Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Towers

The most fundamental cornerstone of Ulster Protestant identity as relating to a sense of "nationhood" remains the Battle of the Somme and the events of 1st July 1916 north and south of the River Ancre which left 5,500 Ulster soldiers dead, wounded or missing.

The scale of military achievement and sacrifice that day of the 36th Ulster Division - as forged from the infusion of Carson's original Ulster Volunteer Force into the battalions of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, Royal Irish Rifles and Royal Irish Fusiliers - was encapsulated in the words of Captain Wilfred Spender: "I am not an Ulsterman but yesterday, the 1st July, as I followed their amazing attack, I felt that I would rather be an Ulsterman than anything else in the world."

The Ulster Division completed their basic training in the north of Ireland at Clandeboye near Belfast, Ballykinlar on the County Down coast and at Finner in County Donegal.

The Ulster Tower stands today as a memorial to the fallen of the Division - the only Allied soldiers on the Thiepval sector on the first day of battle to capture the first line of German defences and with some even reaching the second. My own great-grandfather was a member of the North Belfast Volunteers and served in the Royal Irish Rifles - he would have been in the second wave during the assault.

Built in 1921, and opened by Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson who was later assassinated by the IRA in the Knightsbridge area of central London, the building is a copy of Helen's Tower on the Clandeboye estate itself. This in turn had been constructed in 1861 by Lord Dufferin in honour of his mother and would have been a familiar last sight of Ireland for many of the soldiers leaving Belfast Lough and their homeland forever.

Several poems had been written about the tower in County Down by literary luminaries of the time such as Tennyson and Kipling. The words of the former are now inscribed inside the memorial in Belgium with "Ulster" replacing the reference to the original's inspiration.

Helen's Tower, here I stand,
Dominant over sea and land.
Son’s love built me, and I hold
Mother’s love in letter’d gold.

The Ulster Tower memorial includes a plaque commemorating the nine Victoria Cross holders of the 36th Ulster Division during the Great War and also an obelisk in honour of members of the Orange Order who fell. The latter memorial, dedicated in September 1993, includes the insignia of the Order on it and the word 'Boyne' at the base. Between is an inscription commemorating those of "the Orange Institution worldwide" who fought and who "finally passed out of the sight of man".

Near Ypres in Flanders stands another memorial in the form of a traditional Irish round tower and in honour of all the Irish fallen of the Great War of both religions. It stands close to the site of the June 1917 Messines Ridge battle where the men of the Ulster Division and those of the 16th Irish Regiment fought together.

The tower in the Island of Ireland Peace Park houses bronze cubicles containing record books listing the known dead and the unique design allows the sun to light the interior only on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. The inscription on the peace pledge plaque in the park's centre circle notes:

As Protestants and Catholics, we apologise for the terrible deeds we have done to each other and ask forgiveness. From this sacred shrine of remembrance, where soldiers of all nationalities, creeds and political allegiances were united in death, we appeal to all people in Ireland to help build a peaceful and tolerant society. Let us remember the solidarity and trust that developed between Protestant and Catholic soldiers when they served together in these trenches.

The park also incorporates three pillars classifying the killed, wounded and missing of the three voluntary Irish Divisions - the 36th Ulster (32,186), the 10th Irish (9,363) and the 16th Irish (28,398) - and an upright tablet listing the counties of Ireland with the names flowing together to suggest the unity of death. Nine stone tablets include prose, poems and letters from Irish servicemen.

I was thinking a lot about the two Irish towers earlier this week having just watched Christian Carion's Joyeux Noel - the 2005 movie based on the Christmas 1914 truce on the Western Front between British, French and German infantry. In this instance the British soldiers portrayed are from a Scottish regiment. Scotland's extraordinary contribution to Britain's military heritage having been mentioned to a large degree during recent media commentary on a future referendum for Scottish independence and indeed as analysed in Gregory Burke's National Theatre of Scotland play Black Watch which returned to London and the Barbican Theatre last year.

The slaughter at the Somme and Passchendaele - and the preceding Christmas truces of 1914 and 1915 - are long embedded as the defining mental images of the Great War in our national psyche. The equivalent with regard to the Second World War is of course the iconic photograph of St Paul's Cathedral on the north bank of the River Thames on 29th December 1941 - the night of the Second Great Fire of London.

On this evening - London's 114th night of the Blitz - bombs would drop from 1815 GMT until the all-clear just after midnight on the very same streets that had burnt in 1666. One fireman recalled "By the time we finished tackling the fires on the roof of the Stock Exchange, the sky, which was ebony black when we first got up there, was now changing to a yellowy orange colour. It looked like there was an enormous circle of fire, including St Paul's churchyard." The cathedral however survived because of the bravery of the emergency services and since an incendiary device lodged on the roof - and which had commenced setting the lead of the dome on fire - dislodged and fell to the floor of the Stone Gallery where is was extinguished. 12 firemen and 162 civilians died that December night.

Last Sunday afternoon while walking over Parliament Hill in North London - which, alongside Primrose Hill near Regents Park, provides the most spectacular vantage point for viewing the grand sweep of what was once the world's greatest city - I became aware for the first time of the unprecedented defacement and disfiguration of the vista by way of Renzo Piano's 72-storey "Shard" skyscraper.

Completely overshadowing the view of the cathedral from northern vantage points to a literally criminal degree, the scale of the building is redolent of something from the Dubai or Shanghai skylines. In fact it is so out of keeping with its historic surrounds it verges without exaggeration on the Ministry of Information building as portrayed in the 1954 adaptation of 1984 with Peter Cushing.

"The Shard" successfully received planning permission from the London Borough of Southwark in 2002 and was then the subject of a subsequent public enquiry into its suitability. Full permission was granted in 2003 with John Prescott, then the minister in charge of planning, declaring that he was "satisfied that the proposed tower is of the highest architectural quality". Then London Mayor Ken Livingstone approved of its construction while current incumbent Boris Johnson acclaimed it as a “clear and inspiring example of confidence in the capital’s economy”.

One media commentator has noted how the metallic finish on the building has significantly interfered with Freeview television reception to the immediate north east as it sits full square between the Crystal Palace and Croydon transmission masts and the part of the capital that includes the Olympic Village. Many locals in the area are therefore having to subscribe financially to cable connections without due compensation. There have also been question marks raised about a potential "glare" factor on sunny days in light of its visibility from so many parts of central and inner London.

The historical importance of St Pauls as the great survivor of our defining battle for national survival obviously counting for little by way of more restaurants and hotels and flats that no middle-income person can ever afford again or office space for industries that the vast majority of people do not work in or choose not to work in. Most importantly, the skyscraper surely represents the defining moment when modern London formally takes upon itself the status of the fifth nation of the United Kingdom - disconnected entirely from all others in so many cultural respects and those forging way beyond mere demographics.

"The Pinnacle” in Bishopsgate which shall follow - next to St Ethelburga’s church which was severely damaged by an IRA bomb in 1993 and close to the beautiful Leadenhall Market - shall be the second tallest inhabitable building west of the Urals.

In another world of long ago - the world of our then enemies - Richard Schirrman was in a German regiment holding a position in the mountains of the Vosges and wrote an account of military fraternisation in December 1915. This would be the last year of the Great War when such events occurred:

When the Christmas bells sounded in the villages of the Vosges behind the lines ..... something fantastically unmilitary occurred. German and French troops spontaneously made peace and ceased hostilities; they visited each other through disused trench tunnels, and exchanged wine, cognac and cigarettes for Westphalian black bread, biscuits and ham.

Though military discipline was subsequently restored Schirrman would never forget the incident and reflected upon the hope that "thoughtful young people of all countries could be provided with suitable meeting places where they could get to know each other." He went on to found the German Youth Hostel Association in 1919 - the first of its kind in the world.

Five years after the end of the Great War Werner Heubeck was born in Nuremburg. During the thirties he was a member of the Hitler Youth and during the war served in the Hermann Goering division of the Luftwaffe and the Afrika Korps. He moved to Northern Ireland in the year of my birth to manage the Ulster Transport Authority buses and is remembered to this day for personally boarding them during the worst years of the Troubles to singlehandedly remove bombs planted by the IRA. Despite the huge targeting of buses during the civil disorders Heubeck's leadership and belief in keeping services running to schedule represented another fundamental toehold on normality for a country at war - 800 of the 1,300 fleet being destroyed.

Today we truly live in brand new times with brand new priorities - never has so much been lost forever for the sake of so few.