PRONI: Letters from the Somme trenches

Date published: 01 July 2016

To mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, PRONI has selected as its Document of the Month for July, two letters from soldiers who served in the 36th Ulster Division.

Letter written by Joseph Maxwell Cochrane sent home before the offensive began on July 1st 1916

The first letter written by Joseph Maxwell Cochrane is a final message he managed to send home before the offensive began on July 1st 1916. The second recounts the death of Capt. James Samuel Davidson, who before the war was manager of the Sirocco Works and was killed in action on the terrible first day of the Somme.

Decade of Centenaries Project Officer Iain Fleming said: “I found these two letters particularly striking and affecting as they show how the First World War impacted on all levels of society ‘back home’. Joseph Maxwell Cochrane was a rifleman in 14th Battalion, Royal Irish rifles while James Samuel Davidson was a captain in 13th Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles. One was an ordinary ‘man of the street’ while the other was the son of one of the great mercantile families from this part of Ireland. Both saw it as their duty to serve and both made the ultimate sacrifice.”

In rifleman Cochrane’s letter to his father, he writes: “If anything should happen me try & bear up... You will know what to do with all I have left.... But don’t forget Cissie it would take more than we could give her to repay her for what she has done for us, Money couldn’t & Jack give him some little for all his goodness & kindness. And I would like if you & Cissie would be friendly to the young lady I go with, N.Burnett she is really good & its a great pity of her...’

He finishes the letter by telling his father not to be worrying about him as he will be alright. Rifleman Cochrane survived the terrible first day of the Somme only to be killed in action on the 2nd July 1916.

In the second letter describing the death of Captain Davidson the author describes in some detail the efforts he made on the first day of the Somme and the circumstances of his death as he tried, while wounded, to return to the British Lines. The letter finishes, ‘Was not it a glorious ending to a glorious life. I am sorry I am unable to write you a good letter but even yet I am not myself after what I have come through this last 10 days, and the tears are rolling down the face of your friend and his friend’.

To accompany this month’s Document of the Month PRONI is to release a composite panoramic photograph of the Somme battlefield. Stitched together from more than a dozen individual photographs this image shows a 180 degree angle shot of German positions opposite the British Lines. The photographs were taken by an Irish officer serving in the Royal Artillery and they show villages, trenches, woods and other points of interest that the British army would be attacking. It is available to view on the PRONI website.

Notes to editors: 

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