Continuing to focus on the value of the Church of Ireland Gazette as a primary resource for historical research, the RCB Library, in collaboration with the Editor and Board of the Gazette, commemorates the Battle of the Somme this month with a focus on how it was reported through the pages of the Church’s weekly newspaper. The battle began 100 years ago today with the Allied objective of advancing along the banks of the River Somme to the French village of Thiepval to penetrate the German trench network called the Schwaben Redoubt.
Both the 36th Ulster and 16th Irish Divisions were involved at the Somme and paid a heavy price. Indeed as early as 14th July, the Gazette writing from ‘a little village on the north coast which has sent most of its young men to the firing line’ published a heart-breaking piece entitled “Ulster’s Sacrifice” recording that ‘there is hardly a house where there is not one dead’.
The shared experience of unionists and nationalists fighting side by side at the Somme remains one of the most poignant Irish legacies of the First World War, and in the first edition published after the battle began, on 7th July, the Gazette was highlighting this significance. Its lead article of that date – entitled “The Somme or the Boyne” – was written in the context of government proposals to partition Ireland as a solution to the Irish question in response to the Easter Rising. Speaking for wider Church and island interests as a whole, the article took on the language of appeal that all would remain united in the spirit of the Somme, rather than dividing along green and orange lines, thus promoting the Somme as a symbol of Irish unity. The online search engine which provides free access to the editions of the newspaper for the entire commemorative period, 1911-1923, reveals no less than 23 different articles covering the Somme between July and December 1916.
The conciliatory tone of many of these articles may be attributed to the newspaper’s lay editor and wartime correspondent, Ware Bradley Wells (1892-1958), who, as previous online presentations have shown, was ‘imparted of Nationalist sympathies’ yet noted for a pluralist and fair outlook (see these links: http://ireland.anglican.org/about/186 and https://beta.ireland.anglican.org/news/6397/the-church-of-ireland-gazette). The first of his “Somme or the Boyne” articles was published six days after the battle commenced which he considered ‘a death grapple’ yet one that added a ‘new and glorious page … to Irish history’.
In this context, and reflecting general Church of Ireland opinion of the time, Wells was convinced that Lloyd George’s proposed partition or – as he put it – ‘the furtive plan for the dismemberment of Ireland’ represented potential disaster for all true patriotic Irishmen. Using the symbol of Ulster’s nationalists and unionists fighting a common enemy beside one another, he appealed to his readers to make their choice for the real Ireland.
The content of Wells’s interesting editorials, his regular column “The War Week by Week” devoted to military aspects of the Allied offensive, the “Boyne or the Somme” series, and all the other content of the Gazette editions between 1911 and 1923 remains freely available using the online search engine available through the Church of Ireland website at https://esearch.informa.ie/rcb
Additionally, with support from the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, a second commemorative reprint of the 7th July 1916 edition – as it appeared for contemporary readers – will be printed and circulated for current Gazette readers on 8th July 2016.