Ireland 1916: Were all Somme soldiers celebrated?

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1. Ireland on the brink

When World War One broke out in 1914, Ireland was on the verge of its own civil war. The island was part of the United Kingdom and ruled from London, but Westminster’s plan to introduce Home Rule, with a devolved government in Dublin, had nationalists and unionists at loggerheads.

The onset of war in Europe paused the progress of the Home Rule Bill through Parliament, but the problem was simply put on hold. Thousands of Irishmen with varied views on politics and identity now joined the British Army.

After World War One, Ireland's violent turmoil continued. While unionist communities honoured returning soldiers, many who came back to nationalist areas were shunned for wearing a British Army uniform. This complex story is reflected in the experiences of two Irishmen, Thomas Kettle and Harry Midgley, who fought at the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

2. The war that stopped the war

In 1914 Ireland bristled with guns as unionists and nationalists armed themselves over the Home Rule issue.

Militias sprung up across Ireland. Clip from Voices 16: Somme.

Protestant unionists in the north feared a parliament in Dublin would bring economic ruin, dominance from the Catholic Church, loss of their cultural identity and the end of the British Empire. Catholic nationalists in the south were determined to defend Home Rule. Disputes over poverty, workers’ rights and women’s empowerment fuelled the fire. But after the outbreak of World War One, men from both communities found themselves fighting on the same side.

3. Into the furnace

Thomas Kettle was a nationalist from Dublin. Harry Midgley was a unionist from Belfast. In 1914 both men joined the British Army to fight a common enemy. The fates of these men, and their legacies, were decidedly different.

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Image credit: Public Record Office NI, UCD Library Special Collections

4. Two men, two poems

Harry and Tom shared the terrible experience of the Somme. Their backgrounds and fates were different, but their poetry shows they had similar views on war.

Harry wrote poetry to express his feelings about World War One and to lament the death of friends. The following excerpt comes from a poem called Armistice Day, written in 1925.

Oh war is just another name for hate,

And these our dead died that its reign might end,

So let us strive to open wide love’s gate,

And nation look to nation as a friend.

Tom wrote a poem for his young daughter while serving at the Somme. Just a few days later he was killed. The following excerpt comes from To My Daughter Betty, The Gift of God.

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.

5. From dark to dawn

Most soldiers who fought at the Somme survived the ordeal. However they had to battle on until the war ended in 1918. A number of men stayed in the army but most re-entered civilian life.

Post-war Ireland was still in conflict over the question of British rule. Veterans, who a short time earlier had worn the same British uniform, found themselves fighting against their former fellows as IRA men or policemen in the new constabularies.

Northern Ireland, created in 1921, accorded an esteemed position to the 36th (Ulster) Division, its veterans and its dead. Public remembrance often emphasised the Somme and men like Harry Midgely were highly thought of.

But many men returned to nationalist communities radicalised by the Easter Rising and the British government’s decision to execute the rebel leaders. Public acknowledgment of the men's role as soldiers, and the sacrifice of men like Tom Kettle, soon withered on both sides of the border.

Only in recent years, with the normalisation of Anglo-Irish relations, has the Republic of Ireland acknowledged the Somme and the part nationalist soldiers played in World War One.