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The Somme

On the very first day of the battle of the Somme, The 36th Ulster Division was given the task of destroying a German fortification called the Schwaben Redoubt.
They were among the few units to reach their objective, but reinforcements despatched into the carnage of no man's land never reached them, and eventually, isolated and surrounded they were forced to retreat.

Of the nine Victoria Crosses awarded on the day, three went to the Ulster Division - two of them posthumously.
The Division was relieved on 2 July having suffered more than 5,000 casualties - 2,069 of whom were killed.

Tattered and traumatised, the Ulster Division withdrew from the battlefield to re-group.

Their legend lives on.

There were, of course, soldiers from the south of Ireland in the fighting on that first day - the Royal Dublin Fusiliers amongst them - but we pick up the story of the Irish at the Somme in September.

The front line had barely moved since July, although the casualties on both sides had been beyond imagination. More than one million men would be dead, injured or missing by the end of the fighting and many of the injured were permanently disabled.

On 3 September, another great British offensive went in. This time the soldiers included the mainly Irish 16th Division, brought down from Loos in Belgium.
Their objectives were the hamlets of Guillemont and Ginchy, which the original battle plans had assumed would be taken in the first few days of fighting.
The men of the 16th Division fought with the same reckless courage that had distinguished the 36th Division - their sacrifice separated only by a few months, a few miles, and hundreds of thousands of casualties.

Within 10 days the Division had lost half its 11,000 men killed or injured. Most died anonymously which was the way of it in a war which married the tactics of an old century with the technology of the new.

The Battle of the Somme ground on for another two months or so, and eventually petered out in the rains of November. It was not obvious at the time, but the Somme would fix itself in the popular imagination as a kind of metaphor for the Great War. The British and Allied armies suffered 420,000 casualties to move the front line just a few miles in four-and-a-half months.

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