difference due to its timing: the link to the Battle of the Boyne. Historians have cast doubts on how far anyone taking part in the 36th’s battle on 1st July paid any significant attention to the coincidence with the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne. But it is undoubtedly the case that the link has been made since then. Having Ulster’s Somme anniversary in September rather than July would still put it in the ‘marching season’, but there would be no overt link to the Boyne. It is also likely that if the 36th had not been in action on 1st July, the dominant and traumatic day of the war for the British army as a whole, then the range of events commemorated would be much broader than they are now. If the 36th had taken the 16th’s place in September 1916 we can assume that they would have done so in other stages of the war. Think especially of Easter 1916. If the 36th had been at Hulluch, that gas attack would have been its first major engagement. Imagine, in particular, the contrast offered by that to the Easter Rising.
We might still focus just as much as we do now on Messines, where both divisions fought in a successful advance in June 1917. It would still be the key site of reconciliation, and the place from which, as former President McAleese said when she opened it with the British and Belgian heads of state, the memory of the men who died there is put ‘at the service of another common cause’. But we might hear significantly more about the third battle of Ypres, commonly called Passchendaele but where both divisions fought at Langemarck in August 1917. If the 36th had suffered less on the Somme than they did there – and both divisions had high levels of casualties – then it might have been remembered as the major traumatic moment in the division’s history. As it was, one veteran, Jack Christie, remembered it as the low point of his war anyway, due to the terrible conditions. He said, ‘There’s all this emphasis on the Somme, and while it was unique because of the slaughter, I still had some happy times there . . . But a place like Ypres was never like that. Ypres was hell from beginning to end.’
Had Langemarck become the key site for remembrance of the 36th a number of aspects of commemoration would have changed. First, it is very likely that the marching season would include an August Langemarck commemoration. Second, Ypres would now be the central focus for Ulster’s memory of the war. Perhaps there would be an Ulster Tower there. Perhaps the Menin Gate would be the focus of mourning. Third, while some now contrast the 36th’s losses on the Somme on 1st July, with the Easter Rising, there would now be an even more obvious contrast from Easter Week 1916, in the form of the gas attack at Hulluch. However, for unionists and loyalists the year of trauma could be 1917, with a focus on Langemarck. If nothing else, that would have dramatically altered events and discussions which set the Easter Rising and the Somme side by side.
Professor Richard S Grayson (Goldsmiths, University of London) is the author of Belfast Boys: How Unionists and Nationalists Fought and Died Together in the First World War (2009), edited At War with the 16th Irish Division: The Staniforth Letters, 1914-18 (2012), and co-edited Remembering 1916: The Easter Rising, the Somme and the Politics of Memory in Ireland (2016). An associate member of the First World War Centenary Committee in Northern Ireland, he contributed to BBC NI’s Ireland’s Great War, co-edits www.irelandww1.org and chairs the Academic Advisory Group for the Digital Projects run by the Imperial War Museums.