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Irish Somme

Royal Irish Rifles

MY UNIVERSITY STUDIES took me to the Somme via books. Living in Europe, I've cultivated a much more localised perspective, like the Irish soliders shown above.

I know a lot about the early summer of 1916 through memoirs of the Foreign Legion, the music of the time (see audio clip below) and the letters of hard men like Alan Seeger. In Seeger's last letter of 28 June 1916, he wrote, "We're up to the attack tomorrow. This will probably be the biggest thing yet. I am glad to be going in the first wave. If you are in this thing at all it is best to be in it to the limit. And this is the supreme experience."

It's A Long Way to Tipperary

 

On 4 July 1916 the Legion was ordered to take and hold the German stronghjold of Belloy-en-Santerre. The Germans defended the position with their usual tenacity and casualties were heavy. I plan to walk that hallowed ground on the centenary of the Battle of the Somme.

It was at Belloy-en-Santerre that Alan Seeger kept his "Renedezvous with Death." Corporal John Barrett, an Irish legionnaire, described his last moments in "The First World War: Death in the Trenches." [1]

 

"Seeger was wounded horribly by six explosive bullets from machine guns whose fire met the first wave of attack and caused heavy losses at Belloy-en-Santerre. Eye-witnesses belonging to his squad gave me information which makes it appear that he was not killed instantly, as he had taken off his equipment, his overcoat and his shirt, to dress his wounds. He stuck his rifle, with bayonet fixed, in the ground to show stretcher-bearers a wounded man was near, according to a general custom which aids the hospital corps at night.
"Five out of forty-five in his section survived the attack, and they say he was utterly indifferent to the hail of lead and steel. He died as he lived, indifferent to danger, a real solder and a hero. Often I think of his cheery smile as he advanced against the German guns, which he simply despised."

In university, we studied the results that followed these harrowing combat episodes. Invariably, months of hardship and common danger drew men together. The entire Legion was imbued with an infectious esprit de corps. I often get that same feeling where I work as we plough through a hail of incoming fire designed to wear us down, tear us apart, and redefine the lines of occupation at third level. And while my perspective of the fighting spirit might be coloured by the romantic view I hold of the Foreign Legion, there's an easy-going fighting spirit in the halls of my workplace that would resonate well in the trenches of the Somme.


1. Adrian D. Gilbert -- Voices of the Foreign Legion, Skyhorse Publishing, 2010, ISBN 978-1616080327.

2. Albert Farrington -- "It's a long way to Tipperary" performed in 1915. "The song they sing as they march along".

Image from the Imperial War Museum of a ration party of the Royal Irish Rifles in a communication trench during the Battle of the Somme. The date is believed to be 1 July 1916, the first day on the Somme, and the unit is possibly the 1st Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles (25th Brigade, 8th Division).

Bernie Goldbach curates significant events.

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