President to meet students researching Battle of the Somme

Youngsters from the 32 counties have each ‘adopted’ a soldier from their own county

President Michael D Higgins will meet 36 secondary school students before they travel to the Somme battlefield in June.

The students represent each of the 32 counties and the four provinces of Ireland. They are a mixture of transition year, fifth year and A level students studying history.

They have each “adopted” a soldier killed during the Battle of the Somme and have volunteered to tell that soldier’s story through a website which will shortly be online.

They were chosen following an essay competition organised by the History Teachers’ Association of Ireland.

President Higgins will meet the students before they leave for France and Belgium on June 26th. The high point of the visit will be a wreathlaying ceremony at the Thiepval Memorial, the largest British war memorial in the world. It lists the names of 72,195 soldiers who died in the Somme and have no known grave.

The Adopt a Soldier project was started by Donegal history teacher Gerry Moore who said he was inspired by the story of his grand uncle, Private Anthony Gallagher, who was killed on the first day of the battle and whose name is on the Thiepval Memorial.

When Mr Moore wrote to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) asking him what happened the remains of his great uncle, he was toldthey had been "pulverised" on the battlefield.

Several of the students involved in the project spoke of their adopted soldier at the launch in Collins Barracks today.

Leslie McCarthy had adopted Charles Francis Conway from Tralee who was born between 1897 and 1899. He joined the 8th battalion of the Royal Munster Fusiliers in 1914 when he was underage. He was killed at the Battle of Ginchy on September 9th, 1916.

Alison Glass from Fermanagh has Corporal Robert Kerr from Tempo, Co Fermanagh. He joined the Inniskilling Fusiliers in 1915 and was killed along with more than 2,000 soldiers from the 36th Ulster Division on the first day of the Somme, July 1st 1916.

Kyle McGee from Co Monaghan adopted Samual Robert White from Castleblayney. He was 33 when he joined the Australian army on St Patrick's Day 1915, was involved in the disastrous Gallipoli campaign and was reported missing in action during the Battle of the Somme on August 28th, 1916. He was confirmed dead more than a year later.

Students from St Columba’s Comprehensive School in Glenties as well as a student from Monaghan and one from Laois have also begun work on creating a database of all the soldiers from the island of Ireland who are commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial. The students are working their way through the names of more than 73,000 soldiers, extracting the names of the soldiers born in Ireland.

They plan to put this information onto a website, to be used by future researchers.

The project has a community, county and national dimension but is based in Glenties.

Mr Moore said the group will make history by being the first to carry out such research. They are opening a “closed door of Irish history”, he said.

Their journey to the Somme will be made into a documentary by RTÉ.

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times