Politically, things were shaky between Ireland and England in 1914. Many Irishmen were determined to gain independence from Great Britain, and Irish Nationalists and Unionists were at loggerheads; the Easter Rising was brewing. If ever there was a time when Ireland might have refused to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the rest of Britain during a period of conflict, this was it, but instead the entire Irish population rose magnificently to support the British cause.
First to get themselves sorted were the members of the Ulster Volunteer Force, a Protestant organisation with 80,000 members, formed by Sir Edward Carson, which was strongly against the passing of the Home Rule Bill (calling for independence). The British Government was rather suspicious of this formidable organisation, which, although pro-British, was armed and highly organised. From this one group, 13 battalions were quickly raised for the 3 Ulster-based regiments, the Royal Irish Rifles, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and the Royal Irish Fusiliers. The government’s reservations and the need to train the enthusiastic volunteers meant that they didn’t see action until 1st July 1916 – the first day of the Battle of the Somme. It was a baptism of fire.
As part of X Corps, the 36th (Ulster) Division, along with the 32nd Division and with the 49th (West Riding) Division in reserve, was tasked with progressing through the Thiepval and Authuielle woods near Albert to first take the shattered town of Thiepval, the Leipzig Salient and the St-Pierre-Divion, then the German positions at the Hansa Line, Mouquet Farm and the Schwaben Redoubt, then finally progress to the German stronghold of Grandcourt via the Stuff Redoubt. This progression was to be supported by timed lifts of the heavy guns, carefully pre-planned to coordinate with the infantry advance.
The 109th Brigade got the 36th (Ulster) Division off to a good start by bravely creeping forward towards the first of the three lines of strong German trenches while the British artillery barrage was still underway, then rushing to cut the wire and pour over the walls before the Germans of the 26th Reserve Division had had time to get themselves organised into their proper positions. In this way, the first objective was gained with few losses sustained. They then plunged on to the Schwaben Redoubt, despite encountering strong resistance from the direction of Thiepval.
The trouble began when the 108th and 107th Brigades were both delayed by heavy opposition. Part of the 108th Brigade managed to reach their objective, the Hansa Line, but the rest ran into trouble near St-Pierre-Divion, where they were peppered by enemy machine-gun fire. The 107th Brigade should have been successful, as it transpired that the Stuff Redoubt was largely undefended. A German soldier is quoted in Mark Adkin’s ‘The Western Front Companion’, explaining the brigade’s position: “We had no rifle, no revolver, no grenades, no ammunition, nothing at all; we were purely artillery observers. We would have had to surrender but, then, the English artillery began to fire at our trench; but a great deal of the shells were too short and hit the English infantrymen and they began to fall back. If the English could have got through, they would only have met clerks, cooks, orderlies and such like.”
So, ineffective communication between the infantry and artillery divisions may have sealed the British defeat. Instead of pressing on to Grandcourt, the final objective, the 107th Brigade was forced to halt, then, as the Germans mounted a fierce counter attack, pull back to the Schwaben Redoubt. Much of the ground gained was ultimately relinquished. The price paid for this luke-warm “advance”? In total, 5,104 Irish casualties, with 1,856 of these being killed, not to mention 3,949 32nd Division casualties. Four Victoria Crosses were awarded to Irishmen involved in this action, thanks to the incredible bravery of this assault.
One of these was granted to Captain Eric Norman Frankland Bell, whose exploits were recorded in the London Gazette on 26/09/1916: “For most conspicuous bravery. On 1st July 1916 at Thiepval, France, he was in command of a Trench Mortar Battery, and advanced with the infantry in the attack. When our front line was hung up by enfilading machine-gun fire Captain Bell crept forward and shot the machine-gunner. Later, on no less than three occasions, when our bombing parties, which were clearing the enemy's trenches, were unable to advance, he went forward alone and threw Trench Mortar bombs among the enemy. When he had no more bombs available he stood on the parapet, under intense fire, and used a rifle with great coolness and effect on the enemy advancing to counter attack. Finally he was killed rallying and reorganising infantry parties which had lost their officers. All this was outside the scope of his normal duties with his battery. He gave his life in his supreme devotion to duty.” By the end of the war, the 36th (Ulster) Division had suffered 32,186 casualties, and its members had between them earned no less than 9 Victoria Crosses.
Of course, Ulster did not have a monopoly on Irish heroics, and neither did the Unionists. The Irish National Volunteers, organised by Sir Roger Casement to further the cause of independence from Britain, emptied into the 16th (Irish) Division and 10th (Irish) Division, with many supporters hoping their loyalty would further their cause with the British government. Under the umbrella of these two divisions, the Royal Irish Regiment, the Connaught Rangers, the Leinster Regiment, the Royal Munster Fusiliers, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, the Royal Irish Fusiliers, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and the South Irish Horse were all composed from Irish volunteers. As well, the Irish community of Newcastle made up the 24th, 25th, 26th and 27th (Service) Battalions of the Northumberland Fusiliers. Kitchener had reason to be incredibly grateful to the brave men of Ireland, and in the course of the Great War, they would earn an impressive 22 Victoria Crosses.
Happy St Patrick’s Day!