Irish Soldiers in the Battle of the Somme
The Battle of the Somme, whose 90th anniversary we commemorate this year, started on 1 July 1916 after an eight-day artillery bombardment of the German front lines. Despite 60,000 casualties in one day, no progress was made in the British sector and the battle continued until the following November when the weather intervened. The total number of casualties in the Battle exceeded one million. This included the deaths of some 3,500 Irishmen from all parts of this island. However, to fully understand and do justice to the significance what happened at the Somme, we must look at the overall context of WW1 and its impact on Ireland and on the Irish participants
Irish Soldiers in the First World War
When the Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip fired the shots that killed the heir to the Austrian crown Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife during their state visit to Sarajevo in June 1914, he started a chain of events that would directly affect Irish people in every part of Ireland and some of those living in Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States. The course of Irish history was greatly altered, leading to the emergence of forces that still influence the politics of today. The increased awareness of the Irish aspects of the War have helped to put those forces to positive use by allowing people from the two major traditions to meet on common ground.
Ireland at the Outbreak of the War
By 1914, the political efforts to restore some form of self-government to the Ireland appeared to be achieving tangible results with the passing of the Home Rule Bill at Westminster. The prospects of a Dublin parliament had prompted the Unionist opposition to organise the Ulster Volunteer Force and to import 24,600 rifles and 3 million rounds of ammunition from Germany on 24-25 April, 1914. In response, the Nationalists formed the Irish Volunteers who also imported arms from Germany at Howth albeit only 900 rifles and 25,000 rounds. These unofficial armies openly exercised in military formations bearing arms and with many volunteers wearing their own uniforms.
Ireland has a strong military tradition. Even before the departure of the “Wild Geese” after the Treaty of Limerick, Irish soldiers had practised their profession abroad. The recent exhibition of prints by Albrecht Durer contained a watercolour of “Irish soldiers” from 1521. Throughout the 19th century, the British Army in Ireland provided a convenient outlet for young men interested in soldiering. The country was divided into catchment areas for local regiments which offered regular income, attractive uniforms and the opportunity to travel abroad. Others joined the British navy. Irish emigrants to the United States had won distinction on both sides in the Civil War.
The new volunteer organisations and the Irish Citizen Army drew heavily on army veterans for organisational expertise and training.
Ireland goes to war
When Great Britain declared war on August 4th, 1914, there were some 20,000 Irishmen already serving in the regular British Army with another 30,000 in the first line reserve. The total army strength was 247,000 with 145,000 ex-regular reservists. In contrast to the other major European powers, the British Army relied on volunteer soldiers rather than on National Service. Lord Kitchener, a serving officer who was made Secretary for War on August 5th, informed the Cabinet that it would be a three-year war requiring at least one million men. Thirty new divisions were formed into what became known as the New Armies or Kitchener’s Army. The volunteers were assigned to new battalions of existing regiments of infantry which were given numbers following consecutively on the existing ones. [The word “Service” was added to the battalion number.]Typically, an infantry battalion consisted of 1,000 men. Following huge losses and a decline in volunteers, conscription was eventually introduced in January 1916. It was not applied to Ireland.
The Home Rule Bill was given the Royal Assent on the 18th September 1914 but its operation was suspended for one year or for the duration of the war when it would be reviewed with a view to securing the general consent of Ireland and the United Kingdom. On thethe Nationalist Party, John Redmond, who was widely expected to be the first Prime Minister of the new Irish Parliament, called on the Irish Volunteers to enlist. Irish soldiers in the British Expeditionary Force had already been in action in Flanders. The German advance through Belgium, the rumours of atrocities and refugees and the near capture of Paris had created an emotional atmosphere. The organisation split with those who followed Redmond being called the National Volunteers. About 12,000 of the 180,000 retained the Irish Volunteers title and set themselves the objective of gaining full independence for Ireland, by force if necessary. The peaceful achievement of Home Rule was again in doubt due to the failure of the Government to deal with the build-up of arms in Northern Ireland and the public refusal of a cavalry brigade in the Curragh to enforce Home Rule Act if so requested.
About 80,000 enlisted in Ireland in the first 12 months of the war, some half of whom came from Ulster. The First New Army of 100,000 soldiers, K1, contained the 10th (Irish) Division which was formed in late August, 1914. It had three brigades. One had regiments with bases in all four provinces. The second was based in Ulster and the third was based in the other three provinces. The 16th (Irish ) Division of the Second New Army was formed in September, 1914. One brigade was from the province of Ulster. The 36th (Ulster) Division was authorised on the 28th October 1914. It was based on the formation and membership of the Ulster Volunteer Force to which a London based artillery unit was added. It contained men from all nine counties of Ulster. Redmond had sought have all Irish regiments organised into a single fighting unit.
Irishmen also joined Irish regiments such as the Irish Guards, the London (Irish), the Tyneside battalions of the Northumberland Fusiliers and the 1st/8th (Irish) Kings Liverpool Regiment. Many also joined other English, Scottish and Welsh regiments, the Royal, Artillery, the Royal Flying Corps, the Medical Corps, the Army Service Corps, and the Royal Navy. Women served as nurses in the Voluntary Aid Detachment in the front line. Emigrants enlisted in the armies of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa and United States.
Those who went to fight could not have envisaged the changed world that would exist at the end of the War. The reasons for enlisting were as varied as the individuals. Some joined out of economic necessity. Others had the hope that the experience of serving side by side against a common enemy would forge friendships that would transcend the historic differences. Thomas Kettle, the former Nationalist MP for East Tyrone who served and was killed as a Lieutenant in the 9th Royal Dublin Fusiliers, believed that:
“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.”
Important Irish Episodes in the First World War
The virtual disappearance of the First World War from the version of Irish history taught to the first few generations of the new independent Irish state had the result that few are aware of the extent of the Irish participation in the actual fighting. The concentration on the experience of the 36th (Ulster) Division at the Battle of the Somme in Northern Ireland overshadowed the sacrifice of the Nationalist community.
The following are some episodes that have particular significance for Ireland and form the background discussions about the relevance of the First World War to modern politics.
1914 The First Battles
The British Expeditionary Force entered France in August 1914 and advanced to stop the German advance through Belgium and Northern France. The Irish regiments in the BEF were:
1st Irish Guards
2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers
2nd Royal Munster Fusiliers
2nd Royal Irish Rifles
2nd Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers
1st Royal Irish Fusiliers
2nd Connaught Rangers
2nd Royal Irish Regiment
2nd Leinster Regiment
4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards
South Irish Horse
8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars
5th Royal Irish Lancers
North Irish Horse
Many Irish men were serving in British regiments and there were some English, Scots and Welsh in the Irish regiments who had been so assigned because of their Catholic faith.
The first shot fired by the British Army in the War was discharged by Corporal E. Thomas of the 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards just north of Mons on August 22nd. On the following day, Lt Maurice Dease from Mullingar, who was serving with the Royal Fusiliers, attempted to stop the German advance into the city with his machine gun unit. He died fighting and was awarded the first posthumous Victoria Cross of the War.
The well-trained regular soldiers fought a number of battles but had to retreat in the face of the German thrust. The 2nd Dublins had their first casualties near Le Cateau and the 2nd Munsters delayed the German advance for a day with a costly rearguard action at Etreux.
The Irish prisoners of war were eventually taken to a camp at Limburg where they were visited by Sir Roger Casement in his attempts to raise an “Irish Brigade” which would not be part of the German forces. Less than 60 of the 2000 Irish prisoners in the camp took up the offer.
The German advance on Paris was halted in the Battle of the Marne. The Allied Armies pursued the Germans until both sides took up positions in opposing trenches which eventually stretched for 350 miles from the English Channel to Switzerland.
The Irish regiments were distributed throughout the British sector and began a routine of alternating periods of days in the front line, days in reserve and days in the rear resting. The routine was broken by the major set piece battles in many of which large numbers of Irish soldiers died.
Some Irish soldiers took part in the Christmas Truce of 1914 when there was a spontaneous cessation in the killing for a short period.
The stalemate on the Western Front prompted an alternative approach to defeating Germany. The capture of Constantinople, now Istanbul, would give a direct link to the Russian ally and a successful eastern front campaign could be undertaken. A British Navy attempt to sail up the Dardanelles on March 18 failed with the loss of several ships. Despite the advanced warning that this gave the Turks, the British and French attempted a land invasion on the 25th April. They went ashore at six locations but the Turkish defence held them close to the beaches. A second attempt was made on the 6th August at Suvla Bay but this also ground to a halt. The campaign was abandoned and last of the troops were withdrawn in January 1916. Churchill, who had proposed the campaign, had to resign from the Cabinet. He subsequently lost his seat in the House of Commons and had to wait until outbreak of the Second World War to return to a position of power.
The 1st Battalions of the Royal Dublin, Munster and Inniskilling Fusiliers took part in the landing on April 25th at Cape Helles which was a perfect defensive location with gun emplacements housed on steep slopes. The naval bombardment failed to neutralize the Turkish defences. The Royal Dublin Fusiliers and the Royal Munster Fusiliers were the first to disembark from the S.S. River Clyde and of the first 200 men to leave the ship, 149 were killed and 30 wounded immediately. The Dublins had 25 officers and 987 other ranks but only, one officer and 374 other ranks made it ashore. There were 637 casualties in the first 36 hours.
The Allies decided to launch a fresh attack against the Turks and chose Suvla Bay, 25 miles north of Cape Helles. The first Irish volunteer unit to go into battle was the 10th (Irish) Division which contained the new service battalions of the Irish regiments. As a result of administrative incompetence, the Division’s artillery had been sent to France and the men arrived without either maps or orders. The Division did not fight as a unit. There was a chronic water shortage and the soldiers ran out of ammunition and had to resort to throwing stones at the enemy. At least 3,411 serving with Irish battalions were killed or missing , 569 from the 1st Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers alone.
ST JULIAN, Flanders, May 1915
Near St. Julien, during the second battle of Ypres, the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers suffered near annihilation just one month after the Helles Landings. On May 24th, 1915, around 2.45am, the Germans launched a poison gas attack. The Battalion strength was 666 men. By 9.30 pm, only one officer and 20 other ranks remained.
SALONIKA, October, 1915
On September 29, 1915, the 2,454 strong 10th (Irish) Division set sail from Gallipoli for Salonika to fight on the Bulgarian front. On the 3rd October, the Royal Dublin and Munster Fusiliers were at the front line and were ordered to take the village of Jenikoj which is now in Macedonia. In the attack, they lost 385 men killed, wounded or missing. There is a granite Celtic cross to commemorate the 10th (Irish) Division near the village of Robrovo in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. This complements the ones at Wijtschate in Flanders and Guillemont in France.
HULLUCH, April, 1916
The 16th (Irish) Division arrived in France in December 1915 and was assigned to the Loos sector. The soldiers experienced trench warfare and suffered casualties during each 8-day period in the front line. They were in the trenches at Hulluch when the Germans launched a gas attack on April 27th, 1916. Of the 1980 casualties, 570 were killed and many of the wounded died later from respiratory diseases. The Germans had put up placards opposite the Irish trenches to bring news of the Easter Rising which had begun in Dublin. The Division remained at Loos until August when it moved to the Somme area. The Division had suffered 6,000 casualties (1,496 killed).
THE RISING IN DUBLIN, April, 1916
As the number of casualties continued to rise with little prospect of early victory, the Irish Volunteers continued to train and prepare to resist any attempt to disarm them. The reality of war was brought home in the long lists of dead and wounded which also increased the likelihood of conscription.
When the Rising began on the 24th April, there were about 5,000 soldiers deployed in the Dublin area. An additional 1000 were immediately sent from Belfast and further thousands were dispatched from England. The 4th, 5th and 10th Royal Dublin Fusiliers took part in the fighting as did a number of officers and soldiers who were on leave in Dublin at the time.
It was generally accepted that the Irish Volunteers fought bravely and honourably. Prime Minister Asquith told the House of Commons that “they fought bravely and did not resort to outrage.” The series of executions helped to swing Nationalist support away from the Parliamentary Party and behind Sinn Fein.
THE SOMME, July –November 1916
In an attempt to break the deadlock of trench warfare and to relieve the pressure on Verdun, the British and French launched a major offensive on July 1. The German positions opposite the 14 miles of the British sector had been bombarded with 1.7 million shells since June 24. No resistance was expected when over 100,000 soldiers left their trenches and went forward into no man’s land at 7.30 am. In clear daylight, they advanced at a walking pace in straight lines with 100 yards between each assault wave. They were met with a hail of gunfire which caused 60,000 casualties on that day, of whom almost 20,000 were killed.
The 36th (Ulster) Division’s was assigned a target that included a huge concrete bunker where German troops sheltered, the Schwaben Redoubt. The Division was one of the few that succeeded in gaining its objectives but the soldiers could not hold them due the failures of the other divisions. The losses amounted to 5,500 of whom almost 2,000 were killed. Almost every community in Ulster was affected. Four Victoria Crosses were awarded to the Division.
Irish battalions serving in other divisions took part in the attack on July1. The 1st Royal Dublin Fusiliers, veterans of Gallipoli, went into action in a sector neighbouring the 36th. They had 147 casualties (22 killed) and 64 missing. The 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers were in the second wave of the attack, going into battle with 23 officers and 480 other ranks: 14 officers and 311 other ranks were casualties. The 1st Royal Irish Rifles, 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers, 1st and 2nd Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, 2nd Royal Irish Regiment and the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Tyneside Irish Battalions of the Northumberland Fusiliers fought on that day.
The Battle of the Somme continued throughout the Summer with little progress. The 16th (Irish) Division captured Guillemont on September 2nd and Ginchy on September 9th. Lt Tom Kettle, MP, was killed while leading a company of the 9th Royal Dublin Fusiliers and Lt John Holland of the Leinsters won a Victoria Cross. The Division had 4,314 casualties (1167 killed).
The Battle petered out in November when 10th Royal Dublin Fusiliers, attached to the 63rd Naval Division, helped to capture Beaumont Hamel, one of the objectives for the first day. It had 50% casualties.
MESSINES RIDGE, June 1917
The 16th (Irish) and 36th (Ulster) Divisions went into battle together to take the Belgian village of Wijtschate in the well-planned attack on the Messines Ridge. General Plumer had a scaled model of the Ridge made so troops could see what lay ahead. He had mines dug for explosives beneath German defences. About 3 million shells bombarded Messines for over a week. The barrage eased just before Plumer detonated 9,500 tons of explosives under the Germans in 19 mines. Willie Redmond, M.P. and brother of John, leader of the Irish Party, died of wounds received in the attack.
PASSCHENDAELE, THE 3RD BATTLE OF YPRES, July 1917
The 16th (Irish) and 36th (Ulster) Divisions were transferred to General Gough's 5th Army in July 1917. On 31 July, the 36th (Ulster) Division took part in the opening attack on the strong German positions to the east of Ypres. The heavy rain, which continued for a month, made conditions for an attack impossible. Never-the less, both Irish divisions moved forward at Langemarck on August 16th. 65% of the leading units were lost before the attack due to heavy German shelling. The 36th (Ulster) had 3,585 casualties and the 16th (Irish) 4,231. Fr Willie Doyle, MC, chaplain to the 8th Dublins, was killed.
The 16th (Irish) Division was in action near Arras and the 36th (Ulster) Division near Cambrai in November. The 10th (Irish) Division went to Egypt in September.
THE SOMME 1918 - THE LAST 100 DAYS
The long-expected German offensive began on March 21st and succeeded in driving the British lines back almost to Amiens. The 16th and 36th Divisions received the full weight of the attack and were effectively destroyed as fighting units. The 16th had 6,435 casualties and the 36th had 6,109. A third were killed.
The battalions of 10th and 16th Divisions were amalgamated and distributed to other divisions on the Western Front. For example, the 1st Dublins went to the 29th Division and the 2nd and 7th joined the 31st Division. The 36th Division remained Ulster in name only as replacements were English conscripts. The Irish battalions took part in the advances which drove the Germans back over all of the territory gained during the four years of war. The 2nd Dublins went into battle near Le Cateau on October 16th, suffering 44% casualties within two days. This was where they had first gone into action in August 1914. The First World War ended within a month.
When the soldiers returned to Ireland, they found a changed political climate. The election in December 1918 was a clear endorsement of Sinn Fein outside of the traditional Unionist areas. The sacrifices made in the war were sidelined in the southern provinces whereas the losses at the Somme became part of the heritage of the new Northern Ireland.
Some ex-soldiers joined the IRA, notably Emmet Dalton who had served with Tom Kettle. He is on record as having no difficulty in fighting for Ireland with the British and fighting for Ireland against the British. Others joined the new Irish army.
On June 12th, 1922, the regiments which had been recruited in the new independent Ireland were disbanded. They were:
The Royal Irish Regiment
The Connaught Rangers
The Prince of Wales Leinster Regiment
The Royal Munster Fusiliers
The Royal Dublin Fusilers.
The Colours were received by the King and were laid up in Windsor Castle where they remain
There is no agreement on the total number of Irish soldiers who served in the British Army and Navy in the First World War. Professor Keith Jeffery gives a figure of 210,000. There appears to be a consensus that at least 35,000 died though the figure on the National War Memorial is 49,400.
About 140,000 enlisted in Ireland during the war. The increase in 1918 is worth noting.
|Aug 1914 –Feb 1915||50,107|
|Feb 1915- Aug 1915||25,235|
|Aug 1915 –Feb 1916||19,801|
|Feb 1916- Aug 1916|| 9,323|
|Aug 1916 –Feb 1917|| 8,178|
|Feb 1917- Aug 1917||5,607|
|Aug 1917 –Feb 1918||6,550|
|Feb 1918- Aug 1918||5,812|
|Aug 1918 –Nov 1918 [3 Months]||9,843|
The first year total of Irish recruits exceeded the total of the remaining three years of the War. As the War progressed, Irish losses were replaced by UK conscripts. For example, the percentage of non-Irish soldiers in the 1st Royal Irish Rifles, which was based in Antrim and Down, was 23% in 1916. One year later it was 52%.
As mentioned earlier, Irish soldiers served in other forces.
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, Roscommon, Leitrim||Renmore|
|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 Fusiliers||Newcastle||Alnwick Camp|
|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|
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