Reflecting on the sacrifices made at the Somme

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The Great War brought massive human loss and devastation throughout Europe, America and the British Empire on a level not witnessed since the plagues of the medieval era.

In the immediate aftermath of the struggle there was huge public clamouring for the creation of local memorials to provide a focus for grief and commemoration.

Most of these memorials are collective, that is, they were erected by one body of people to another group of individuals. It is in this that their uniqueness lies. The idea of memorialising with a work of monumental art the death, even the death in conflict, of scores of ordinary men, frequently united by no greater tie than a common place of abode, would have been unthinkable prior to the advent of modern democracy.

In the United Kingdom alone between 50,000 and 60,000 Great War memorials were erected.

North West Ulster shared the grief and suffering experienced by many during and in the years following the Great War, and memory of that brutal conflict, and those who participated in it, took not only the form of collective artistic memorials.

For example, in some homes stories were orally transmitted to children and grandchildren of family members who were involved in the Great War. In the same homes one may, also, have viewed photographs of lost members, flanked by commemorative plaques and scrolls. These ‘shrines’ were, sometimes, augmented by boxes containing separate artefacts such as letters, medals, bibles, etc.

As a small child I recollect being taken to one such residence – the Gortree country home of my great-grandfather, John Cairns, a survivor of the Great War. He lost his brother, Robert, on the opening day of the brutal 1916 Somme campaign, and a solitary poppy sat on the mantlepiece, above a homely black range, as a perpetual reminder of that loss.

Memory of World War 1 battles in which local men participated can be found in place-names, such as Somme Park and Messines Park in Londonderry, and in the naming of local bands like the Thiepval Memorial Pipe Band, Convoy, County Donegal, and the now defunct Thiepval Accordion Band, Londonderry.

A meeting place of the latter, in George’s Street, has now been redeveloped and given the name Thiepval Gallery.

Occasionally children were named after battles, as in the case of Victoria ‘Somme’ McGahey, the child of ex-soldier Charles (Charlie) McGahey, who was one of six brothers from the Fountain district of Londonderry who enlisted during the Great War. It was more common, however, for children to be named after close relatives who lost their lives in the war.

Although the vast majority of local men who died in the Great War were buried or commemorated in foreign terrain, it was not uncommon for close kin to have their names placed on family gravestones. George Wright, for instance, died on July 1, 1916, fighting with the 10th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, and his name can be found on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing, Somme, France. Reference to his death can also be discovered on the family gravestone in the grounds of Glendermott Parish Church, Altnagelvin, County Londonderry.

Many churches had the names of parishioners – who had died during or survived the Great War – inscribed mainly on marble or brass memorial tablets. Owing to the altered political atmosphere in Ireland after the Great War, however, church tablets are almost exclusively confined to Protestant churches. Two notable exceptions, however, were a baptismal font in the church in Clonmany, County Donegal, presented by Catholic soldiers of the 36th (Ulster) Division who had trained in the area before going to France, and an exquisitely designed grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes in the church of St Columb’s, Chapel Road, Londonderry, erected in 1916 by Catholic soldiers of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers stationed at Ebrington Barracks.

Religious sentiments, contained in newspaper ‘In Memoriam’ notices, clearly demonstrate that religion played a significant role in easing the burden of Great War loss for many families.


An example of this can be found in the following notice placed in a Derry newspaper one year after the death of Sergeant Thomas Campbell – who died on October 13, 1916 – by his Father, Mother, Sisters and Brothers:

‘God is good, He will give us strength

To bear our heavy cross;

He is the only One who knows

How bitter was our loss.’

‘In Memoriam’ notices appeared in both Unionist and Nationalist newspapers, and it is evident from the plethora of notices that appeared in the Nationalist ‘Derry Journal, ’ both during and in the immediate years after the Great War, that they provided Catholics with an opportunity to publicly grieve for the loss of family members.

For instance, five years after the death Catholic brothers, John James and Patrick Joseph Mulheron (who both died in November 1916), their sorrowing mother had the following lines placed in the ‘Derry Journal’:

‘I give my gift to my Saviour’s Heart,

While my own seemed rent in two;

O Sacred Heart, forget me not,

I know not what to do.

My grief the world can never know,

Nor thoughts of sadness that are mine;

As with the years I older grow,

My heart, dear sons, for you will pine’.

Dead Catholic soldiers were also remembered on ‘Memorial Cards, ’ which contained a photograph, some details of the soldier’s death and family connections, and religious text and imagery.

Secular and semi-secular institutions and organisations such as schools, clubs, and workplaces also commemorated dead pupils, members, and staff. Foyle College’s memorial was made of old battleship teakwood from H.M.S. Britannia; the Coleraine Academical Institution’s memorial was a brass tablet, mounted in oak; and a memorial tablet was housed in the Examination Hall of McCrea Magee College, Londonderry. A roll of honour was erected in the temperance Catch-My-Pal Club, Coleraine, and a brass memorial tablet was placed in R. H. & S. Rogers, Ltd, shirt and collar factory, also in Coleraine.


Occasionally school prizes were named in honour of pupils who had lost their lives in World War 1, such as Foyle College’s James Hamilton Barr memorial prize in classics. The former student died at Neuve Eglise, Belgium, on September 1, 1918, and the prize is still awarded annually.

In addition to church, school, club and workplace memorials, cities, villages, and towns commemorated their local dead, usually in the shape of large bronze monuments depicting military images. In Coleraine, for example, the memorial took the form of a bronze statue of a soldier in full fighting kit. The statue was placed on a granite base, and the whole memorial was 21ft. 6in. high.

Sometimes memorials took the shape of buildings, such as the Apprentice Boys Memorial Hall Extension, Society Street, Londonderry, and the Limavady Memorial Institute.

Memorials could also take the form of days which permitted relatives and friends to solemnly remember the victims of World War 1. Most notable is Armistice Day, which commemorates annually the termination of Great War hostilities on November 11, 1918. Parades are still held on the Sunday closest to November 11 each year, and parades are also held on July 1, a day that recollects the huge losses suffered on the Somme – primarily by Ulster’s Protestant community – on that day in 1916.

Remembrance of Ulster’s sacrifice on July 1, 1916, at the Somme, is also a recurring theme on Orange banners, and wall murals in Protestant districts of north-west Ulster.

The frontal design of Churchhill Loyal Orange Lodge 871’s bannerette, for example, includes a map of the Somme, an image of the Ulster Tower at Thiepval, a soldier with head bowed (taken from the Enniskillen War Memorial), and pictures of orange lilies, shamrocks and poppies.

The Ulster Tower at Thiepval and poppies also appear on a recent wall mural painted outside the Cathedral Youth Club premises in Londonderry’s Fountain estate. The mural also shows the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, and monochrome images of soldiers going into battle.

Wall murals

Apart from wall murals and Orange banners, memory of the Great War was perpetuated in other art forms. Artistic memorials, in the form of beautiful stained glass windows, can be found in St. Columb’s Cathedral, Londonderry, and in the city’s Guildhall.

The Great War is also recollected in literature, in the realms of both fiction and non-fiction. Patrick MacGill from the Glenties, County Donegal, served in the London Irish Rifles, and wrote about his experiences in books such as ‘The Great Push.’ Londonderry poetess, Lily Marcus, had a volume of ‘War Poems’ published in 1916. Buncrana-born, Frank McGuinness, established his reputation with his award-winning play, ‘Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme.’ And Londonderry dramatist, the late Sam Starrett, used the backdrop of the Great War in his plays ‘Home for Christmas, ’ ‘Flowers of the Forest, ’ and ‘The Worthless Soldier.’

The musical play ‘Home for Christmas’ was premiered in the YMCA Drumahoe in 1997, and told the story of the effects of war on a local family. Sam was involved with the ‘Shot at Dawn’ campaign to clear the names of 306 soldiers executed for alleged desertion or cowardice, and was commissioned by The Playhouse Theatre to write the ‘Worthless Soldier’, which dealt with the case of Private Bernard McGeehan, of the Liverpool King’s Regiment, who was executed on November 2, 1916, after being found guilty of desertion.

Sam’s former partner, renowned local musician Tracey McRory, last year wrote an emotional piece entitled ‘Bernard’ based on the McGeehan case. Tracey has been invited by The Last Post Association for the past number of years to perform the violin at the Menin Gate, Ypres, Belgium, on November 11, and on the 90th Anniversary of the Armistice in 2008 she performed ‘Bernard’ on the harp at the Great War Remembered Concert in the Cathedral behind the Cloth Hall.

Earlier, Tracey, Sam, and Richard Laird wrote the powerful ballad ‘John Condon’ about the 14 year old Waterford boy who was the youngest known soldier to die in the First World War. The song appeared on the album ‘Boys of the Island’ – songs inspired by visiting the Western Front.

We Were Brothers

Recently, Felicity McCall’s book and play, ‘We Were Brothers, World War 1, A Shared History, ’ recalls the 1917 attempt at Messines by Ballymoney Orangeman, John Meeke, to save the life of Major William Redmond, of the largely Nationalist 16th (Irish) Division. The story has previously been told in a brief, lucid and informative pamphlet by Bushmills historian, Robert Thompson, entitled ‘Hero of Messines Ridge 1917.’

A number of books and pamphlets displaying details of soldiers from the north-west of Ulster, who lost their lives in World War 1, have also emerged over the past two decades. Among these are Gardiner Mitchell’s ‘Three Cheers for The Derrys’; The Great War County Donegal Book of Honour; Robert Thompson’s ‘Coleraine Heroes’ and ‘Inishowen Heroes’; The Diamond War Memorial Project’s 2008 Commemorative Diary; W. J. Canning’s ‘Ballyshannon Belcoo Bertincourt, The History of the 11th Battalion The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers (Donegal & Fermanagh Volunteers) in World War 1’; and Ian Bartlett’s ‘Londonderry First World War Roll of Honour’.

In the same era, articles on local involvement in the Great War have appeared in various newspapers. Between 2005 and 2007, the ‘Londonderry Sentinel’ ran a weekly series of mine entitled ‘Reflections on the Great War, ’ and Seamus Breslin has occasionally written for the ‘Derry Journal’ about Nationalist participation in the Great War.

Newspapers have not been the only means of disseminating to a wider audience greater awareness of local participation in the Great War. Local World War One enthusiasts have given talks and lectures in schools, community groups, libraries, and on television and radio. Various exhibitions have been held, and the Diamond War Memorial Project has created its own website,, detailing information on over 1,000 individuals associated with the Londonderry area who lost their lives in the first great conflict of the twentieth century.

The Diamond War Memorial Project’s successor, The North West War Memorials Project, has also produced an ongoing companion website,, detailing information on Great War memorials in north-west Ulster, and the same project has produced a book, ‘Remembering’ (edited by Eamon Baker), which recounts the stories – many deeply emotional – of around 20 Catholic and Protestant families from the north-west, and how the Great War impacted on each family.

All of the above publicity has led to greater public interest in World War 1, and a corresponding increase in trips to the battlefields of France and Belgium. Many of these trips have been facilitated by individuals such as Glenn Barr, Paddy Harte and Jeanette Warke, and bodies like the Limavady Somme Association. Their efforts have not only kept the memory of dead men alive, but have allowed – in many instances for the first time – representatives of bereaved families the opportunity to visit the final resting places of kin.