July 2016



 

Our Stakeholders:

36th Ulster Division Memorial Association

Apprentice Boys of Derry

Armagh Unionist Centenary Committee

Confederation of Ulster Bands

Democratic Unionist Party

Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland

Independent Loyal Orange Institution

Progressive Unionist Party

Ulster Volunteer Force Memorial Regimental Band Association.

Somme Association

Ulster Bands Association

Ulster Defence Union 1893

Ulster Unionist Party

West belfast Athletic and Cutural Society

Battle of the Somme

1st July 1916 - As the morning mists cleared away on the 1st July, the assault waves of 130,000 British Infantry called their rolls and checked their arms and ammunition. Each man was in "fighting order" and with the extra burden of shovels, grenades, a Stokeâs mortar bomb, wire cutters a gas mask, a prepared charge of explosives for cutting gaps in wire, and other obstacles, many of them were carrying 90lbs.

At 7.30am, zero hour, the artillery barrage lifted off the first German line and moved onto the second. This was the first employment of the so-called rolling barrage. Steel-helmeted and with bayonets fixed, the infantry left their trenches and advanced. As a senior officer wrote to the Times Newspaper of the Ulster Division: "It was done as if it was a parade movement on the barrack square" They were closely packed in rigid lines, the military doctrine of the day being that they should swarm onto the enemy trenches as soon as their own artillery had lifted. But this stiff formation prevented the use of cover and inhibited initiative.

At first, south of the Ancre, everything went well and 108 and 109 Brigades moved over the German trenches with few casualties. Scarcely were they across, however, when the German batteries opened a barrage on "No Mans Land". Simultaneously the skilful and resolute German machine-gunners, who had remained safe from our bombardment, now sprang up from their shelters, pulling up their guns and heavy ammunition boxes, and raked our men from the flanks and the rear, thinning the khaki waves. Many officers fell and the men went on alone.

The Ulster Divisions position was now a vulnerable salient in the German line. A few hundred yards wide and raked by German fire. At dusk a powerful counter-attack by fresh German troops drove our men, almost weaponless, back to the second German line, which they held all the next day until relieved at night by the troops of the 49th Division.

They withdrew with their prisoners tattered and exhausted. They had suffered horrendous casualties. The Innsikillings lost more men than any British regiment had ever lost in a single day. Of the 15th Royal Irish Rifles, only seventy men answered roll call that night of the 1st of July. The total British casualties on that first day were 60,000.

Through no fault of their own, the blinding success that the Ulstermen had achieved had not been exploited. But the Battle of the Somme had inflicted on the Germans, a wound from which they never fully recovered. An historic eyewitness account of the battle stated "I am not an Ulsterman, but yesterday, the 1st July, as I followed their amazing attack I felt I would rather be an Ulsterman than anything else in the world."

Truly we may say of those who fell as said Pericles over the warrior dead in Athens, "So they gave their bodies to the Commonwealth and received, each with his own memory, praise that will never die, and with it the greatest of all sepulchres, not that in which their mortal bones are laid, but a home in the minds of men, where their glory remains fresh to stir to speech or to actions as the occasion comes by."

In two days of fighting, the Ulster Division had lost 5500 officers and men - killed, wounded and missing. The first day of the battle had been the original anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne and as they went over the parapet, many shouted the old battle cries "NO SURRENDER" and "REMEMBER 1690". Many wore orange ribbons and one sergeant of the Inniskilling had on his orange sash. The Belfast newspapers, as elsewhere on 3rd July, reported the Somme Offensive, and spoke of brilliant successes. It was several days before the true horror of the casualties was known, and as day by day the lists in the newspapers grew longer, the whole Province went into mourning. No division was more closely-knit because its core had been the Ulster Volunteer Force and besides, the Ulster community was small and compact. In the streets of Belfast, as in other towns and villages throughout Ulster, mothers looked out in dread for the red bicycles of the telegram boys. In house after house, the blinds were drawn until it seemed that every family in the city had been bereaved. The casualty lists were full of familiar names, and always after them in brackets appeared the Ulster Volunteer Force units to which the casualty belonged. That year the Lord Mayor requested the suspension of business for five minutes at noon. In a downpour of rain, traffic stopped, and passers by stood silent in the streets - the Ulster Volunteers had sealed their covenant in blood.

Volumes have been written about the Battle of the Somme, which continued until November 1916. The author of the 36th Divisional History, the noted military historian Cyril Falls says this of it: "But - and of this there can be no shadow of doubt today - it laid the foundations of final victory."

 On 5 July the Division moved back to Rubempras, and five days later the Bernaville area, although the artillery remained in position. Replacement drafts began to arrive before the Division was moved north, to Flanders. Falls again: "On 12 July ... Brigade marching from the station of Thiennes into Blaringhem. The least practised eye could tell that to these men confidence was returning; that the worst of the horror they had endured had been shaken from their shoulders. They marched like victors, as was their right".

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