Poppies in the field. Credit: David Wells.
WWI

How The Battle Of The Somme Shaped Irish History

"The impact of the battle has really shaped all our lives ever since.”

Poppies in the field. Credit: David Wells.

The great-grandson of a soldier who fought in The Battle Of The Somme has spoken of the devastation the first day of fighting, 104 years ago, had on his community.

On July 1, 1916, Sergeant Jimmy Scott, a young soldier from the Ulster Division, went into battle at the Somme in Northern France.

“It shaped Irish history. It shaped Ulster history. The impact of the battle has really shaped all our lives ever since.” 

Sgt Scott was among those who went over the top. He was part of the Young Citizen Volunteers from Belfast, which had become the 14th battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles, part of 36 (Ulster) Division.

Sgt Scott’s great-grandson Mark tells the story of how one day changed the lives of a whole community. Thousands of sons, brothers, fathers, uncles and cousins, many of whom had never fought before, were killed within the first few hours. Neighbours, colleagues and friends, all dead. Thousands upon thousands of future generations in Ireland wiped out in one day. He said:

“When zero hour was called, they were actually out in no man’s land and ... had a bit of a head start and were able to very quickly occupy the first German line.”

The term ‘zero hour’ refers to the time the battle was due to start. It was set for 7:30am on July 1, 1916, and was the moment the men, who were anxiously stood in crowded frontline trenches, were to go over the top. Speaking to BFBS Radio’s Fiona Weir, Mark said: 

“Young Citizen Volunteers, The 14th Battalion, they then leapfrogged … to the next line. The attack continued up to the third line. 

“There they were to reconsolidate, and they were to move up … in order to blow the wire on the fourth line which would have been their final objective that day.”

LISTEN: BFBS Radio broadcaster Fiona Weir speaks to Sgt Jimmy Scott's great-grandson Mark

With more than a million casualties and lasting until November 18, 1916, the Somme is one of the biggest battles in history. 

About 60,000 men were killed or wounded on the first day alone. 

Once out of the trenches and over the top, soldiers were faced with a barrage of bullets, hand grenades and flame throwers from the Germans.

The Young Citizen Volunteers didn’t escape the bloodshed and hundreds of men were killed. Mark said: 

“The Ulster Division had been surrounded on three sides and by this stage had suffered some 5,000 casualties. 

“The battalion itself consisted of just shy of 1,000 men. After the battle, there was a report in the battalion war diary by Captain Mulholland and he states that 120 men made their way across the Magenta Bridge … so that was all that was left really.” 

The Young Citizen Volunteers was a civilian organisation founded in Belfast two years before the First World War in 1912. Mark said: 

“They enlisted practically en masse in September 1914. 

“They would have all known each other, each other’s families.

“Jimmy Scott, my great-grandfather, there was one lad who lived just two doors down from him and he was killed.” 

In September 1916, Sgt Scott and the men who survived with him made their way to Belgium where they were slowly reinforced and put back into frontline positions again. However, by February 1917 they were disbanded in a reshuffle.

Mark says that Ireland has never been the same since that fateful day in July 1916. He said: 

“It shaped Irish history. It shaped Ulster history. The impact of the battle has really shaped all our lives ever since.”

Five months after The Battle Of The Somme began more than one million men were killed or wounded. This left partners, children and parents at home devastated and in most cases without a body to bury. The majority of soldiers who died were buried in mass graves on the battlefield or simply where they fell in action.

WATCH: In 2016, Fiona Weir reported on how Northern Ireland commemorated 100 years since The Battle Of The Somme.