At 7.20 a.m. on 1st July 1916 a huge mine was detonated under the German lines on the Somme. A few minutes later more mines were exploded. Just a few seconds after 7.30 a.m. bugles and whistles sounded and the waiting British army soldiers rose from their trenches and went over the top. The Battle of the Somme which extended from north of Beaumont Hamel to Chilly, south of Chaulnes had started.
At the beginning of 1916 the Great War had reached a stalemate. A month earlier Douglas Haig was appointed Commander in Chief of the British Army in France. He would adapt a strategy of sending men forward in the region of the Somme to deflect German attention from Verdun approximately 150 miles to the south east. There a battle of attrition which started the previous February had caused nearly 750,000 casualties.
The Battle of the Somme commenced with a seven day artillery bombardment of the German lines. On the morning of 1st July the British Infantry moved towards the German trenches walking behind a rolling barrage of artillery fire which extended slowly towards the German lines. Those German lines however were heavily defended and the artillery barrage proved so ineffective that the advancing British soldiers were scythed down by German fire. Before the end of the day British Army losses on the Somme amounted to 41,000 men, 19,240 of whom were killed.
The British professional army of 1914 had suffered such heavy losses at the start of the war that many of the troops engaged at the Somme were volunteers who were facing enemy fire for the first time. The casualty figures on the Somme represents the heaviest loss for any one day in British military history. The Somme battlefield would result in over 1,000,000 casualties before the military offensive ended on 13th November 1916 with negligible gains in terms of territory by the British army.
Robert Hackett who was born in Kelly’s Lane, Athy enlisted as a private in the York and Lancaster regiment and served in the 12th Battalion. He was killed in action on the first day of the Somme and was the first Athy man to die during that battle. On 4th July Frank Alcock, a young man of 20 years, born in Athy and formerly of Woodstock Street who had earlier enlisted in Wicklow, died of his wounds. He had joined the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and served in the 2nd Battalion. Was he, I wonder, a brother of Thomas Alcock, another Athy man who served in the 1st Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers and had enlisted in Carlow? Thomas was killed in action in France on 1st June 1917.
On the last day of the Somme on 13th November 1916 Athy man James Dunne was killed. His father was Peter Dunne who lived at 3 Offaly Street. Twenty young men from Athy were killed between 1st July and 13th November 1916. These included John Hannon of Ardreigh House who was just 24 years old when he died on 18th August 1916. His death came 15 months after his 20 year old brother Norman was killed at Festubert. One man who survived the Battle of the Somme was John Vincent Holland of Model Farm whose gallantry at the siege of Guillemont was awarded with the Victoria Cross.
Many of the Somme dead are buried in the Connaught Cemetery at the edge of Thiepval Wood. A short distance away is the Mill Road Cemetery and nearby the 36th Ulster Division Memorial. The imposing Thiepval Memorial to the missing is close by. It was built of bricks with stone facing on which are inscribed the names of more than 73,000 soldiers of the British Army who died on the Somme and whose bodies were never found. Amongst them are the names of many young men from Athy and South Kildare, just some of the 218 men from the area who died during the 1914-18 war.
The Battle of the Somme which commenced on 1st July 100 years ago occupies a unique position in British history as well as Irish history. It marked a time when two countries, one the oppressed, the other the oppressor, came together for a brief period before engaging in their own war, of a lesser scale than the Somme, which we call the War of Independence.
Earlier this week Michael Fox of Dublin, whose mother was Elizabeth O’Rourke, a niece of the O’Rourke brothers of Canal Harbour, presented me with a copy of his booklet ‘To Stem the Flowing Tide’. It tells the story of the O’Rourke brothers involvement in the War of Independence as members of the Old I.R.A. Copies of the booklet are available for sale in The Gem at €5.00 per copy.