Commemorating the infamy of the Battle of the Somme

Amid the pieties and solemnities surrounding the "commemoration" of the Battle of the Somme, there was not a single hint of outrage, the only appropriate response to what happened then and in the course of the First World War generally. Between 10 and 12 million people lost their lives in that war and another 20 million people were injured. It was the most barbaric war the world had known up to that time, and what was it about? Nothing. Nothing aside from the imperial ambitions of Germany, Russia and Britain. And in the case of Britain, the war was entirely about preempting the rise of Germany as a competitor on the European and world stage.


That anybody should have lost their lives in such a context was appalling, that so many were slaughtered was/is an abomination. There was nothing honourable about this war, there was no just cause. It was despicable from the outset and no individual bravery or heroism did, or could, dignify it. Those who encouraged Irish people, indeed any people, to partake in that criminal venture deserve our scorn and contempt, and such include some of the ideological "fathers" of Fine Gael, John Redmond and Tom Kettle. Those who died deserve our sympathy.

But was there even a passing acknowledgement of that appropriate outrage in the "commemorations" of perhaps the most awful carnage of that war, the battle of the Somme? What was the laying of the wreaths about at the National War Memorial at Islandbridge? What was being commemorated?

The incantation associated with that carnage is indeed poignant:

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we shall remember them.

Yes, remember them, but remember them as victims of evil, victims of the most egregious slaughter in the cause of empire. And let not the poetry of remembrance detract from anger over that criminality.

Irish people and others were urged to join that war in defence of "gallant Belgium". Aside from the lie that lay behind that call – the war was no more about the defence of small nations than it was about the assertion of the rights of humankind – Belgium of that era was far from gallant. It was the cruelest, most despotic and barbarous of the imperial powers on the African continent. It had subjected the people of the Congo to appalling ravages and cruelties – there are pictures of mountains of severed Congolese hands that lay testimony to that cruelty. It is estimated that over a million Congolese died in the enterprise which was proclaimed as one to bring "civilisation" to that part of the continent. Out of that infernal venture, there emerged one story of heroism on the part, incidentally, of an Irishman, Roger Casement, who was the first to expose the nature of "gallant Belgium".

The leaders of 1916 did not invoke the horror of the First World War as justification for their rebellion against the imperial power that had consigned millions to death and misery in the pursuit of profit and power. But they might well have, for that was surely the most powerful justification for breaking with that empire.

Isn't it curious that those who recently have denounced the commemoration of the 1916 rebellion on the grounds that it involved the loss of hundreds of lives are, in many instances, those who "commemorate" the Battle of the Somme and the First World War generally, without regard to the essential infamy of those events?

Vincent Browne