Somme souls remembered: Paul Clark visits hallowed shrine
This week Paul Clark will present a series of special reports on UTV Live to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. Here he writes about the lasting impact the losses had on Northern Ireland - and his own family connection to the conflict.
I will never forget the first time I visited the Somme battlefield, in northern France. it was 1991 and I was covering the 75th anniversary for UTV.
It was hugely moving. I was struck not just by the large numbers of cemeteries and graves, but by the frequency of the date, July 1 1916, on the headstones.
Like many families in Northern Ireland, I have a family connection.
In 1912, my grandfather’s brother, great uncle Donald Clark, was a member of the Young Citizen Volunteers (YCV), part of the original Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF).
At the outbreak of war in 1914, Edward Carson pledged that the UVF would fight for King and country and the men went on to form the core of the 36th (Ulster) Division.
So, Donald Clark became a private in the 14th battalion, Royal Irish Rifles, and fought at the Battle of the Somme on July 1st 1916.
He survived the bloodiest day in our military history and when the war ended he was a lieutenant in the Royal Munster Fusiliers.
Donald Clark died in 1980, living long enough to have known that the First World War was not ‘the great war to end all wars’.
The Somme has become a place of pilgrimage for me, not just because of my family connection, but because, when I look at the headstones, I can imagine the young men – many of them barely out of their teens – standing there. What a waste.
The Battle of the Somme launched an entirely new phase of the war on the Western Front. This was where 19th century tactics, clashed head on with modern mechanised killing machines. Warfare on an industrialised scale became the norm from then on.
Most of those who died a century ago, were still boys - and they gave up two lives - the one they were living, and the one they would have lived.
I feel a duty to those who fell, that they did not die in vain. That is why I wear a poppy – to remember all of them. I remember, too, the words of King George V, when he visited these cemeteries in the early 1920s.
“In the course of my pilgrimage, I have many times asked myself whether there can be more potent advocates of peace on earth, than this massed multitude of silent witnesses to the desolation of war.”
As a regular visitor, I am occasionally asked to seek out a grave. The last time this happened was a fortnight ago.
A friend of mine, David Baird, has never been to the Somme, but the memory of his great uncle, James Baird, lives on in the family. He asked me if I would place a poppy cross at the grave.
Owing to the excellent resource provided by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (cwgc.org) I was able to find it with ease.
James Baird is buried in the Connaught Cemetery, between Thiepval Wood, and the Ulster Tower. He would not have advanced very far, on the fateful morning of July 1 1916.
I have since discovered that he was a relation of the late Brian Baird, who used to read the news on UTV.
The Somme began just over two months after the Easter Rising. The losses were seen as the unionist equivalent of the blood sacrifice on the streets of Dublin. The Battle united and divided unionists and nationalists. They fought for the same cause; but had differing aspirations for the future of post war Ireland.
They believed the British would reward them for their loyalty to the Crown, in its hour of need – with unionists hoping to kill off Home Rule, and nationalists seeking to revive it.
On a lighter note, I find it amusing to reflect that the Ulster Crisis, which led to the mantra, “We will not have Home Rule,” provided us with an Irish solution, to an Irish problem.
After the war, Ireland was given not one, but two Home Rule Parliaments. One was in Dublin – the other in Belfast, at Stormont. Rome Rule, it most definitely was not.
This coming week, I will return to northern France, to report on the centenary commemorations for UTV Live. I will also be telling stories from the Somme.
They include John, James and Samuel Donaldson – three brothers from Comber, who died on the same day. The UTV archive contains an interview with a surviving brother, on the 50th anniversary in 1966.
There’s Billy McFadzean, a soldier in the same battalion as my great uncle. He is recognised as the first recipient of the Victoria Cross on July 1, when he threw himself onto a box of bombs, even before they “went over the top.”
Again, our archive contains an eye-witness account from someone who was there.
Then there’s Robert Quigg, a modest man from humble origins near Bushmills. He was the only one of the four Ulster Division VCs who lived to wear his Victoria Cross. He died in 1955, and deserves his place among that rare breed of men who are entitled to be described as “the bravest of the brave.”
Quigg was also an Orangeman. The First World War had a profound impact on the Orange Order in Ireland. Huge numbers served in the Ulster Division – and died on the Somme. The battle has been seared into the psyche of the Orange family.
Orangemen could see the parallel between the Somme and the Boyne – two rivers; and July 1 – the original date of the Battle of the Boyne.
However, the passage of time has allowed us to be more circumspect. At last, the Irishness of those who fought in British uniforms can also be remembered.
Most people in Ireland now appreciate the complexity of our history far more than they once did. Owing to changing attitudes, north and south, we know of the strands which bind Britain and Ireland together.
Next Friday, a century on from July 1 1916, the nations on these islands will reflect on the bravery of all servicemen who paid the ultimate sacrifice in the seminal battle on the western front - The Somme.
These reports will feature on UTV Live, this coming week and will be expanded for a programme entitled, Stories from the Somme, which will be broadcast on UTV on Monday July 4, at 8pm
Belfast Telegraph Digital