by H. Malcolm M‘Kee, M.C.
THE approach of Ulster's greatest day carries my mind back thirty-seven years. And I think of the men of West Belfast who formed the 9th Royal Irish Rifles. They were nearly all shipyard workers of Harland and Wolff who had left splendid wages to accept one shilling per day.
They felt it was their duty and, without a second thought, they did their duty.
Ireland was then all one. But there was danger, and the Ulster Volunteer Force had been formed, to resist force from the South. Yet when war broke out the 36th Division was formed almost completely from U.V.F. Except the Artillery.
Till the “Princess Victoria” disaster Maynard Sinclair and I were the only surviving Northern Ireland officers who went over the top in the advance on 1st July, 1916. (Or so I thought till I heard that Mr. McAuley was with us. But he was a reinforcement officer, and I had never met him.) It is wonderful how distance lends enchantment to the view. I am sometimes reminded of the film “I Spy a Dark Stranger.” In it a character says the G.P.O. in Dublin wouldn’t hold those who say they were in it on Easter Monday, 1916. And it is a large building.
The reason is that thirty per cent of officers were left behind on 1st July to replace casualties. It was anticipated that there would be heavy casualties, and there were, but if new men had come along, the old officers could have carried on. But Ulstermen, did not come, and the 36th Division, after being filled up with Englishmen, etc., finally dwindled to nothing.
But that does not detract from the glory of the 1st July. Every military critic was amazed at the steadiness and discipline of the Division, and not one other Division got so much praise.
But, as a Division from Ulster, it ended on 1st July. For example, only seventy survived out of seven hundred of the 9th Royal Irish Rifles.
As Brigadier-General F. P. Crozier, who commanded the Battalion, wrote . . . . “War is a contradiction. The fighters seldom come out best, save in this, they keep their souls intact. And that is a possession no man can take from them.
The net result of the barren, glorious bloody battle of Thiepval is that over seven hundred men of the West Belfast Battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles proved their ability to subordinate matter to mind. Intellectual discipline had triumphed.
The acid test of killing and being killed had been passed by us with credit. What remained? The memories, the confidence and seventy men to carry on the torch.”
The Battle of the Somme was barren in one sense, for no ground was gained there, and sixty thousand casualties taken on 1st July. Three hundred and sixty were taken in the whole Battle of the Somme. And no ground was taken. But the pressure on Verdun was relieved, and the Channel Ports saved. Everybody knows what happened in the recent war when the Channel Ports were lost. The French were conquered, and we had to wait for years for the Second Front.
It is rather strange the similarity in the figures. 360,000 casualties were suffered in the Battle of the Somme. 337,000 were evacuated from Dunkirk. It took 360,000 casualties to save the Ports, and France.
As Crozier writes in another book . . . “When I marched up through Thiepval Wood into action that July morn, at the head of the pick of Belfast, to the accompaniment of the deafening din of battle, I felt
‘Sound, sound the clarion, fill the fife,
To all the sensual world proclaim.
One crowded hour of glorious life
Is worth an age without a name!’
“Literally my blood boiled and saw red. The day — yea, even the hour — had arrived and I thanked my God for permitting me to share in its glories.”
That, of course, is all very well. But Crozier had been ordered not to go over at all. He did go over, for a few yards, and for a few minutes. Then he retired into a forty-foot deep dug-out where, no doubt, his blood continued to boil. Those of us who had to remain in no-man’s land felt that an age without a name was the very thing the doctor ordered. No-man’s land was far too crowded for comfort . . . with shells, machine-gun bullets, and, later, with Germans with bombs and bayonets.
Long Range War
But that sort of personal war is a thing of the past. Modern war is fought at long range. When combatants get near each other, one surrenders.
The casualties are nothing like so high. In the First War those killed in our Army alone were three times the total death in all three Services in the recent war. It was, in fact, quite a war.
In the whole of the Boer War there were 5,774 killed and 22,829 wounded. Total, 28,503. As I have said, the casualties on the first day of the Somme were over 60,000. Almost 20,000 killed.
Under 6,000 were filled in the Boer War. In the first war 1,069,825 were killed. Of these 912,451 were killed in the Army.
So war, in spite of tanks, aircraft and bombs, is getting safer. But when atom bombs are used, all the fun will depart from war. And civilians will join in whatever fun there is.
The only way to prevent war is to be strong. We are not strong. Our solitary battleship is Vanguard. Our aircraft are in plastic as there are no skilled ground-crews to look after them. Our Army hardly exists on an international scale.
I really cannot see much good in spending millions on academic education and Health Services and neglecting to prepare against annihilation.
I really cannot see much good in spending millions on academic education and Health Services and neglecting to prepare against annihilation. But any politician who uttered such a sentiment would be thrown out immediately. For people have not learned from two terrible wars that you cannot have guns and butter. Our weakness caused both wars. We got through both, but instead of having a navy twice as big as the next biggest, we are third, and America and Russia both have larger navies than ours. We are not exactly a third-rate power, but we are third.
We are nowhere as regards army and air force, and have few skilled men.
Free drugs may keep us fit, though I doubt it. But fit, may I ask, for what?
These are sad reflections on the eve of the 37th anniversary of the greatest battle the world has ever seen. When so many died in the war to end war.
The Americans did not win the First War, but they won the Second. Without America we could not even do anything except surrender in the Third.
It is our fault our fellows died in vain.
The above article was published in the County Down Spectator of Saturday, 27th June 1953.