In the preface of his 1922 book The history of the 36th (Ulster) Division, author Cyril Falls made a noteworthy prediction: ‘A hundred years hence, men will be delving into our records of the late war. Soldiers will be studying the lessons of its battles. But yet a greater number of seekers will be demanding with curiosity how men lived in such circumstances [and] how they reacted to the strain of war’. Add ‘historians’ to ‘soldiers’ and you can see just how right he was, exactly one hundred years ago.
Having recently emerged from a period of First World War centenary commemorations, awareness of, and interest in, the war has arguably never been greater. The Battle of the Somme, in particular, is seared onto the Northern Irish psyche. One only has to look around Belfast at the abundance of murals, flags, parades, and souvenirs to see that the Somme has come to dominate our collective memory of the Great War, albeit not always accurately. Street names can also remind us of a battle that has, in recent years, become a byword for futile slaughter and incompetent leadership. Somme Drive, Thiepval Avenue, Albert Drive, Bapaume Avenue, Picardy Avenue, and Hamel Drive; these are streets in east Belfast named after battle sites and where I spent much of my childhood. The late Professor Keith Jeffery referred to this area off the Cregagh Road as ‘a little corner of an Ulster/Irish field [that] would be forever France’, that’s because the houses on these streets were purposely built for ex-servicemen returning from the war; they were to be ‘homes fit for heroes’.
For most people, their interest in the war is ignited by a sepia photograph of a uniformed man with a story to tell, in other words by a personal family connection. In the case of the Somme this would account for many people as it is often said that barely a family in Ulster was left untouched by the obscene human loss caused by the battle. Until fairly recently I thought I was the exception to this rule, being aware of no relation who had served in the Great War, less still the Battle of the Somme. A family connection only became apparent to me accidentally, while compiling data for the East Belfast and the Great War Research Project, in the form of a great-uncle who was previously unknown to the family. I was amazed to discover that George Burke had misrepresented his age to make himself younger in order that he could enlist upon the outbreak of war in August 1914. Soon after his enlistment in the 5th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers (10th Irish Division) he was discharged owing to an injury, which in hindsight turned out to be a stroke of good fortune because this battalion suffered disastrous casualties at Gallipoli in 1915. Nevertheless, George later turned up in the records among the ranks of the 36th (Ulster) Division, apparently injury-free, and just in time to travel to France in October 1915. He then participated in the Ulster Division’s first major engagement of the war, the Somme offensive, where he was subsequently declared missing-presumed-dead on 1 July 1916, the first day of the battle. George’s family waited for over a year until his death was eventually confirmed by the War Office, though his body was never recovered.
Some months later in my research, and again by accident, I came across two memorial notices for Rifleman George Burke in the pages of the Belfast Evening Telegraph. These were small acts of commemoration on the 5th and 10th anniversaries of his death. The words are obviously raw and heartfelt, but I was most intrigued by what wasn’t said:
With aching hearts we shook his hand,
Tears glistening in our eyes.
We wished him luck, but never thought
It was our last goodbye.
Far away from those who loved him
His comrades laid him to rest,
In a far-away grave he is sleeping,
One of the bravest and the best.
(Belfast Evening Telegraph, 1 July 1921)
Here was a man who had signed the Ulster Covenant in 1912, an Orangeman, and who was very likely to have been involved with anti-home rule militant unionism in the Shankill district, yet from his family there was no mention of Ulster, Empire or loyalty. Such jingoism was never too far away in the remaining pages of the newspaper, though, which featured commemorative articles telling us that the Somme was a glorious battle and a triumph from failure. By contrast the ‘In Memoriam’ sections, written by the people, were dominated by pain, suffering and loss. Ultimately, when we peel away the complex layers of sacrifice at the Somme, from politics and patriotism to youthful exuberance, what we are left with is huge personal loss and collective trauma, it is a shared experience in the most human sense.
And to that end my great-uncle played a part in the sacrifice at the Somme, whether I like it or not. Am I, therefore, obliged to commemorate him and the Somme battle more generally? Perhaps the construction of this article is an act of commemoration in its own way, and yet I feel that this is singularly the best way to honour him and all of those who died at the Somme, through informed discussion and education. It would be remiss of us not to question why these local men, our own relatives in many cases, came to be involved in the British Army’s bloodiest-ever day. I therefore see the Somme anniversary, not as an excuse to engage in jingoistic behaviour, but as an opportunity to do what the vast majority of society were doing in 1916 in the wake of the battle and reflect on the terrible personal loss that was suffered across the country.