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Spare thought for survivors whose war went on after guns fell silent

This year marks many centenaries, not least the Battle of the Somme. The stories of the members of the 36th Ulster Division who fought and died on that first July day of the offensive - and those who lived through it - still reduce Geoffrey Beattie to tears

Published 19/01/2016

British troops negotiating a trench as they go forward in support of an attack on the village of Morval during the Battle of the Somme
British troops negotiating a trench as they go forward in support of an attack on the village of Morval during the Battle of the Somme
A 36th Ulster Division march past at Belfast City Hall in 1915

This year will mark a number of major centenaries. Iconic events that changed our history and shaped our world. In Ireland the events of 1916 have left powerful legacies that reverberate to this day - the Battle of the Somme, the Easter Rising, blood sacrifices that retain their forbidding power in the present, the power to instil fear and wonder, the power to shape our sense of belonging, the power to make you weep.

I grew up in Legmore Street in a Protestant household in north Belfast and heard all the stories about the Somme that both terrified me and inspired me as a boy. Isaac, the old barber in Ligoniel, always talking about how he had tried to join up but was rejected. He had gone into town with his best friend Edward McMurray to enlist in 1914. Edward was passed as medically fit, but Isaac was turned down because he had a weakness in one leg caused by a football injury.

Isaac said that he argued with them, he begged them to let him join up. "I told them that you don't pull a trigger with your leg," he said. You could sense his shame that he wasn't there when it really mattered, a persistent, nagging shame, there for all time.

His friend Edward became a runner in the 15th Battalion of the 36th Ulster Division and lost one of his legs and half of one hand at the Somme. "He was in a sorry state," said Isaac with watery eyes. "He talked about the war a lot, but the funny thing was that he never talked about the Somme itself. He used to sit in his front room, picking bits of dirt out of his good leg while he was reminiscing. The problem with his good leg was that, because there were so many little wounds in it, all the dirt of the day seemed to get caught in it. I used to look after it for him."

There were many men who came back from the Somme who couldn't talk about the battle; some came back not able to talk at all. It was up to others to tell us about what had been achieved that first day, and not necessarily about the lines captured in the "big push" of the Somme. What I heard then, and what I read now, makes me weep.

At 7.10am on July 1, 1916 the first Ulstermen climbed over the parapet of their trench and lay down in long lines. Some of the men had put on their Orange sashes. Then, five minutes later, the second wave climbed out and lay down, and then the third five minutes after that, all waiting for the bombardment of the German lines to end.

At 7.30am the whistles of the officers sounded and the men rose to their feet and started to walk forward. The war correspondent of The Times wrote: "When I saw the men emerge through the smoke and form up as if on parade, I could hardly believe my eyes." As the leading soldiers neared the first German line there were cries of "No surrender, boys!"

By the end of that fateful day there were nearly 60,000 British casualties, with 20,000 dead.

"This was the greatest loss and slaughter sustained in a single day in the whole history of the British Army," Winston Churchill later wrote in his book on the First World War. He also pointed out that by the end of that evening the German 180th Infantry Regiment again controlled all of its original trenches.

The 36th Ulster Division suffered more than 5,000 casualties, and more than 2,000 dead.

On July 11, what remained of the Division left Picardy to march to Blaringhem. It was reported that some of the men saw small orange flowers growing by the roadside and they were given special permission to break ranks to collect these flowers for their tunics as the band played King William's March.

My mother used to tell me that not a single Ulsterman turned back that day, and in the classic book by Michael MacDonagh, The Irish At The Somme, published in 1917, an unnamed British officer is quoted as saying: "I am not an Ulsterman, but as I followed the amazing attack of the Ulster Division on July 1, I felt that I would rather be an Ulsterman than anything else in the world. With shouts of 'Remember the Boyne' and 'No surrender, boys', they threw themselves at the Germans, and before they could be restrained had penetrated to the enemy fifth line. The attack was one of the greatest revelations of human courage and endurance known in history."

But there were many casualties of that fateful day and other days like it. A decade after the end of the Great War, 36% of the veterans receiving disability benefits from the British Government were psychological casualties of this industrialised war.

The most frequent symptom of shell-shock (what we today would call post-traumatic stress disorder) was mutism, the soldiers literally could not speak any longer. What caused the very high incidence of shell-shock were the peculiar conditions of trench warfare which made the psychological experience particularly damaging.

It was the weeks of waiting, the unpredictability of the unseen enemy shelling from a distance and the fact that any direct physical response such as a counter-attack had to be inhibited (except on fateful days like the Somme itself).

The psychological treatment for the ranks suffering from shell-shock was often barbaric. Lewis Yealland, the psychiatrist, pioneered electric shock therapies to treat mutism in the ranks. He describes how he treated a 24-year-old private who had survived the battles of Mons, the Marne, the Aisne, and the first and second battles of Ypres, before collapsing at Gallipoli, where he woke up totally mute.

Back in England Yealland applied electric shocks to make him talk. He explains his "therapeutic" intervention in the following words: "The mouth was kept open by means of a tongue depressor; a strong faradic current was applied to the posterior wall of the pharynx, and with this stimulus he jumped backwards, detaching the wires from the battery."

Yealland writes that he then said to the soldier: "A man who has gone through so many battles should have better control of himself" and then repeated: "You must talk before you leave me." Yealland continued to apply electric shocks for an hour, at the end of which the patient could apparently whisper the sound "ah". This was real progress, according to Yealland.

There were many brave men who fought and died at the Somme and thousands more who had to live with their "neuroses" for many years. This was the bit of the iconography of the Somme, and the other great battles of the First World War, that is much less well-known.

This was the other side of human endeavour and courage, when survivors returned home and had to cope as best they could with friends like Isaac, who may have tried to understand what they'd been through, and with some medical practitioners who were not really interested in the content of their experience at all, rather they were just focused on fixing that unforgiving symptom of silence.

The year 1916 was one that changed many things in both our culture and our understanding - it clearly spelt out to us that even heroes are human beings and that courage comes in many forms and sometimes takes years to fully display.

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