ulster ireland sommeWritten by Catherine Switzer

The History Press of Ireland Ltd, Dublin 2013, £16.99, 254pp, ills, ISBN 978-1-84588-772-8

Well, did I like this book? I can only answer with an emphatic "yes". However, I have to declare an interest, in that my grandfather was killed on the Somme serving with the 36th Ulster Division, so my level of interest in this book was bound to be high. This is not to diminish the quality of the book in any way. Indeed, it deals with wider issues such as the post-war situation in the Somme area and the lawlessness there at that time, and the objections to various British memorials from French and Belgian officialdom. The book should not be pigeonholed a being purely of Irish interest but deals with wider implications. Indeed, it also approaches the Irish issues themselves from a somewhat different angle.

The writing style is clear and very readable. This is central to the accessibility of a book, as it does not matter how wonderful the information is if it is buried in impenetrable prose.

Key issues that are dealt with include the political background to commemoration and the consequent difficulties to be overcome, in both the Ulster Tower at Thiepval and the Irish Divisions' crosses at Guillemont, Wytschaete and in Serbia (The last of these three crosses has been in three countries since it was erected without moving an inch, such has been the turmoil in the Balkans). The French and Belgians honoured the opening ceremonies for the Irish memorials by having General Weygand at the Ulster Tower, General Joffre at Guillemont and Belgian General Borremans at Wytschaete. Ironically, the Ulster political heavyweights of James Craig and Edward Carson both managed to miss the opening of the Ulster Tower through indisposition.

The Irish war of independence and the consequent Irish civil war, of which many in GB today know nothing, delayed the memorialisation of the 10th and 16th Irish Divisions until the mid-1920s. The commemoration was largely driven in the Irish Free State, as it then was, by Maj Gen Hickie who had commanded the 16th Division and at this juncture lived in County Tipperary. There was less obstruction from the Irish government than might have been expected but all were concerned that it should be an Irish commemoration. Indeed, these difficulties of commemoration have worsened until the turning point in recent years when a combination of the peace process, the Queen's visit to the Irish Republic, the excellent work of the WFA branches in Cork and Dublin, and the efforts of the ex-service and regimental associations has brought about a greatly renewed interest in, and recognition of, the role of the southern Irish in WWI.

In the northern part of Ireland in the immediate post war period, the task faced by the committee in Belfast was far from straightforward but was less complicated than in the south (which subsequently of course became the Irish Free State in 1920). The very considerable sum of £4,000 was raised by public subscription in the north as early as 1919. The Ulster tower itself was erected in 1921 and was intended to commemorate all shades of those who served with the 36th Division, though regrettably that has not always been the case since then. Considerable efforts to return to that ethos have been made in more recent times.

The speed of the creation of the Ulster Tower compares with that of the Thiepval monument to the missing on the Somme which was built as late as 1932 and was paid for by the UK government. Incidentally, the Thiepval monument is on its third choice site, due to objections to the original locations from the French authorities at the time, which probably contributed to the delay in its construction.

More generally, and away from the Irish context, Catherine Switzer deals with the process of battlefield clearances and of casualty concentration after the war. As many as 231,000 British graves were concentrated by 1921. She deals with the destruction and concentration of German cemeteries. That, coupled with the French practice of concentrating their casualties into a few very large cemeteries, and of using ossuaries for unknowns, has to a large extent removed the French and Germans from the Somme landscape and has left it today dotted with some 245 British cemeteries.

The author deals with pilgrimages in the inter-war years, and the difficulties faced by the families in visiting the battlefields and finding the cemeteries, especially given the concentration efforts.

The wider aspect of the differing reasons for, and perceptions of, battlefield visits is covered. The veterans and immediate families of the fallen themselves aged and have now passed away. With that loss of personal contact, the visits to, and interest in, the memorials and cemeteries had faded. In more recent times, many people have "discovered" family members who served and, whether or not they survived, have taken an increasing interest in where their relatives were in WWI and what they did and indeed what they suffered. Thus, the nature of the visits has changed from direct contact and memories of the places and events, to attempting to find out what happened, and why it did happen. One might call it the "Who do you think you are?" factor. For example, the Newfoundland Park recorded visitor numbers of 50,000 in 2001 which increased to 123,000 in 2011. One can only hope that this trend continues and that more people find out about the true story of those who served in WWI.

In conclusion, Catherine is to be congratulated in producing an excellent book.

Reviewed by Trevor Adams

 

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