Wednesday, July 01, 2009

The Somme

Ninety-three years ago today, almost a generation of my countrymen, many of whom were probably younger than myself, were wiped out in one action. The action was the Battle of the Somme, as the 36th (Ulster) Division attacked the German lines by the river Ancre and Thiepval Wood.

The men and boys had signed up to the war effort so readily. In the midst of the constitutional crisis of Home Rule for Ireland (a form of devolution), the Ulstermen sought to prove their loyalty to the Crown and thereby avoid Rome Rule. However, they could never have foreseen the disaster that was to befall them as the generals and commanders urged men to run across no mans land to attack the German trenches. Some made it, but many more were cut down in their prime by the established German snipers and artillery. Whatever gains were made came at such a high price, and in the end, had to be given up as they hadn't the strength of numbers of soldiers to retain the hard fought possession.

An Orange banner from Dollingstown's Wickliffe's Invincible Morning Star LOL 62 says it all: Every House Mourned. Such a tremendous sense of loss through the province, given that 5500 men died on that one morning, as well as injuries and other losses throughout the war. It had a profound effect on the unionist community in Ulster (and what later became Northern Ireland), to the extent that church bells will toll the funeral toll this morning, and Union flags will be flown at half mast, then raised to full mast tomorrow in memorial.

Among the fallen, one man stands out - Private William McFadzean. He didn't even survive to see the attack, being blown to bits before it happened, and yet he received a posthumous Victoria Cross.

For most conspicuous bravery near Thiepval Wood, on 1st July 1916. While in a concentration trench and opening a box of bombs for the distribution prior to an attack, the box slipped down into the trench, which was crowded with men, and two of the safety pins fell out. Pte McFadzean, instantly realising the danger to his comrades, with heroic courage threw himself on the top of the bombs. The bombs exploded, blowing him to pieces, but only one other man was injured. He well knew his danger, being himself a bomber, but without a moment's hesitation he gave his life for his comrades.

Today we give thanks to God for the great sacrifice of the Ulster Division, and recall their death so that we can live.

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