This dreadful battle claimed more Irish lives in combat than any other battle in history. On the first day of battle, 1 July 1916, the 36th Ulster Division suffered an estimated 5,500 casualties almost all of whom were drawn from what is now Northern Ireland. Nearly 2,000 Irish soldiers were killed in the first few hours of fighting following a morning mist that poet Siegfried Sassoon referenced as “of the kind commonly called heavenly.”
The news of the large numbers of Irish casualties on the Somme reached an Ireland already in turmoil following the Easter Rising and its aftermath.
Early in 1917, the Germans withdrew to the Hindenburg Line thus negating the sacrifices made on the Somme. In March 1918, the Germans swept through all of the gains since July 1916 in their final attempt at victory before the American forces could intervene.
The total number of casualties on the Western Front continued to rise with little prospect of early victory. The reality of war was brought home in the long lists of dead and wounded. The introduction of conscription in Ireland to fill the gaps grew ever more likely. It seemed that the hopes of Tom Kettle would not be realised:
“Used with the wisdom which is sown in tears and blood, this tragedy of Europe may be and must be the prologue to the two reconciliations of which all statesmen have dreamed, the reconciliation of Protestant Ulster with Ireland, and the reconciliation of Ireland with Great Britain.”
Tom Kettle was killed leading a company of his men on 9 September 1916, aged 36, at the hottest corner of the Ginchy fighting during the Battle of the Somme in France, having previously made the statement that he preferred to die out there for Ireland with his “Dubliners”. He has no known grave.
The poet, George William Russell, wrote tenderly about Kettle, comparing his sacrifice with those who lead the 1916 Rising:
You proved by death as true as they,
In mightier conflicts played your part,
Equal your sacrifice may weigh
Dear Kettle of the generous heart.
Photo: A ration party of the Royal Irish Rifles in a communication trench during the Battle of the Somme. The date is believed to be 1 July 1916, the first day on the Somme, and the unit is possibly the 1st Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles (25th Brigade, 8th Division).