The Road to the Somme

Author Philip Orr considers parallels between the Somme and recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan

Speaking on the eve of the contentious parade of returning soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan through Belfast – which was met with a tense Sunday stand-off on the city’s streets – Philip Orr is a man who knows plenty about remembering war and its casualties.

As author of The Road to the Somme, Orr recognises how emotional – and politicised - the act of remembrance can become: ‘After a war there is always that very complicated story of how you deal with it. I suppose it’s the same here with our local, domestic war. It parallels difficulties such as how do you deal with remembrance in a way that is inclusive, yet doesn’t place the perpetrators of a killing alongside the victim of a killing on the same remembrance stone.’

The story of how we deal with war in Northern Ireland is a particularly complicated – and often contradictory – tale. That the armed forces are still being claimed as belonging exclusively to the Unionist tradition was clear from media treatment of Sunday’s parade. While The Irish News reported on a ‘homecoming’ parade, The Belfast Telegraph’s coverage eschewed the scare quotes.

However, the assumption that Northern Irish members of the British armed forces have been and still are all Protestant is simply untrue. The Royal Irish Regiment – which has served in Iraq and Afghanistan – is estimated to be 40% Catholic and Catholics have been among the casualties suffered in these expeditions.

In this respect, these conflicts have remarkable parallels with the first world war. ‘No matter what your allegiance this story is woven into your history,’ says Philip Orr, reflecting on the fact that thousands of Irish Catholics and Protestants died serving the crown during the conflict.

It has taken a long time for the sacrifice of both Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants in the first world war to be fully acknowledged. The Road to the Somme traces the events that led up to the Somme, from the birth of the Ulster Volunteer Force in 1912 to the Ulster Division’s formation, training and journey to France, and when the book was originally published, in 1987, the Somme was generally regarded purely as a part of Loyalist history.

However, in the twenty years since publication the extent of Catholic involvement in the battle has increasingly been recognised. In just ten days at the Somme in September 1916 the predominantly Irish Catholic 16th Division lost over half of its 11,000 men.

Speaking at the unveiling of a memorial to the 131 men from Fermoy, Co. Cork, who lost their lives in the first world war then Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern said, ‘it is right and proper that in more recent times the memory of these men has been resurrected and proper tribute has been paid to them.’

Orr has noticed a significant increase in interest in the first world war since he published his book, which sold 8,000 copies first time around and is now available in a new, revised and updated edition.

‘130,000 people visited the Ulster Tower (in France) in 2006 … In the 1980s there would barely be 100 people during the course of an entire summer. I had to get the key from the caretaker in the local village. Nobody went there. And now people are flooding over there to find out about it,’ the author explains.

Remembering the first world war has become easier for all sides in Northern Ireland, and for this edition of The Road to the Somme Orr has engaged with the place of the great war in contemporary Irish and Northern Irish history in a new chapter.

Orr argues persuasively that remembrance of the first world war needs to be a sensitive process that, in Northern Ireland, might need its own symbols and commemorative events. He singles out Sinn Fein’s recent approach to Rembrance Day ceremonies at Belfast City Hall for special praise.

‘The poppy is a controversial symbol for many Irish Catholics who see it as a unionist symbol. What [Tom] Hartley [current Lord Mayor of Belfast] and [Alex] Maskey [the first Sinn Fein Lord Mayor of Belfast who first took part in the cermonies in 2002] did was lay a laurel wreath, which is an ancient symbol of commemoration.’

While this republican recognition of the contribution of all – Catholic and Protestant – in the first world war is commendable, the situation with regard to Iraq seems quite different. By any definition Iraq is an unpopular war, fought in support of dubious aims and opposed by the United Nations. So should we be out on the streets supporting it?

Orr may not agree with Iraq but he argues that the contribution made by the armed forces must be recognised publically by all now, rather than 70 years down the line.

‘We have to find new ways of acknowledging the fellows who went out there and fight but without exalting the particular war. You have to have room to be able to be a patriot and to feel that you belong to your country – whether it’s Ireland or Britain – and yet be prepared to condemn a particular war. And at the same time be able to welcome the men who come back.’

The Road to the Somme is available now from Blackstaff Press.
Peter Geoghegan