In this ‘Decade of Centenaries,’ 1st July 2016 marked the centenary of one of the bloodiest days in the history of this city. In the early hours of the morning in Northern France thousands of soldiers left their trenches and advanced towards the German lines.
Men from the city, many of them barely out of their teens, were mowed down. A German gun did not distinguish between a person from the Bogside, the Fountain, Rosemount, the Waterside or Strabane. They had enlisted for Ireland’s cause, for King and Country, for the rights of small nations, to put a few shillings in their pockets or to go off on an adventure with their schoolmates.
The horror and destruction ended almost as suddenly as it had begun, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918. There were to be empty chairs at firesides across the world and also in the tight-knit communities across this town and country. There were also many who returned physically and mentally destroyed by the conflict.
The First World War created the fundamental elements of today’s history. Historians often trace the beginnings of this conflict to the victory of Prussia over France in 1871. This brought to a dramatic end a number of years of relative peace and economic prosperity across Europe. With complex alliances and rivalry between countries, the continent was tinder dry for a major conflict. The match was struck on 28th June 1914 with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
It possibly could have been avoided. One who predicted the type of warfare seen in the First World War was the Russian Jewish industrialist Ivan Bloch. He published his six-volume master work in 1898. This was widely read and analysed across Europe, but his fundamental message was lost. He predicted that new technology would render the use of the bayonet and cavalry charges obsolete, conflict between the Great Powers would be one of entrenchment and barbed wire, there would be stalemate with a huge battle fronts, societies would be seriously disrupted with the risk of famine, disease and revolution.
His warnings were largely ignored. In Russia and Germany servants of the rulers retained a feudal sense of honour, some believed in Darwinism, where one power could rise only at the expense of another, often mediocre politicians were permitted to make poor decisions and the autocratic Kaiser and Tzar both lacked imagination. By the beginning of 1918 Ivan Bloch’s predictions had proved to be correct, with consequences across the world and even in the streets of Derry.
The First World War may have come to a halt on 11th November 1918 but this did not bring an end to conflict between nations and peoples. 1918 was a horrific year, locally, nationally and internationally. At home in this city and environs there remained the fear of the telegram boy approaching with the dreaded news that a son or husband had been killed or was missing. News came to the city about ships which were being sunk in Donegal Bay, off Tory Island and Malin Head and Rathlin Island. On several occasions in 1918 citizens would have seen bedraggled survivors of a sinking coming for succour to Ebrington Barracks. Locally with the sinking of the Leinster in October 1918 there was the funeral to the City Cemetery of Robert Alexander, son of the hymn writer Cecil Frances Alexander. In addition to the fear of a German victory there was fear across the island. Often overlooked, influenza as a mysterious illness was sweeping across the land, indiscriminately cutting down men, women and children.
News of destruction would also come from the major cities in England which were being targeted from the air by the dreaded Zeppelins. With German advances in the Western Front and with the Allies facing defeat, a drastic measure was passed into law, one which united all shades of nationalism in Ireland, which was conscription. Politically this turned out to be an election winner for Sinn Fein in December 1918 and was followed early in the New Year by Ireland being declared a republic. However, there were those in Tipperary for example who found politics impotent, and planning took place in December 1918 for a daring rald on an assignment of gelignite at a remote quarry in that county. This was to mark the beginning of the bloody War of Independence.