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France 1916: The Battle of the Somme
Thiepval, Ulster Tower
Not a few of the men cried
Australia was not the only part of the British Empire and Commonwealth to suffer grievous loss at the Battle of the Somme. On 12 July 1916, in the Protestant regions of the north of Ireland, there were no customary Orangeman’s Day parades with loud beating of the drums, lines of marching men and the skirling of flutes and bagpipes. Instead, at midday, traffic stopped in Belfast, and throughout the province of Ulster. People stood, heads bowed:
In the middle of the roadway policemen on point duty stood rigidly to attention. The leaden seconds dragged away until the hands of the clocks had moved five minutes. And overhead the flags hung at half mast. The rain fell incessantly
Clifford King, The Orange and the Green, London, 1967, p.7
Among those silent crowds most would have known someone who just days earlier had been killed or wounded at Thiepval on 1 July 1916. On that day the men of the 36th Ulster Division advanced at 7.30 a.m. from the area of the woods to the left of the road, the D73, between Thiepval and the crossing of the River Ancre in the valley beyond. North of the Ancre, too, the Ulstermen were making for the German lines.
At first glance the story of what happened to the Ulstermen that day is straightforward. They managed to press forward and seize a German strong point known as the ‘Schwaben Redoubt’ near the top of the hill to the right of the road where Connaught Cemetery now stands. This was one of the few successful actions on what became a day of disaster for the British Army. However, there they were soon trapped as other units to right and left, such as the Northumberland Fusiliers (at Thiepval), had been unable to move forward. As a result, the Germans were able to counter–attack with shell fire and machine gun fire from both flanks as well as from the front. The 36th Ulster Division fought in the Schwaben for seven hours until by mid–afternoon they had reached the limits of their endurance. Heavy German machinegun fire from the untaken village of Thiepval prevented their pioneer units digging communication trenches across the old no–man’s–land to their rear, and an ever–increasing number of men were being wounded or killed as German attacks and fire grew ever stronger. There was little hope of reinforcement as all 12 infantry battalions in the division had been committed to the morning attack.
We could see the muzzles of some light field guns firing at us … the barrels parallel to the ground. They were pumping out shells as fast as they could. It was awful; there was hardly any escape from them.
Private J Devennie, 10th Battalion Royal Innskilling Fusiliers (Derry Volunteers), quoted in Martin Middlebrook, The First Day on the Somme London, 1977, p.223
By nightfall what was left of the 36th Ulster division was back in the lines from which they had started in the morning. About one man in four, more then 5,000 men, was either killed, wounded or missing. Some units were especially badly affected. The 13th Battalion Royal Irish rifles (County Down Volunteers) had lost 595 men, well over half the battalion. One officer described the post–battle roll call:
Not a few of the men cried and I cried. A hell of an hysterical exhibition it was. It is a very small company now. I took 115 other ranks and 4 officers (including myself) into action. I am the only officer and only 34 other ranks are with me now.
Philip Orr The Road to the Somme, Belfast, 1987, p.191
Where the Ulstermen fought and died there is a memorial – the Ulster Tower. It was constructed with funds raised totally by public subscription and unveiled on 19 November 1921, the first memorial of its kind to appear on the old Somme battlefield. Just inside the gate is a stone listing the names of Ulster recipients of the Victoria Cross during World War I, including Private Robert Quigg of Bushmills who went out into no–man’s–land looking for his officer, Sir Harry Macnaghten. Behind the Tower is a tearoom staffed by members of the Somme Association from Belfast. You can always get a good cup of Ulster tea at the Tower!
© 2013 Department of Veterans' Affairs and Board of Studies NSW :: Last update - December 2010