By Michael Drohan
October 1, 2016
The first day of the Battle of the Somme of World War 1 was July 1, 1916. On that sad day, England suffered 57,400 casualties and of those 5,000 belonged to the 36th Ulster Division, the storied Boys of Ulster. Many from the South of Ireland in the 11th Division (mainly Catholic) also took part in this hemorrhaging of human life.
Before the Battle of the Somme ended in September 1916, the British had lost approximately 420,000 men, the French 2,000 and the Germans something in the region of 460,000 men. It is difficult to comprehend the enormity of this tragedy as it is to understand the tragedy of all wars. However, the Somme was but one act from July to September 1916 in a four-year orgy of violence, killing and devastation.
From the outcome of the war, as spelled out in the Versailles Agreement, we get the best glimpse of what all the blood-letting was about. In that Agreement, the British and the French divvied up the carcasses of the Ottoman and the German Empires and began setting up in Ottoman lands in the Middle East the unfortunate boundaries and colonies that have spawned the modern tragedy that afflicts those peoples. As for the colonies of the German empire in Africa, the spoils were divided between France and Britain.
Germany itself was pillaged, especially by the French, as the Germans were saddled with so-called reparations for all the costs of the war. Through this latter measure, the conditions were laid down for the rise of Nazism and the next World War. To summarize, the blood-letting of World War 1 was all about imperialism and imperial competition for control of the world, with no nobler purpose. Through the fog of war, we can see a new world order emerging of a quasi-hegemonic imperial state of Great Britain, with France and the US as junior imperial partners.
Scarcely two months before the Somme bloodbath, on Easter Monday 1916, April 24, a motley bunch of insurrectionists in Ireland took part in a challenge to British imperial rule in its nearest colony, Ireland. Compared with the cataclysm of death and violence that was taking place on the European continent it could be described as a mere skirmish.
The insurrectionists numbereda little more than 1,000 men and women who belonged to a variety of organizations that viewed Britain’s war as a colonial and imperial enterprise. One of their leaders, Major John MacBride ( father of the Nobel Prize Laureate, Sean McBride) had taken part in the Second Boer War on the side of the Boers against Britain, in the Irish Transvaal Brigade. His spouse, Maud Gonne, the daughter of a British Officer posted in Dublin, also took part in the Rising and was also an avowed anti-imperialist, suffragist and pacifist by instinct. Another leader, James Connolly, a Socialist, headed up a militarized group of workers called the Irish Citizens Army and famously declared “we serve neither King nor Kaiser but Ireland.” Irish people, he maintained, should struggle for the emancipation of the Irish working class, not kill and be killed for the phony claims of competing empires.
Given the fewness of their numbers and the lack of a general mobilization of the people of Ireland, one might be inclined to write it off as a foolhardy expedition. The reaction of the colonial rulers to these anti-colonial and anti-imperial upstarts was brutal in every way. To begin with, the British brought in heavy artillery that destroyed the center of Dublin and reduced it to ruins. They scarcely discriminated between civilians and the insurrectionists holed up in the General Post Office of Dublin and St. Stephen’s Green. To add savagery to savagery, in the first week of May they executed 17 of the deputed leaders of the Rising. One particular case will forever be remembered as illustrating the barbarity of colonialism and imperialism: James Connolly, mentioned above, had been injured in the fighting in the GPO and was unable to stand or walk. He was propped up in a chair in Kilmainham Prison and shot by a firing squad.
So what can we conclude from thisbrief survey of the events of 1916? A first thought that comes to mind is that it would have been better for mankind if Britain had executed General Douglas Haig, the British General who commanded the massacre of the Battle of the Somme, rather than the insurrectionists of Dublin in the Easter Rising? How many million lives would have been saved? The British Empire was in decay but it took some fifty more years for it to come to terms with that decay, and reluctantly at that. A strange thought: if the dreamers and rebels of the Easter Rising in 1916 had won it might have saved the slaughter of 50 million human beings and prevented the present slaughter we are witnessing in the Middle East and in many other corners of the formerly colonial world.
Michael Drohan is on the board and editorial collective of the Thomas Merton Center.