Ireland at the Somme: A Tale of Two Divisions

John Horne asks why the heroic efforts of the two Irish divisions, the 16th (Irish) and the 36th (Ulster), in the bloody events on the Western Front in 1916, have been viewed so differently both at the time and since.

The Somme Battlefield carries a range of monuments that form a  mosaic of commemoration, where men from around the globe converged in 1916 to fight in one of the greatest battles of the First World War. But unlike many others, the monuments to the Irishman who fell in the battle commemorate the dead in two sharply different registers. One is the proud Ulster Tower, testifying to the mourning of Northern Ireland in the 1920s for those who died in the battle, and especially for the 36th (Ulster) Division, composed almost exclusively of Northern Protestants, which attacked on July 1st, 1916, the first day. The Tower has remained a symbol of Northern unionism ever since. The other is the humble Celtic stone cross that was erected outside the church of Guillemont to the memory of the 16th (Irish) Division, which recruited mainly among Catholics and nationalists and fought later in the battle (Guillemont fell on September 3rd). This monument is unknown to most people in Ireland.


In part this contrast resulted from Partition after the war and from divergent official attitudes to commemorating the war in the two parts of the country. But it also stemmed from the parallel yet different experiences of the war itself by the two traditions, unionist and nationalist.


Irish military recruitment was voluntary throughout the war. In the first two years, Ireland participated like the rest of the United Kingdom (and the British Dominions) in the extraordinary drive to create an army of millions by volunteering. The government only attempted to introduce conscription in Ireland in 1918, two years after Britain, and popular resistance meant that it failed.


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