Belfast Telegraph

Real tragedy of Somme is we may never know just how many died

Ahead of the centenary of the last day of the Battle of the Somme, Belfast journalist Martin O'Brien pays a poignant visit to Flanders

Ulster Tower. Thiepval Memorial. Guillemont. Menin Gate. Passchendaele ... And that is not even to mention the cemeteries - it is a land of cemeteries and memorials - and the incredible work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC).

I had seen those places on television and in history books before, especially in the broadcasts around Remembrance Sunday.

On July 1, with millions of others, I was glued to the TV, watching the coverage of the centenary commemoration of the start of the Battle of the Somme.

A few days from now, on November 18, 141 days on, sees the 100th anniversary of the last day of the Battle of the Somme, which left more than one million Allied and German soldiers wounded, captured, or killed, including an estimated 50,000 soldiers from this island, who died - Protestant and Catholic, unionist and nationalist.

A few weeks ago, I realised a long-held goal of visiting the battlefields of Flanders and the Somme, thus honouring the memory of those from both parts of Ireland who died in a war that was naively meant to be "the war to end all wars", but turned out to be a human catastrophe that claimed the lives of an estimated 17 million people.

It is unsettling that the truth is we will never know just how many died. So much for the sanctity of human life.

Indeed, we'll probably never know the exact number of soldiers from this island who died serving King and country and may never know all their names.

I have read that historians say that the 49,935 names inscribed on the Irish National Memorial in Islandbridge, Dublin - visited jointly by the Queen and then-President Mary McAleese in 2011 - is not reliable and the real number may be either well above that, or even lower.

One has been conscious for a long time that, while the sacrifice of the 36th (Ulster) Division has been properly and rightly recognised here at home and in France, the sacrifice of tens of thousands of Catholics from the south was not properly acknowledged until relatively recently in the Republic.

It was not just at official level that the memory of the latter was overlooked or dismissed. Perhaps just as importantly, it happened at the family level.

I recall visiting Artillery Wood cemetery at Boezinge in the Ypres Salient and meeting visitors from Dublin at the grave of the Irish poet Francis Ledwidge, from Co Meath, a soldier in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, who is one of the more than half-a-million soldiers on either side killed in the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917, also known as the Third Battle of Ypres.

One of them, a man in his sixties, had a grand-uncle killed in the Great War and he had come to Flanders to find out more about the general circumstances in which his relative and so many of his generation had died.

"We knew very little about him and, as a family, we never talked about him. All I heard as a child was that there was another uncle who was a bit of an eejit because he went off to the war and got himself killed.

"It is terrible that is the only memory I have in relation to him and I would say that attitude was not uncommon. When I was growing up, that aspect of history just wasn't talked about."

Although I have no known relatives who were killed, or injured, my visit was a moving and instructive experience that shone light on the scale of the slaughter - insofar as that is possible - and the resultant, unconscionable loss; the different historical narratives in Britain and Ireland and within the island of Ireland.

The visit also provided an opportunity to see the wonderful efforts of the CWGC and the Belgian and French authorities to keep alive the memory of the fallen.

The CWGC maintains 1.1 million headstones worldwide and 959 cemeteries in what was the Western Front alone and each year re-engrave 17,000 headstones in Western Europe.

There was no shortage of poignant experiences. These included visiting the grave of Major Willie Redmond MP, of the Royal Irish Regiment, a strong advocate of Home Rule, the 56-year-old brother of the nationalist leader John Redmond, who died from injuries at Messines Ridge in 1917.

Private John Meeke (23), from Ballymoney, a stretcher-bearer with the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, 36th (Ulster) and a member of the original Ulster Volunteer Force, braved gunfire and artillery to bandage him and, although wounded himself, persisted in trying to save Redmond and was later awarded the Military Medal for bravery.

Arriving in Ypres, Belgium one is struck to see a town that lay in ruins following the German invasion and shelling now gleaming with a new Cloth Hall (incorporating the In Flanders Fields Museum) and the old St Martin's Cathedral - also restored to its former glory.

By the side of the cathedral is a large Celtic cross, bearing the words: "In memory of those men of Munster who died fighting for freedom. A tribute by the people of the province and Cork, its capital city."

There can hardly be a more evocative experience than attending the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres, which has taken place each evening at 8pm since 1928, save for during the German occupation in the Second World War.

The huge memorial contains the names of 54,896 Commonwealth soldiers who went missing in the Salient in the First World War and have no known graves.

There are hundreds of poppy wreaths at the memorial and the first one I noticed bore a little black-rimmed card marked 'Royal British Legion'; someone had written: "In memory of the brave men 36th Ulster Div. & 16th Irish Div". In another part of the memorial, I spotted a similar wreath with a message in black handwriting: "Lisburn Branch Royal Irish Rangers Old Comrades Association. Lest we forget."

On the way to the Somme, through the largely flat countryside of maize crops and sugar beet that was once the site of trench warfare and bloodshed unprecedented in military history, we stopped at Rue du Bois.

It was there, on May 8, 1915, that Fr Francis Gleeson, a Catholic Army chaplain from Co Tipperary, mounted his horse and gave The Last General Absolution to 900 men of the Munster Fusiliers before the Battle of Aubers Ridge, in which 140 of them died and 230 were wounded.

One cannot be prepared for the majesty of the 45-metre-high Thiepval Memorial, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, that commemorates 72,205 soldiers from the British and South African armies who were declared missing in the Somme.

The Ulster Memorial Tower nearby may be small in comparison, but no less impressive in communicating its purpose, which is to honour the memory of "the sons of Ulster" who laid down their lives in the Great War.

Equally poignant and rich in symbolism is the Irish Peace Park and Peace Tower at Messines, the village in Belgium where the Catholics of the 16th Irish and the Protestants of the 36th Ulster fought together. The tower was inaugurated by the Queen, President Mary McAleese and King Albert II of Belgium on Armistice Day 1998.

One of the most striking aspects of my visit was to hear about how the battlefields of Flanders continue to yield up their secrets. The remains of a New Zealand solider who had served in the British Army were recently discovered and identified during an archaeological survey near Ypres.

The battlefield historian Iain McHenry, a native of Belfast now living in Ypres, was an excellent tour guide and his encyclopaedic memory impressed all. McHenry, who has written a book about the work of a military tunnelling company on the Western Front, says every year in the Ypres area alone the Belgium bomb-disposal services deal with around 360 tonnes of unexploded shells.

McHenry says: "We call it the season of the iron harvest. When the farmers are ploughing and re-sowing, they often bring up to the surface unexploded ammunition and other material."

It is evident the First World War centenary has brought extra business to Ypres. Next year, there will be renewed interest in these tours, nay pilgrimages, from throughout Ireland.

That is because 2017 sees the centenaries of both the Battle of Messines (June 7-14) and the Battle of Passchendaele (July 31-November 10) - the two engagements in which the 16th (Irish) and the 36th (Ulster) fought side-by-side in common cause.

Martin O'Brien is a journalist, communications consultant and former award-winning BBC producer

Belfast Telegraph

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