In the quiet town of Guillemont (France) on a beautiful Autumn Saturday on the 9th September 2006, 55 members of the Irish Naval Association participated in the ceremonies commemorating the 90th anniversary of the battle that ended in the capture by the 16th Irish Division of the towns of Guillemont and Guinchy from the Germans. The following also took part in the commemoration ceremonies
There are two tiny villages in the north of France where the memory of Ireland’s dead is kept with understanding, compassion, and respect. Last week, the tiny villages of Guillemont and Ginchy in the Somme paid heartfelt homage to Ireland’s fallen of the Great War 1914-1918. For the past two years, the Mayors of these two tiny hamlets, had worked tirelessly to prepare the 90th anniversary commemoration of the battles fought by the 16th Irish Division to free their villages in September 1916. Following the initiative of historian, Yvonne McEwen, whose Donegal-born grandfather, Patrick Doherty, was seriously wounded in the fighting here in 1916, the two Mayors had entered whole-heartedly into the organisation of what was an historic event, marking the first major commemoration of the 16th Irish Division’s role on the Somme since the inauguration of the memorial Celtic high cross, known as the Ginchy Cross, at Guillemont Church in September 1926.
Last week’s commemoration began in the quietest possible fashion. Late on the evening of Sunday 3rd September, a small crowd of about 30 villagers gathered in darkness beside the commemorative cross in front of Guillemont church. Their gathering which was intended to mark the 90th anniversary of the 16th Irish’s entry into battle on the 3rd September 1916 could not have been simpler. A young girl from the village laid flowers picked from Guillemont Mayor Didier Samain’s garden and bound into a wreath by his wife, Valérie, at the foot of the memorial cross. Yvonne McEwen said a few words to recall the significance of the occasion and Laurence Binyon’s famous ‘They shall not grow old…’ exhortation was spoken out loud by fellow commemoration-organiser, Harry Beattie.
The Battles for Guillemont and Ginchy which began on the 3rd September marked some of the bloodiest fighting of the whole Somme campaign. The ruined villages — ‘Not a stick or stone is to be seen. Not a tree stands.’ — looked out over exposed terrain which made them difficult to attack. A village nearby had been taken on the very first day of the Somme fighting, on July 1st, but at Guillemont and Ginchy things were different. By the time the Irish moved here the landscape was a burned-out hellish wasteland filled with the bodies of the dead. The attack of 2,400 men of the Irish Division’s 47th Brigade on the 3rd September would cost it half its manpower, but Guillemont was taken that day. Ginchy was next. ‘The bombardment, destruction and bloodshed are all beyond imagination,’ wrote poet and UCD professor, Tom Kettle, the night before the battle. ‘Somewhere the Choosers of the Slain are touching with invisible hands those who are to die.’ He would be among them. On the 9th September, the Irish attacked into a hurricane of steel and lead. The scene was one of nightmare. The Division won its battle but the price was a dreadful one. In ten days of fighting it had lost half of its total strength of 11,000. Between Guillemont and Ginchy, a distance of less than one mile, 1100 of its men lay dead. The Division had literally been decimated, but Guillemont and Ginchy had been taken.
Last week the two villages remembered. On alternate nights in Guillemont church, newly-restored for the occasion, and in Ginchy church, Harry Beattie played pipes and whistle — his ‘little concerts’ — to enrapt villagers. During the week, a ‘Field of the Fallen’ was made between the two villages, where 1100 poppy crosses were planted into newly-ploughed soil near the roadside, each one symbolizing one of the 16th Division’s fallen. On the morning of Saturday 9th September the members of Guillemont council met at 8.30am to read the Divison’s Roll of Honour, a list of the names of the Division’s 1100 dead, researched and prepared by Yvonne McEwen. In bright, blinding sunshine and swept by an ice-cold wind, standing on a road close to two remaining German gun positions, the councillors took it in turn to read all of the 1100 names. After each name read, the small gathering responded collectively and poignantly ‘mort au champ d’honneur’, and in the lengthier pauses of the one and a half hour-long ceremony a piper’s lament was played. Mayor Samain’s voice and body shook with emotion as he read the name of Tom Kettle. In the orchard-field beside the road, as the names were read, the wind shook down apples from the branches of the trees to the earth below.
On the afternoon of Saturday 9th a triple ceremony of commemoration took place in newly-warm sunshine. The first part of the bilingual ceremony was held in front of Guillemont church. The Mayor’s speech was followed by testaments of war describing the horror of the fighting in 1916. A statue of Saint Patrick was presented to the Mayor and blessed by the local curate before being placed in the church. A green-leatherbound presentation copy of the Roll of Honour was also presented for keeping in the Town Hall. Commemorative parchments were presented to surviving family members of Irishmen killed during the fighting. Wreathes were laid at the Irish and French war memorials in front of the church and piper’s laments were played before the 600-strong assembly, half-French, half-Irish, moved to Ginchy church, where a second Roll of Honour and a second statue of Saint Patrick was presented to the Mayor of Ginchy, Madame Marie-Geneviève Desailloud. ‘We are gathered here today in unity and respect,’ said Madame Desailloud in her speech. ‘Let us remember those who have gone before us, let us remember their sacrifices, their generosity, and their determination to serve peace.’
The last part of the triple-ceremony was a drum head service which took place at the site known as Ginchy Telegraph, a position away from both villages and which dominated the entire Somme front. This was where the 16th Division’s battle was finally won. Mayor Samain had made a giant shamrock here, visible from a distance across the open fields. The shamrock was the 16th Division’s emblem, and during the remembrance ceremony it was laid with a dozen blood-red poppy wreathes. A piper parting in the distance played a heart-rending lament, his music fading away over the sunlit fields of war.
‘We have done something today to remember the men who died to liberate Guillemont and Ginchy,’ said Yvonne McEwen, looking out across the Somme. ‘And we have done something to liberate them finally from the amnesia with which they have been covered for nearly a century.’
‘I have always understood,’ the extraordinary Mayor Samain said. ‘I have always understood the courage of these men, and the tragedy of their deaths. And I have always understood that they have been forgotten and the tragedy of forgetting.’
Last week, the men of the 16th Irish Division were not forgotten. They were remembered. They were remembered with understanding, compassion and respect by the people of Guillemont and Ginchy. As those Irish who had travelled to the commemoration left for home, the two villages took charge once again of the Irish fallen and disappeared whose bodies were strewn in their fields and who remain there. The people of Guillemont and Ginchy have been written cruelly into Ireland’s history, and they have become the caretakers of Ireland’s cruel Great War memory, and of Ireland’s cruelly forgotten Great War dead. For this, they deserve our acknowledgement, our praise, and our thanks.
The London Irish Rifles Pipes and Drums lead the Parade
Wreaths were laid at the Memorial to the 16th Irish Division, followed by Wreath laying at the Memorial to the French. Harry Beattie (RNA Belfast) played an Irish lament on the Uileann Pipes.
When the ceremony in Guillemont concluded all then headed to the Town of Ginchy. This time it was the Lady Mayor of Ginchy who hosted the ceremonies. It was in Ginchy 90 years ago that our colleague Matt Comiskey lost his Uncle Patsy during the taking of the Town of Ginchy. Matt on behalf of his family was presented with a parchment from the Mayor of Ginchy in appreciation of the families presence at the ceremony, including Matt and his wife Mary, brother Tom and wife Carmel and Matt's cousin's Darrach Murphy and Kieron O'Malley and of course the sarcrifice of their Uncle Patsy.
Wreaths were laid at the French memorial and then all paraded out to the open country where the Battles took place, stopping at the Ginchy Telegraph (so called as it was the communications post during the battles).
At the Ginchy Telegraph the Mayor had erected a large wooden platform with a massive Shamrock on the front. This temporary structure was to hold the many wreaths to be laid in honour of the 16th Irish Division. It is intended that this structure will be replaced in due course with a small Church.