The Battle of the Somme began on 1 July 1916 in the high expectation of a major victory that would bring the carnage of the First World War to an end. By the time it petered out in the rain and snow of the following November, more than one million soldiers from both sides had died without making any appreciable alteration in the opening position. Among the dead were over 3,500 Irish soldiers, with many more wounded. This large loss of life was made even more horrendous by its occurrence within the short space of the first day of the Battle and two days in the following September. In particular, the 5,500 casualties of the 36th Ulster Division on 1 July were men drawn almost entirely from one community in the province of Ulster. Nearly 2,000 soldiers from cities, towns, villages and town lands of the North were killed in the first few hours of fighting, an event which seared itself into the folk memory of their community. In a continuation of the same battle, the 16th Irish Division had 4,330 casualties in September, of whom 1,200 were killed. These came mainly from the other three provinces. Added to these were the Irish soldiers who fought in other divisions as part of the regular army or in the newly raised battalions. The total number of Irish casualties cannot be calculated with certainty but they affected every part of the island and continue to have an influence on the evolution of Irish politics.
Prior to the Battle
The line of trenches that stretched from the Belgian coastal town of Nieuport to the French/Swiss border was visible evidence of the stalemate that had existed on the Western Front since the autumn of 1914. In February, 1916, the British and French commanders-in-chief agreed to launch a joint offensive astride the river Somme at the start of July. The German attack on Verdun in February forced the French to divert troops intended for the Somme to prevent the loss of the historic town. The need to relieve the pressure on Verdun grew but the French could only now provide five of the twenty-seven divisions which were to take part in the offensive. The objective was to pierce the German front line system at a known strong sector and to allow two cavalry divisions to push through the gap opened by the infantry to create havoc in the German rear. As part of the preparation, the British had placed 17 mines under major German fortifications, to be exploded at the start of the attack.
During 1915, the Germans had constructed a defensive line of barbed wire systems, deep underground concrete dugouts and strong points, known as redoubts, along their front line north of the Somme. In order to remove these obstacles, the British and French began an intensive artillery barrage on 24 June 1916. Over the following eight days, approximately 1.7 million shells were fired at the German positions opposite the British front line. About one-third of the shells failed to explode due to faulty fuses and consequently the bombardment failed to achieve its objective. This failure enabled the German defenders to take full advantage of excellent positions on higher ground when the British infantry attacked.
The plan envisaged the major objectives being achieved in hours. There were no alternative arrangements if the attack did not succeed.
The First Day
No opposition was expected when 100,000 soldiers emerged from their trenches at 7.30 am to walk across No Man’s Land. Along 23 km stretch of front line, they advanced in the bright daylight of a midsummer morning at a walking pace, as instructed, in straight lines with 90metres between each assault wave. They were met with a hail of machine-gun fire and most did not reach the German line. There were 60,000 casualties, of whom almost 20,000 were killed, before the attack was halted around noon.
One of the outstanding feats on that day of failure, carnage and death, was the success of the 36th (Ulster) Division in capturing their German front line objectives, including the supposedly impregnable Schwaben Redoubt opposite Thiepval Wood. Raised from the Ulster Volunteers, this was the largest unit of Irish soldiers to fight on that day, consisting of nine battalions of the Royal Irish Rifles, three of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and one of the Royal Irish Fusiliers. With conspicuous bravery and disregard for personal safety, the Ulstermen broke through the strongest German defences and penetrated deep into the rear positions, taking 500 German prisoners. But due to the failure of the flanking divisions to make progress, the sacrifices of the Ulstermen were in vain and they had to abandon their hard-won positions and return to their starting positions. The losses amounted to 5,500 of whom almost 2,000 were killed. Nearly every community in Ulster had cause to mourn. Four Victoria Crosses were awarded to the Division in one day.
Large numbers of Irish soldiers serving in other divisions had their first and last experience of “going over the top” on that morning. The 1st Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, the 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers and the 1st and 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers suffered heavily in an attempt by the 29th Division to capture another German strongpoint at Beaumont Hamel which was in a sector neighbouring that of the 36th (Ulster) Division. A tunnel had been dug under the Hawthorne Redoubt but the decision to fire the large store of explosives it contained at 7.20 am gave ample warning to the Germans of the impending attack and allowed them to occupy strong positions around the mine crater before the soldiers came forward. The 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers were in the second wave of the attack, going into battle with 503 men of whom 325 became casualties. The 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers captured the position known as the Quadrilateral but they also had to withdraw due to the isolation of their position.
Of the twelve British infantry divisions that took part in the attack on that day, three had a single Irish Battalion among their ranks. The 1st Royal Irish Rifles crossed No Man’s Land with the 8th Division in the second wave but had its Commanding Officer killed and could go no further. The 2nd Royal Irish Regiment of the 7th Division helped to capture three miles of the German frontline trenches near the village of Mametz. The 2nd Royal Inniskillings Fusilers were in the 32nd Division which was repulsed at Thiepval village suffering 4,000 casualties. This allowed the Germans to concentrate their fire on the 36th (Ulster) Division and force them to withdraw.
The 3,000 men of the Tyneside Irish Brigade who were in the second wave had to advance over one mile of open ground before reaching the front line. They then crossed the 500 yards of No Man’s Land and continued until there were only 50 soldiers left, deep in the German trench system. The valiant effort had cost 2,139 casualties, 620 of whom were in the 1st Battalion.
The final official British casualty list for the 1st of July was 57,470 soldiers killed, wounded, missing or taken prisoner which is about half of those who went into battle. 19,240 were killed or died of wounds. There were two casualties for every yard of the front. The German losses were estimated to be 8,000.
Guillemont and Ginchy
The attempts to drive the German line back continued throughout the summer in a war of attrition. The British frontline was slowly pushed forward but at a great cost. The 16th Irish Division was transferred from the Loos sector in August, having suffered 6,000 casualties of whom 1,496 had been killed.
The Division was composed of seven battalions from Leinster, Munster and Connaught, five from Ulster and the 11th Royal Hampshire Regiment. The 47th Brigade was assigned the task of capturing the German strongpoint at the village of Guillemont. This had withstood repeated attacks since July. On 3 September, the 6th Connaught Rangers, 7th Leinsters and the 8th Royal Munster Fusiliers took the position in a feat of outstanding bravery. Lt. John Holland of the Leinsters was awarded the Victoria Cross. On 9 September, the 48th Brigade, consisting of the 1st Royal Munster Fusiliers, the 7th Royal Irish Rifles and the 8th and 9th Royal Dublin Fusiliers succeeded in taking another heavily fortified German position at Ginchy which is about I km from Guillemont. This was the only success of the British attack on that day which cost 4,330 casualties, including 50% of the officers. Among those killed was the Irish Nationalist MP Tom Kettle, MP, who went into battle leading a company of the 9thRoyal Dublin Fusiliers. Later in the month the 1st and 2nd Irish Guards had very heavy losses in the same area.
The Battle of the Somme finally came to an end in November 1916. During the final attack on the 13th, the 10th Royal Dublin Fusiliers helped to capture Beaumont Hamel, one of the objectives for the first day. It had 50% casualties.
The final figures came to 420,000 British, 200,000 French and 660,000 German casualties. Verdun was saved but the Battle of the Somme resulted in negligible gains of German occupied land and offered little or no strategic value to the progress of the Allied campaign.
The news of the large numbers of Irish casualties on the Somme reached an Ireland already in turmoil following the Easter Rising and its aftermath.
Early in 1917, the Germans withdrew to the Hindenburg Line thus negating the sacrifices made on the Somme. In March 1918, the Germans swept through all of the gains since July 1916 in their final attempt at victory before the American forces could intervene.
The total number of casualties on the Western Front continued to rise with little prospect of early victory. The reality of war was brought home in the long lists of dead and wounded. The introduction of conscription in Ireland to fill the gaps grew ever more likely. It seemed that the hopes of Tom Kettle would not be realised:
“Used with the wisdom which is sown in tears and blood, this tragedy of Europe may be and must be the prologue to the two reconciliations of which all statesmen have dreamed, the reconciliation of Protestant Ulster with Ireland, and the reconciliation of Ireland with Great Britain.”
Irish Regiments in the Battle of the Somme
|Regiment Name:||Recruiting area:||Battalions|
|The Royal Irish Regiment||Tipperary, Wexford Waterford, Kilkenny|
July: 2nd Battalion
Sept: 6th Battalion
|The Royal Munster Fusiliers||Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Clare||Sept: 1st and 8th Battalions|
|The Connaught Rangers||Galway, Sligo, Mayo,|
|Sept: 6th Battalion|
|The Inniskilling Fusiliers||Omagh, Fermanagh, Donegal, Derry|
July: 1st and 2nd Battalions
Sept: 9th, 10th and 11th Battalions
|The Royal Irish Rifles||Belfast, Down, Antrim, Tyrone|
July: 1st, 2nd, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th Battalions
Sept: 7th Battalion
|The Royal Irish Fusiliers||Monaghan, Armagh, Cavan|
July: 1st Battalion
Sept: 9th Battalion
|The Leinster Regiment||Offaly, Meath, Louth, Laois||Sept: 7th Battalion|
|The Royal Dublin Fusiliers||Dublin, Kildare, Wicklow, Carlow|
July: 1st and 2nd Battalions
Sept: 8th and 9th Battalions
Nov: 10th Battalion
|The Irish Guards||All Ireland||Sept: 1st and 2nd Battalions|
|The Tyneside Irish/ Northumberland|
|Newcastle||July: 1/24th , 2/25th , 3/26th , 4/27th Battalions|
Recruiting areas for the Irish Infantry and Cavalry Regiments 1914
|Regiment Name:||Recruiting area:||Depot:|
|The (18th Foot) Royal Irish Regiment||Tipperary, Wexford Waterford, Kilkenny||Clonmel|
|The Royal Munster Fusiliers||Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Clare||Tralee|
|The Connaught Rangers||Galway, Sligo, Mayo,|
The Inniskilling Fusiliers
|Omagh, Fermanagh, Donegal, Derry|| |
|The Royal Irish Rifles||Belfast, Down, Antrim, Tyrone||Belfast|
|The Royal Irish Fusiliers||Monaghan, Armagh, Cavan||Armagh|
|The Leinster Regiment||Offaly, Meath, Louth, Laois||Birr|
|The Royal Dublin Fusiliers||Dublin, Kildare, Wicklow, Carlow||Naas|
|The Irish Guards||All over Ireland||Chelsea|
|The Tyneside Irish 24th, 25th, 26th, 27th|
Battalions of Northumberland
|The London Irish Rifles||London, Chelsea||Duke of York Barracks|
|The Kings Liverpool Regiment||Liverpool||Seaforth Barracks|
|Mainly only Irish in name The 4th (Royal Irish) Dragoon Guards|
The 5th (Royal Irish) Lancers
The 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons
The 8th (King's Royal Irish) Hussars
| || |
|The South Irish Horse||Southern Ireland||Clonmel|
|The North Irish Horse||Belfast, Down, Antrim, Tyrone, Cavan, Derry, Donegal, Armagh, Monaghan||Belfast|