Dignified Somme services mark the sacrifices of 1916

Morning View
Morning View

The Battle of the Somme began 100 years ago yesterday, so it is now fading into the historical distance.

But it remains fresh in the collective memories of nations including the British and French.

In Irish military history it was a huge event, with thousands of southern Irish soldiers dying in it.

In Ulster, it is one of the most powerful military memories of all, being a story of intense bravery but also of disastrous loss.

A distinguished list of public figures recognised the significance of the Ulster contribution to the Somme by attending the major memorial service at the Ulster Memorial Tower at Thiepval yesterday, which was held immediately after an even bigger memorial service at the Thiepval Memorial nearby.

To put the horror of the Somme in some context, it remains one of the 10 or so worst battles in human history when measured in terms of overall casualties. Only a select few military bloodbaths have ended up worse, including Stalingrad between Russia and Germany in 1942 and ‘43.

The sometimes seemingly shallow preoccupations of modern western life, such as pursuit of celebrity or the complaint culture, are rooted in the fact that most of the major problems facing such societies are trivial compared to those faced by Europe and America in the first half of the 20th century.

While some brave young British men and women have suffered appalling injuries serving their country in conflicts such as Iraq and Afghanistan, the death toll levels are incomparably smaller than the horrendous tolls of the world wars.

We can only hope that this will continue. There are major perils, such as weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of fanatical groups, but the prospects of a war in which young people are called up en masse nonetheless seem remote.

Earlier generations, such as those who charged at enemy lines at the Somme, had no such good fortune.

The scale and dignity of yesterday’s ceremonies was an appropriate way to remember their sacrifices.