Archive of the Month
Reporting the Somme Through the Lens of the “Church of Ireland Gazette”
Archive of the Month – July 2016
On 1 July 1916, the Battle of the Somme began, with the objective of advancing on the French village of Thiepval to penetrate the German trench network called Schwaben Redoubt along the banks of the river Somme. Crucial to the long–term success of the Allies winning the War, it eventually drew to a close in November 1916, when a meagre seven miles had been secured, and proved hugely costly in terms of human life – with a particular Irish resonance. Both the 36th Ulster and 16th Irish Divisions were involved at the Somme and paid a heavy price. By the end of the second day, on 2 July, some 5500 soldiers of the Ulster Division lay dead, wounded or missing. Twelve days later on 14 July, the Church of Ireland’s main newspaper, the Church of Ireland Gazette, reporting from ‘a little village on the north coast which has sent most of its young men to the firing line’ published a heart–breaking piece entitled “Ulster’s Sacrifice” recording ‘there is hardly a house where there is not one dead’:
Later in the year, when the 16th Irish Division became directly engaged from September onwards, its men too would pay a terrible price, with 4330 casualties, including 1000 dead.
The shared experience of unionists and nationalists fighting side by side at the Somme remains one of the most poignant Irish legacies of the First World War, and in the first edition published after the battle began, on the 7 July, the Church of Ireland Gazette was highlighting this significance. Its lead article of that date entitled ‘The Somme or the Boyne’ was written in the context of government proposals to partition Ireland as the news began to filter back of the heavy price paid at the front. So the article took on the language of appeal that all would remain united in the spirit of the Somme, rather than dividing along green and orange lines – as had been the case at the Battle of Boyne in 1690. This appeal would continue between July and December 1916, the online search engine available here https://esearch.informa.ie/rcb revealing that the Somme as a symbol of unity would be covered by the church’s newspaper in no less than 23 different articles.
The moderate language and tone of this appeal may be attributed to the newspaper’s lay editor and wartime correspondent, Ware Bradley Wells (1892–1958), who, as we have revealed in previous online presentations was ‘imparted of Nationalist sympathies’ yet noted for a pluralist and fair outlook (see here). The first of his “Somme or the Boyne” articles was published six days after the battle commenced which he considered a…
Reflecting general Church of Ireland sentiment of the time, Wells was convinced that partition of Ireland or, as he put it: ‘the furtive plan for the dismemberment of Ireland’ –proposed by Lloyd George’s administration in response to the late Rebellion – represented potential disaster for all true patriotic Irishmen. Using the symbol of Ulster’s nationalists and unionists fighting alongside each other against a common enemy, he highlighted that less than two years before they ‘were arrayed in arms against each other’, but today had could be claimed by all Ireland as Irishmen:
Appealing to readers to make their choice for the real Ireland – represented by the Somme rather than by the Boyne – Wells went on to draw attention to a recent ‘ignorant and petulant attack’ on the Church of Ireland by the Liverpool Daily Post which had condemned the recent House of Bishops resolution against ‘Lloyd George’s scheme of partition’ as passed at the General Synod held in Dublin the previous month in June 1916. He reproduced it in full together with a robust defence of the Church’s right to protest against a political move that would have long–term consequences for its status as an all–Ireland religious body.
Elsewhere in the 7 July edition, Wells’ regular column “The War Week by Week” was devoted to military aspects of the Allied offensive, and provided graphic detail about the ‘co–ordinated Allied strategy’ for readers. Describing the battle as a ‘death grapple’, readers were advised that:
The 7 July edition also included a page of analysis of the recently–published Report of the Royal Commission on the Rebellion in Ireland. Rather than scape–goating ‘the delinquencies of Mr Birrell’ (the late Chief Secretary) as populist newspapers had chosen to do, the Gazette chose to highlight the Report’s criticism of general government policy in Ireland and its conclusion that:
The solution to Ireland’s problems, it concluded, lay in the long–term visionary plans of Sir Horace Plunkett, which advocated Ireland remained a united one–Ireland island:
The advertisements of the 7 July edition capture the ongoing impact of wartime on Church of Ireland parishes and people throughout the island but also business opportunities. TR Scott and Co., Dublin’s only church furnishing firm, located on Upper Abbey Street, placed a striking advert under the strapline “Roll of Honour” promoting its memorial brasses and tablets.
Most of the front page was taken up by the Irish Women’s Association appeal for Prisoner of War parcels.
With additional support from the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, and representing ongoing collaboration between the RCB Library and Editor and Board of the current
Gazette, a second commemorative reprint of the 7 July 1916 edition – as it was printed for contemporary readers – will be reprinted and circulated with the 8 July 2016 edition of the Gazette. Additionally, all Gazettes for the commemorative period 1911–1923 are digitized in full and fully searchable here: https://esearch.informa.ie/rcb
Librarian and Archivist
Dr Susan Hood
Librarian and Archivist