Wednesday, July 20, 2016


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This (19/7/2016) was my second hedge school. The first, also in the National Library of Ireland, was on Nelson's Pillar and I have done a blog post on that.

This one was on the Somme, which anniversary we are also in the middle of commemorating. The Pillar was only fifty years ago but the Somme was a full hundred years ago.

While we awaited the arrival of the hedge school master and his panelists the screen was showing the propaganda film of the Somme made in August 1916 and which is getting a showing around the place at this time.

The team finally arrived not long after we had all trouped back into the room following a brief evacuation at the sounding of the house alarm. What you might call a fairly dramatic entrance in the circumstances.

The team consisted of Tommy Graham (The Master), David Murphy (Maynooth), Lar Joye (National Museum), Jennifer Wellington (UCD), and Tom Burke (Royal Dublin Fusiliers Association).

You can see them taking last sips of water and getting mic'd up above.

Tommy Graham & David Murphy

The discussion flowed dynamically round the panel as Tommy dipped into his carefully prepared list of provocative questions. So I won't attribute remarks but simply record such items as particularly caught my attention.

The envelope, so to speak, had already been set out in the advance publicity for the school.
Fought between 1 July and 1 November 1916 the Somme Offensive was one of the bloodiest battles in history, costing the lives of more than 1.5 million men. On the first day alone the British Army suffered c. 60,000 casualties, many of them members of the 36th (Ulster) Division, and later soldiers of the 16th (Irish) Division were involved. While the involvement of the former continues to be extensively commemorated (especially in the North), Southern nationalist involvement has left a more ambiguous legacy.
One of the most interesting new (for me) bits to emerge was the contrast between how the two armies (British and German) were structured. The Germans had a team approach. They all knew what they had to do including in contingencies such as losing their commanding officers. It had all been rehearsed ad nauseam. And the men were party to the rationale behind what was being done. They had been doing this for decades and it was very effective.

The British, on the other hand, had a strictly hierarchical system which ran on an excessively tight need to know basis. The officers more or less knew what they were supposed to be doing but most of it was kept secret from the men. So, when the officers were taken out the men were running around like headless chickens.

Lar Joye & Jennifer Wellington

The Germans also operated deep defence, which meant if they were pushed back they already had further defensive positions prepared into which they could retreat. This system operated up to around five kilometers and could in some cases extend even to ten.

As it turned out the whole battle of the Somme, from June to November 1916, for all the slaughter, was limited to a front line which only advanced six miles in all.

In fact the Germans were almost happy enough to retreat if the price they could exact from British forces in the meantime remained high enough.

Verdun and the Somme had not been chosen for their strategic value. The Germans chose to attack Verdun because of its symbolic value since the time of Charlemagne. The British chose the Somme because it was at the point where the British and French armies came together. But it was only a bit of land and not particularly important in itself, one way or another. Haig had apparently wanted to fight in Flanders and finally got his way later in the war.

Tom Burke

The value, or otherwise, of commemorating major events, such as the Somme, was discussed and the general feeling was that this was worthwhile if properly done. People should be aware of all aspects of their past and as well as this giving them a sense of identity they might actually learn some lessons from it. Reference was made to the value of recent North/South cooperation on the Somme project as having broken down some previouly existing barriers.

There was, however, a warning note sounded about commemoration unjustifiably turning into excessive celebration. The example quoted was Gallipoli which was an unmitigated disaster but was apparently commemorated in Australia, with a degree of national fervour and a high public spend, as though they had won and not lost that one.

Tommy invited the audience to pitch in at various points in the discussion. Interventions were substantive and one that stayed with me was the degree of intelligence (military not intellectual) available to both sides. They almost knew the names of the guys opposite (warning: poetic licence!).

David Murphy

I should mention in passing that David and I nearly shared a platform at the Alliance Français's Café Historique on the Martello Towers but it was not to be. So the Hedge School gave me an opportunity to say hello.

The panel were excellent and no one was in the least fazed by any of Tommy's googlies.

The above is only a small flavour of what went on at the Hedge School. The audio is now up here where you can catch up with the whole thing.

1 comment:

Póló said...

If you want to deepen your experience of this theme you could do a lot worse than listen to these two tracks from Eric Bogle:

And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda

The Green Fields of France

Listening to the second one I thought of my uncle, Rifleman John Dwyer, and Cavalryman Richard Brewster neither of whose muddy graves are marked but who are remembered in stone, marble and glass, here and there.