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  • Fortnight Publications Ltd.

    Lest We Forget? It Seems We HaveThe Road to the Somme: Men of the Ulster Division Tell Their Story by Philip OrrReview by: Rob FairmichaelFortnight, No. 261 (Apr., 1988), p. 19Published by: Fortnight Publications Ltd.Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25551518 .Accessed: 24/06/2014 23:07

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  • books

    Lest we

    forget?

    It seems

    we have

    Rob Fairmichael

    Philip Orr The Road to the Somme:

    men of the Ulster division tell their

    story Blackstaff, ?9.95

    ililiiiii

    A life of close shaves?men of the Ulster division behind their lines in Essigny in 1918

    HOW WE remember the dead is probably quite a good indication of how

    we relate to the living. There is little sign that in Ireland we have learned

    how to commemorate all those who have died in political conflicts and

    wars. In the Republic, how to remember those who fought under a British

    flag in the world wars is still very much a live issue. And when, two

    armistice days ago in Belfast, an Alliance councillor wore a red and a

    white poppy it caused apoplexy among many unionists, and some mem

    bers of his own party.

    Philip Orr's book is of considerable service in adopting a matter-of

    fact approach to how the men of the 36th (Ulster) division lived and died.

    It is well illustrated with contemporary photographs, as well as cartoons

    by a soldier, Jim Maultsaid.

    I would challenge anyone to read it without feeling a lump in their

    throat?as I did on several occasions. Some of the most poignant pieces are not about the battlefront but the home front: the father of a boy living near Bleary was journeying to Lurgan station to join up, and "to the sound

    of receding hoofbeats on a country lane, one boy's father disappeared out

    of his life".

    But horror there was, and bravery, stupidity, cruelty and 'coward

    ice'?at least one Belfast man was executed for desertion. Perhaps it was

    Dark reflections?a brazier-lit

    dug-out viewed from the darkness of the trench

    a sane response to an

    insane war but deser

    tion was labelled by the nation state as

    cowardice in the face

    of 'the enemy'. At the other end

    was Billy McFad

    zean, from Cregagh, who instinctively threw himself on two

    grenades whose pins fell out when a box of

    them fell in the trenches. McFadzean

    was instantly blown to

    smithereens, but

    saved all his comrades

    except one who lost a

    leg. He was awarded a

    posthumous VC.

    As for stupidity, the officers come in

    for some stick from

    those interviewed.

    Tommy Jordan, from

    Ballynafeigh, 'lost a

    stripe' for losing his

    temper with an officer

    who gave out to him

    for the state of his

    boots. He had been at the front for days, returning tired and unkempt and

    suffering from damaged eardrums.

    But, while the book focuses mainly on the personal stories of the men

    who fought at the Somme, it also looks at the policies and the propaganda. A short introduction explains the origin of the war in the rampant nationalisms and imperialisms of the European powers. It charts the

    establishment in January 1913 of the UVF, drawing under one command

    volunteer forces which had emerged in opposition to home rule. Carson

    negotiated with the British before committing his followers to the Euro

    pean fray. Unique amongst the army, the 36th division was set up in

    September 1914, with its basis in an oathbound paramilitary organisa tion?the UVF.

    Orr quotes conflicting statistics as to whether more Prods or Teagues

    joined the British army. Certainly the 36th was almost all Protestant, but

    if some figures are right higher proportions volunteered from some

    southern, 'Catholic' counties than from the Protestant heartlands of

    Antrim and Down. Both loyalist and nationalist leaders saw participation as guaranteeing a favourable reaction to their political claims when the

    war was over.

    Orr remarks on this naivete: the price paid was to no avail. While

    sentiment may have played a part in the political 'settlement' of partition, brute politics probably paid little note to such niceties. And the UVF, set

    up to defend 'Ulster' against 'Rome rule', had faced slaughter in defence

    of Catholic France.

    The author deals in detail with the 'big push' of July 1st, 1916. The massive bombardment of German positions was meant to leave a

    walkover for the British forces; instead they met stiff resistance and

    merciless machine-gun fire from higher ground. The battle plan was

    inflexible and contributed to the carnage on the British side.

    The 36th division did relatively well, in military terms, in reaching the

    German fifth line of defence. But the further it pushed the more isolated

    it became, since the divisions on either side made little progress. Orr

    postulates that the 36th got so far because it had been ready and waiting, in no man's land, when the whistle went. Heavy German reinforcements

    and counter-attacks, plus lack of British support, meant the survivors

    were almost all back at their original trenches by nightfall. If the figures Orr quotes for those from the Ulster division who went

    'over the top' are typical, men stood around an 80 percent chance of being killed, wounded or captured on July 1 st, 1916. Altogether 21,000 British troops died that day, with 35,000 wounded and 600 taken prisoner. The aftermath is traced: the buff envelopes arriving at home, the heartbreak for

    those at the front and those left behind.

    The memories of the hell of battle stayed with the survivors. As one

    wrote 50 years later, "we were locked in chains for execution". Another,

    George McBride, pointed to the continuity between the Great War and the

    Cold War of the 80s: "Even with all the weapons we have now, we can

    only do on a bigger scale what we did in the last ones."

    As NATO rearms Europe with new nuclear weapons not proscribed by the Euro-missile treaty of last December, the question remains of whether

    humankind has learned the lessons of the Great War, of the inhumanity so

    well documented by Philip Orr. The answer, seemingly, is no.

    Fortnight April 19

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    Article Contentsp. 19

    Issue Table of ContentsFortnight, No. 261 (Apr., 1988), pp. 1-32Front MatterBack to the Drawing Board [p. 2-2]Selective Interment [p. 3-3]BriefingSect behind CEC Split [p. 4-4]Pope's Man for Dublin [p. 4-4]'Jesuitical' Judgment [pp. 4-5]Joint Action against AIDS [p. 5-5]Forum for Feminism [p. 5-5]The New Republic? [p. 5-5]

    Cover StoryPoll Shock for Accord [pp. 6-8]

    A Month of Living Dangerously [pp. 10-11]Taoiseach Must Urge Devolution [p. 12-12]Agreement Review Holds the Key [p. 13-13]CJ and Jim Have Much in Common [pp. 13-14]Contradictions and Contortions [p. 14-14]Just How Firm Is Affirmative? [p. 15-15]Diary of Events [p. 16-16]Letters [p. 17-17]BooksReview: Lest We Forget? It Seems We Have [p. 19-19]Review: Sorcerer's Apprentice [p. 20-20]Review: Turbulence, Tranquillity [p. 21-21]Review: The Greatest Leveller [p. 21-21]Review: Face to Face with Tonto's Expanding Headband [p. 22-22]Review: Rescued and Recognised [p. 22-22]

    Poetry and the Beggar at the Gate [pp. 24-25]The BBC: What's Next? [pp. 26-27]Splicing Culture and Commerce [p. 28-28]Art for Money's Sake [p. 28-28]Poems [p. 29-29]Arresting Parts of the Furniture [p. 29-29]Sidelines: What's in a Name? [p. 31-31]Back Matter