The Blanket

In Memory of a Storm Trooper

Billy Mitchell

In keeping with a family custom handed down to me from my maternal grandfather I attended the Somme Commemoration in my home town last Wednesday (3rd July) evening. I did so, as I have always done, as a personal acknowledgement of the sacrifice of those who served their country and, who rightly or wrongly, believed that they had a duty to answer the call of their country.

As I stated in my recent article on “The Pity of War”, the Somme Commemoration for me is not about politics, religion or cultural identity. It is not about the glorification or war or about the causes of war. It is about the pity of war. For me, as it was for my grandparents and my mother, it is about ordinary people who, guided by the value base of their upbringing, decided that it was right for them to bear arms in time of conflict. In my grandfather’s day the general consensus of public opinion was that the place for a young man was in the ranks, doing his patriotic duty. It is in their memory that I continue to remember the Somme and the horror of war.

Anthony Mc Intyre (“It was our First World War Too; You Know”) stereotypes people like my grandfather as “the storm troopers of British Imperialism”. I would respectfully suggest that, if anything, my granda was a victim of Imperialism. I would also suggest that the British were not the only imperialists. My grandfather was a simple working man, an Iron Checker by trade, who lived for his young wife and family. As such he had no desire to wage war or to become a professional soldier. The events in Saraejvo that provided the excuse for politicians and generals to wage war in Europe were far removed from the life of my grandfather. They were an intrusion into his life and into his plans for the future of his family. He was neither a political analyst nor a political activist. Yet those events, and the four years of bloody carnage that they triggered, had devastating and unasked for consequences for people like my grandfather.

Workers issues like the 1907 strike, and constitutional issues like the proposed imposition of Home Rule, were local issues that affected him. Those things he could understand and respond to. The political intrigue of Europe was somebody else’s problem. Perhaps if he had have been a political analyst he might have queried why he was going to France to fight for England and not staying at home to ensure that the unionist community was not betrayed by England. Carson may have believed the promises of his Prime Minister, but who could really trust the word of someone whose promises many believed to be as firm as shifting sand?

Perhaps if he had have been a political analyst he would have examined more closely the arguments of the leaders of the Independent Labour Party who courageously questioned their country's participation in the war. He wasn’t. Although an ILP labour man he followed the line of the mainstream labour and trade union leaders who were as attached to the war effort as were the government and the generals.

Like so many thousands of his generation he believed that his loyalty to the Crown demanded that he answer the call to service. Perhaps he genuinely believed that this was a war being fought on behalf of the small vulnerable nations. But I suspect that it was simply out of a sense of loyalty and duty that he enlisted with the Royal Irish Rifles and set sail for Europe leaving behind his young wife and newly born daughter (my mother). Had I have been in his place, guided by the same values and captivated by the mood of the time, I would probably have taken the same course of action.

In South Antrim where my grandparents grew up, the offspring of those who had responded to the call of Mc Cracken in 1798 responded with similar enthusiasm to the call of Carson in 1912. The cause may have been different. The allegiances may have changed. But the nature of the people remained the same. The South Antrim Volunteers provided the core of the 11th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles which formed part of the 108th Brigade of the 36th (Ulster) Division. What began as a volunteer movement set up to resist the impositions of a treacherous government became a core division serving the interests of that same government. One wonders how the volunteers from Cavan and Monaghan, who served with the 9th Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers as part of the 108th Brigade, felt in later years when their counties were treacherously excluded from the Union.

The 108th Brigade saw action in a number of battles alongside the 16th (Irish) Division, which included the Irish Volunteers, raised in response to the formation of the Ulster Volunteers. Recruited and trained to oppose each other at home, they ended up fighting, bleeding and dying together against a common foe. As Michael Hall has noted, " from all over the island, Irishmen, Protestant and Catholic, Northerner and Southerner, came forward in their thousands to enlist. In some towns the Ulster Volunteers and the Irish Volunteers marched side by side to send off departing troops" (Sacrifice on the Somme, p.4, 1993). The fighting Irish, unionist and nationalist, served together and in the mud and blood of distant shell-torn battlefields they grew to respect each other.

The devastating effects of the Great War in terms of human suffering is almost incalculable. The grim Reaper who stalked the battlefields of Europe drew in a bountiful harvest of human souls. Novelist and poet, Winifred Holtby, has captured for us a graphic "before" and "after" scene of one such battlefield.

The harvest fields of fair Lorraine
W’ere crowned with yellow corn,
And midst the gold were crimson heads
By poppy stems up borne.
In dewy morn the peasants reap,
In quivering heat of noon,
Till o’er the purple hill-top glides
The primrose harvest moon.
The harvest fields of fair Lorraine
Are not so gold as then,
And midst the gold are crimson stains,
The blood of fallen men;
And by the light of one lone star
And the chill wind’s sobbing breath,
A reaper gathers his harvest there -
And the reaper’s name is Death.

- Winifred Holtby

When the gruesome Reaper garnered in his harvest of death from the Great War some 50,000 Irishmen, Unionist and Nationalist/ Protestant and Catholic, were among the fallen. Hundreds of thousands more were injured and brought home with them the physical and psychological scars of the war. There is nothing to glorify in a war of such a nature. Indeed there is nothing to glorify in any war. The people of my grandfather’s generation were led to believe that they were fighting a war to end all wars. History has certainly shown that such was not the case. Within a generation Irishmen and women were drawn into yet another world war where thousands of our people from both political jurisdictions once again paid the ultimate sacrifice.

In the years that followed 1918 the unionist community has faithfully remembered the sacrifice that its community made during the Great War. The nationalist community, on the other hand, was encouraged to regard Irish Nationalists who served in the 10th and 16th Irish Divisions and the Connaught Rangers as traitors to Ireland. It is only in recent years that attempts have been made by
Irish nationalists to rehabilitate the memory of their “fallen”. Surely this is to be welcomed by all sections of our community. The West Belfast men who died in the mud and trenches of France and Belgium as part of the Connaught Rangers were no more “storm trooper(s) of British Imperialism” than the West Belfast men who met a similar fate as part of the 36th (Ulster) Division. As the title to Anthony Mc Intyre’s recent article suggests, “It was Our war Too”. Nationalist and Unionist, Republican and Loyalist ought to be able to remember their dead without all the prejudicial humbug that emanates from predictable quarters.

At the recent memorial service for Tom Williams, the President of Sinn Fein said that republicans had a right to honour their dead volunteers. He was absolutely right. Communities not only have a right to honour their dead, they have a solemn duty to do so. Alex Maskey’s decision to lay a wreath in memory of the dead of the Great War may well have been a political decision - indeed a calculated political risk - but it is a decision that I, as a loyalist, am willing to endorse. If it serves no other purpose than to give Irish nationalists the freedom to remember “their” dead who fought and died alongside “our” dead it will have been a worthwhile exercise.

I repeat, the Somme Commemoration for me is about remembering people. It is not about victory or defeat. It is not about sides or causes. It is about ordinary people for whom war was an intrusion into their lives. It is about remembering the courage and the sacrifice made by ordinary men and women for doing what they believed was their patriotic duty.





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The man of knowledge must be able not only to love his enemies but also to hate his friends.
- Friedrich Nietzsche


11 July 2002


Other Articles From This Issue:


In Memory of a Storm Trooper

Billy Mitchell


States of Failure

Ciarán Irvine


Colombian 3 - What Chance of Justice
Sean Smyth

So Many Monuments...

Brian Mór

Lord Alex on the job
Brian Mór


7 July 2002


It Was Our First World War Too, You know

Anthony McIntyre


No To Isolation

Trade And Employees' Unions and TMMOB


The Orange Relic
Sean O Lubaigh

Remember the Dishonour

Davy Carlin

Danny Myers




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