The diary of a 17-year-old soldier from Co Armagh who died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme highlights the horrors of the bloodiest battle of the First World War.
Taking place between July 1 and November 18, 1916, on the upper reaches of the River Somme in France, over one million men were killed or injured during the battle, making it one of the bloodiest in human history.
Over 3,500 Irish soldiers lost their lives at the Battle of the Somme alone, many of whom had joined the British Army in the hope of securing Home Rule for Ireland once the English had won the war. The Battle of the Somme was, the Allies hoped, going to be the battle that end the war, but the offensive petered out in November. The war continued for two more years.
Co Armagh soldier Private Thomas Chambers, known as Tommy, was among the 20,000 soldiers in the British army to be killed on the first day of the battle on July 1, 1916. His grim account of the days leading up to his death is recorded in a diary, which was kept for years under a bed in the Orchard County. The diary went on display in 2016 to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme.
The young man, just a teenager, fought with the 36th Ulster Division, which drew almost all its soldiers from the same small community in Ulster and which sustained 5.500 casualties on the first day, with nearly 2,000 soldiers from the counties of what later became Northern Ireland dying within the first few hours of the fighting.
Although some soldiers from Ireland fought for Home Rule, it is almost certain that Chambers would have fought for the opposite as this particular division was mostly made up of members of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), who were set up in 1912 to block Home Rule by any means possible.
His pocket-sized leather journal in which he kept track of his “adventures” was recovered after his death and returned to his family, who kept it in safekeeping until 2016 after realizing its significance.
The account of war jotted down by the young Irishman, who was just 16 years of age when he signed up for the army despite the age inscribed on his tombstone, will now go on display at the Royal Irish Fusiliers Museum in Armagh.
Private Chambers had spent just three months in France when he was killed at the Somme. He had only written on 16 pages of his journal when his life was cut short.
His great-niece Helen McComb, also from Glenanne in Co Armagh, came forward with the diary, which her mother used to read to her as a child, ahead of the centenary of the Battle of the Somme in 2016.
“My mother read it to us and told us about Tommy when we were children, and the diary was put away for safekeeping. But I hadn't realized the importance I think until recently,” she told the Daily Mail in 2016.
“I got goosebumps reading it. I just felt really emotional. I cried reading the last page. But I'm very proud that we have it and am happy for others to be able to see it.”
The diary is still believed to be in excellent condition and details everything from Chambers’ training and preparations for the battle to his final words before his left for the trenches.
The only entry written on July 1, his last entry, consists of a simple message: “Left for trenches at 2 am 1st July.”
Hilary Singleton, a local woman who has completed painstaking research to write a play on Chambers and other WWI soldiers in the area, said in 2016 that she believed this last entry was significant, especially, because of the time at which it was written.
“There's something completely unique about that because every other entry he wrote at the end of the day. This entry was looking forward to what was about to happen,” she said.
“He's leaving for the trenches. Why did he write it like that? I think he wrote it that way because he thought it was likely that he was going to be killed. He had that level of realization.”
In the weeks leading up to the battle, the diary of the young Private Chambers gives readers a fascinating insight into life on the Front, describing their day-by-day activities, what they ate, and telling of the horror of the shellfire from the Germans.
In an entry for April 3, just a few days after he left Ireland, he writes: “Revolly (sic) blew 5.30. Breakfast 6.30. Parade 7.45, then marched to the training camp about twelve miles away carrying our dinner, sometimes two hard cakes, a piece of cheese, and tea. We returned to the base at 4.30 every evening and had dinner which was very little.”
The teenager showed amazing bravery days later when, while on sentry duty, machine-gun fire and shells start up. On April 22, he notes: “Guard. At 9 o'clock at night our artillery started to bombard the German front line and it was just like Hell let loose. Shells bursting around me and machine-gun fire as it fell my luck for being on sentry duty when they started. I was nervous for a while but I came round.”
On May 7, the intensity of the gunfire is properly understood as Chambers writes: “We all had to man the trench and commence rapid fire. The shells were flying every way. It was that heavy that you could not have heard yourself speak.”
And just days before his death, Chambers was already having narrow brushes with death. “Had to retire twice under very heavy shell fire. All having very narrow escapes,” he said.
Colin Lowry’s grandfather, Sergeant Joseph Lowry, was among the other Glenanne men who joined Tommy Chambers at the Front and he is mentioned in the diary as being in attendance at a football match that the British soldiers played about their trenches in the weeks before the battle began.
Lowry was also injured on the first day of the Somme but survived and returned home, being awarded the Military Cross. Facing long terms of unemployment, however, he became disillusioned and threw several of his medals in a nearby lake, his grandson told the Daily Mail.
“He (Tommy) really was only just a boy – they all were,” said Colin.
“It really brings it all home. They were playing a football match, all comrades, and in a matter of days they had died. It's really sad. And for the community – it's only a small village – it would have been a big loss to their village at that time.'
The Irish commemorations for the Battle of the Somme were very small in comparison with those that have taken place for the 1916 Easter Rising in the same year.
As Thomas Kettle, a scholar, a Dubliner, a former Nationalist MP for East Tyrone and member of the Irish Volunteers before joining the British Army prophesizes before his death at the Somme on September 9, 1916, "he'd be remembered as a bloody British officer while those men who fought and died in the Easter 1916 Rising would be remembered as heroes."
Emmet Dalton, an IRA leader in the Irish War of Independence, was reportedly by Kettle’s side when he died. Dalton was with Michael Collins when he was killed in an ambush at Béal na mBláth, Co. Cork and placed a crucifix in Collins' hand.
Former Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan announced in 2016 that the decades of forgetting these soldiers were now over and that the Irish state is now giving "full recognition and careful consideration to the many thousands of people from this island who lost their lives in pursuit of freedom in the First World War."
"I regret very much", he added, "it hasn't been possible to do so. And we will be acknowledging during July the 36th Ulster Division and the 16th Irish Division, and it's entirely important and appropriate that we so do."
*Originally published in 2016. Updated in July 2022.
H/T: The Daily Mail
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