Archbishop of Armagh preaches at Somme centenary service at the Ulster Tower
On Friday 1st July, marking the 100th anniversary of World War I’s Battle of the Somme, the Archbishop of Armagh, the Most Revd Dr Richard Clarke (pictured), addressed a special commemorative service to mark the centenary, at the Ulster Tower, near Thiepval in northern France.
He referred to how the Somme and Ulster had “belonged together in the imagination of succeeding generations” over the last century and noted that the Somme represented “a connectedness for all time with many men and women, and not only in Ulster nor only for one Christian tradition”.
The Archbishop highlighted how the Bible relates the image of a river to “the presence and purposes of God”, referring to “a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High” (Psalm 46: 4).
He recalled: “There is a wonderful moment in the final scene of Frank McGuinness’s iconic play, Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching towards the Somme, when the young Ulster soldiers, about to go ‘over the top’ on the morning of 1st July 1916, start discussing the rival merits of the rivers of Ulster – the Lagan, the Foyle, the Bann. Then they suddenly realise that they are standing there near another river, the River Somme, and the discussion becomes more excited and excitable. One of the soldiers calls out that now the Somme is the Lagan, the Foyle, the Bann. This river, the Somme, is now theirs. The Somme has somehow become a river of Ulster.”
To mark the centenary of World War I’s Battle of the Somme – in the first day of which (1st July) over 5,000 soldiers of the 36th (Ulster) Division suffered casualties, with 2,069 of them losing their lives – we reproduce our issue of 7th July 1916 as a supplement to this week’s Gazette. The Battle of the Somme went on from 1st July until the following 19th November, but the first day is of especial significance in Ireland.
Our supplement has been enabled by generous funding from the Irish Government’s Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, which also funded our earlier reproduction of the Gazette issue of 28th April – 5th May 1916, marking the centenary of the Easter Rising. In both cases, our collaboration with the Representative Church Body Library – and Dr Susan Hood in particular – has borne much fruit (report, page 4). We received many expressions of appreciation of the Easter Rising issue reproduction and we trust that the one accompanying this issue of the Gazette will be found equally welcome.
The Battle of the Somme has been described as among the bloodiest of World War I, with a total of 19,240 British troops being killed, among a total of 57,470 casualties, on 1st July 1916 alone. Only three square miles were gained in terms of advance that day. It was indeed a terrible day in a terrible battle in a terrible war.
Reflecting at the time on the past week, the Gazette reported that while the story of the 36th (Ulster) Division’s involvement was still not entirely clear, “enough is known to show that that work, in which it suffered very heavy losses, was pre-eminently heroic in an army of heroes”, going on to quote The Times as predicting: “Henceforth in Ulster, the First of July will have a new and more glorious, if more sorrowful, meaning, into which no shade of contention can enter.”
Significantly, the Gazette noted that the 16th (Irish) Division had taken part in the advance in France along with the 36th (Ulster) Division, and commented: “Out there in Artois is the real Ireland – that Ireland of the future, proud and united, which Ulstermen and Nationalists side by side are fashioning upon the anvil of war.”
It is often remarked that, when Irish people of different traditions and constitutional aspirations meet abroad, their differences seem somehow to melt away and a mutual affection arises in place of any mutual suspicion. Yet, in more recent times, all the people of Ireland, at home, have come to a much deeper mutual respect and regard. It is to be hoped that, despite a political border, all Irish people will increasingly be of one heart. That is, if not yet the “real” Ireland, the Ireland to which we all must aspire.
As the Battle of the Somme is remembered and respects are paid to those who suffered and gave their lives, we rightly also reflect – as at every Remembrance-tide – on war itself and how it is to be avoided if at all possible. In human affairs, differences and divisions must be overcome, not by resort to weaponry but by patient dialogue and genuine concern for the other. Indeed, as Sir Winston Churchill so famously remarked: “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.”
Where does peace come from? It comes from ‘above’. God is the God of peace and as human beings strive more and more towards peace on Earth they are placing themselves in harmony with the purposes of God and the workings of the Holy Spirit. Let us look back on the Battle of the Somme with a renewed determination to make an ever deeper peace throughout this island, a peace truly with “no shade of contention”.
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