Battle of the Somme: Irish out in force for commemoration

Some 600 students from France, England and Ireland visit Lochnagar Crater

Minister for Culture Heather Heather Humphreys lays a wreath at the monument to the 16th (Irish) Division outside the church at Guillemont

Minister for Culture Heather Heather Humphreys lays a wreath at the monument to the 16th (Irish) Division outside the church at Guillemont

 

The poppies are all out in the Somme. Nature’s own commemoration, they are everywhere this time of year on roadsides, roundabouts and in the fields. They lap around the Ulster Tower and the walls of the nearby Connaught Cemetery.

It was a rain-soaked afternoon, much like in the days running up to the Battle of the Somme, though the weather on the first day was “heavenly”, according to the poet Siegfried Sassoon.

The flags of all the old warring nations, France, Germany, the UK and all those parts of what was the old British Empire, including Ireland, are everywhere in evidence in this part of France and have replaced the flags of the 24 nations competing in the European Championships.

Conspicuous too by their presence in the old town of Albert is the flag of the European Union, a subtle dig perhaps from the French hosts towards their British visitors.

The Irish are out in force as well. On Friday, 25 pupils from St Paul’s Community School in Waterford city visited Lochnagar Crater, the most brutal reminder of that terrible first day of the Battle of the Somme.

The crater, the result of 60,000 pounds of explosives levered under the German lines and exploded two minutes before the men went over the top, needed all of its vast girth to accommodate 600 students of three schools, one Irish, one English and one French. They all came at the same time to visit this most conspicuous of scars on the landscape.

Personal interest

It was a proud day for St Paul’s principal Noreen Reilly. The school was chosen from a competition by the British Council to represent Ireland at the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. They will mark the graves of Irishmen who died in the battle at the main commemoration on Friday in Thiepval.

Some of the students and teachers have a personal interest in the battle. Teacher Gerald Loan’s great granduncle Joseph Monaghan from Tuam, Co Galway died at the Battle of Guillemont on September 3rd 1916. “None of my relatives have ever been here before. It is great to be here,” he said.

Katelyn Reilly (14), a second-year student, clutched some poppies she picked up on the side of the road. Her great granduncle Guardsman William Butler was killed while serving with the Irish Guards during an engagement in September 1916 which cost the regiment 300 casualties, yet merits barely a footnote in the terrible story of the Somme. “It is a brilliant opportunity with the centenary here and to have that connection is special,” she said.

Omayma Zarar (15), originally from Pakistan, created an art work depicting Irishmen who fought in the Somme which will be made into postcards. Originally from Pakistan, she said: “I’m not Irish, but I feel for those souls. They were so brave.”

At the other end of the Somme battlefield, a welcoming party greeted Minister for Culture Heather Humphreys in Guillemont, one of the two French villages liberated by the 16th (Irish) Division in September 1916.

The mayors of Guillemont and Ginchy, Didier Samain and Jean-Marc Delmotte, wore their tricolour sashes. The locals who turned out included a 95-year-old Guillemont native who was the first baby born in the village after the war.

Ms Humphreys laid a wreath at the monument to the 16th (Irish) Division outside the church at Guillemont. She then entered the church and spoke with pride of the exploits of Thomas Hughes from her own county who won a Victoria Cross at the Battle of Guillemont. A plaque on the wall remembers his deeds.

Hughes, from Castleblayney, won his Victoria Cross for a near-suicidal act of bravery in which he singlehandedly disabled a German machine gun. He did not have a comfortable existence when he came back to Ireland after the war.

“Many young men came home from this war and were treated as traitors. It is great in this decade of commemorations that their families are once again proud of the contribution they made,” she said.

Her visit was accompanied by a flash flood which ran down the main street. “The River Somme,” one of the Irish delegation remarked.

Special gift

President Michael D Higgins and Ms Humphreys will represent the Government at the main commemorations taking place at the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing and the Ulster Tower.

Some 20,000 visitors are expected on Friday in this rural part of France including British prime minister David Cameron, the French prime minister Manuel Valls and senior members of the British royal family.