Thursday, 17 July 2014

Ulster at the Somme - 1st and 2nd Battalions Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers

Seven battalions of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers took part in the Battle of The Somme, 1916. The two Regular Battalions the 1st. and 2nd. were in the 29th. and 32nd. Divisions respectively. The 7th. and 8th. Battalions served with the 16th. (Irish) Division and the 9th. 10th. & 11th. Battalions with the 36th. (Ulster) Division. The story of the Irish Division and the Ulster Division at the Somme is told in the chapters on these two Divisions.

The 1st. Battalion The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers formed part of the 87th. Brigade of the 29th. Division. On 1st July this Bn. was holding the Line in front of the enemy strong-point known as Hawthorn Redoubt between the River Ancre and the strongly defended village of Beaumont-Hamel and was on the immediate left of the 12th. Bn. The Royal Irish Rifles of the 36th. (Ulster) Division. The task assigned to the 29th. Division was to capture the German positions along the ridge between Beaumont-Hamel and the 36th. Division's left, a most hopeless task, as the result proved. The enemy position rose in terrace after terrace of formidable entrenchments set thick with machine-gun posts with a perfect field of fire for hundreds of yards between them and the British front line trench.

At zero (7.30 a.m.) the Inniskillings moved forward in the general attack in lines of Platoons in Single File, immediately they got out of their assembly trenches they were met with a driving rain of machine-gun and rifle fire combined with a mortar and artillery barrage, it seemed impossible that anything could survive in such a cauldron of fire. The men faced the storm unflinchingly, the casualties were terrible and included the Commanding Officer killed with eleven other Officers before they had moved a hundred yards. A mere remnant of the battalion reached the enemy wire, there only to find that the wire had not been cut by our Artillery bombardment, this made further movement impossible. At this point they were met with heavy cross-fire from neighbouring enemy strong-points and what was left of the battalion had to take cover as best they could in the shell holes, movement in any direction being impossible. It was quite impossible to bring up reserves and eventually the whole 87th. Brigade, or what was left of it was compelled to retire, this in itself was a hazardous undertaking, and by the time they had returned to their own trenches many more casualties resulted. The casualties in the Inniskillings were desolating for that day, amounting in all, to 549 killed, wounded and missing. From the beginning the venture was a hopeless task, but the men put all they had into it and yet not a yard was gained.

The Battalion remained in reserve in this area until brought up to strength by drafts from home and in a couple of weeks moved north to Hazebrouck and the Ypres Salient. During the first week in October the battalion returned to the Somme Area and went into the Line in the Montauban Sector but took no part in any further major operation until the Somme Battle ended.

The 2nd. Battalion was in the Line on 1st July as part of the 96th. Brigade 32nd. Division. Their sector was immediately in front of Thiepval Village and on the right of their three sister battalions in the Ulster Division, the 9th. 10th. & 11th. Their allotted task was to advance in support of the two leading battalions of the Brigade. At 7.30 a.m. on that fateful morning the heavy British bombardment of the German positions suddenly ceased, and the air fell suddenly still, that moment of silence, seemed to some a year as the leading infantry left their trenches and moved forward. In common with the whole front they were immediately met with a murderous fire from everything the enemy had got, and although a little ground was gained the attack did not prosper. Three Companies of the Inniskillings were moved forward to the assistance of the leading battalions of English Infantry who had sustained terrible casualties and were being pinned down by the heavy machine-gun fire from the Thiepval Fortress. A little ground had been gained north of the village and the Division on the immediate left, the 36th. (Ulster) Division had made good progress. Shortly after mid-day an attack by all the available force of the Brigade was made from the positions gained in an attempt to turn the enemy flank at Thiepval, but all was in vain. The murderous fire from the enemy machine-guns made it impossible to advance a yard and due to the appalling casualties the whole of the 96th. Brigade was in effect out of the battle. During the afternoon units of the 49th. Division, whose role was to move in support of the 32nd. & 36th. Divisions, were sent forward to try and fill the gap which now existed between the left wing of the 32nd. Division and the right of the Ulster Division but nothing decisive was the result. The 2nd. Inniskillings during the rest of the day held trenches in the right rear of their three sister battalions in the Ulster Division. In spite of heavy casualties inflicted by enemy bombers and continuous machine-gun fire from the Thiepval Fortress the battalion held on to their positions throughout the night and all the next day. With the remnants of their Brigade they were relieved on the morning of the 3rd July.

After a few days out of the line the battalion was back in the trenches again, this time in font of the Ovilliers-La Boiselle sector, further to the right of Thiepval. Here on 9th July it went into the attack on a series of enemy trenches in front of Ovilliers which had resisted all efforts at capture since the opening of the battle on 1st. Advancing with great dash and resolution the battalion overran, captured and consolidated two lines of hostile trenches in their immediate front. Determined enemy counter-attacks followed in quick succession throughout the day but all efforts on the part of the Germans were held off with severe loss to the enemy. Again on the 13th July the 2nd. Inniskillings together with the 17th. H.L.I. went into the attack in an effort to extend their gains of a few days earlier, but this attack did not prove so successful as that on the 9th., casualties were so heavy in both Officers and Men that they could not hold on to the positions reached and were compelled to retire to their start point. The Battalion somewhat depleted in numbers were relieved in the front line on July 14 and were to take no further part in the Somme fighting.

To be continued...

The above text is taken from a typed manuscript which was written in 1966 and was signed with the initials W.A.S. If anyone knows who the original author was I would like to hear from you so that it can be properly attributed.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Ulster at the Somme - The 16th (Irish) Divison

The 16th. (Irish) Division raised in Ireland at the outbreak of the 1914-18 War included no fewer than Seven Ulster Battalions, each of approximately 1,000 men, viz;  7th. and 8th. Bns. The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, 7th. Bn. The Royal Irish Rifles and the 7th. and 8th. Bns. The Royal Irish Fusiliers. As well as this the Division included the 6th. Bn. The Connaught Rangers which included over 600 Ulstermen recruited, in the greater part, in Belfast.

This Division made a great name for itself during the war and on several occasions fought side-by-side with the 36th. (Ulster) Division, notably at the Battle of Messines, June, 1917.

It was however at the Battle of the Somme 1916 in the assaults on the villages of Guillemont and Ginchy in September 1916 that the Division is most prominently identified. The 49th. Brigade, comprising the two Inniskilling Battalions and the two Irish Fusilier Battalions and the 47th and 48th. Brigades, the latter including the 7th. Bn. The Royal Irish Rifles, attacked the fortified village of Guillemont, situated close to the junction of the French and British Armies and therefore of great importance from a tactical point of view. Its capture was the most important achievement of the British Army since the taking of Pozieres. It was the last unconquered position in the old German Second defensive system between Mouquet Farm (near Thiepval) and the junction of the French and British Armies near Combles.

The conditions in which the Irishmen had to advance were appalling, the whole of this area was a scene of complete desolation and odious mud, churned up by continuous British bombardment during many unsuccessful attacks on this stubborn bastion since the battle of the Somme opened on 1st July. Movement over the ground in such conditions required a supreme effort apart altogether from the fierce hurricane of machine-gun and artillery fire which the enemy brought to bear on the advancing troops. Nevertheless the advancing Fusiliers and Riflemen hacked their way forward with great determination and traditional Irish dash in spite of the most severe casualties and drove the Germans from their positions, inflicting heavy loss on the defenders and taking many prisoners. A fierce enemy counter-attack on the newly won position in Leuse Wood was decisively beaten off by the two Inniskilling Battalions and the whole of the newly won line firmly held. The newly won ground had to be defended stubbornly for the next few days against many hostile onslaughts, the enemy realised he had lost as important key position and put in great efforts to regain the position lost to the Irishmen.

On September 9th, the 14th. Division again greatly distinguished itself by capturing the closely neighbouring village of Ginchy in an equally brilliant fashion. The attack was delivered during the afternoon of the 9th, and was one of the few successful attacks in a large scale British attempt at further advance. The Ulstermen of the Inniskillings, the Irish Fusiliers and the Rifles advanced with great determination through a fierce barrage of enemy fire so intense as to suggest that not even an insect could have survived in that hell of fire and death. The 47th. Bde, suffered terrible casualties during the assault and the 49th. Bde, moving forward in support came in for heavy punishment from the German Artillery and heavy machine-gun fire. The 7th. Rifles in the 48th. Brigade met with similar stubborn fierce resistance but not only did they capture their objective but a young Rifles Officer rallied a composite party of Dublins, Munsters and Rifles and led them through the village to the second, supporting, enemy position. Although they captured this position and dealt with the defenders who did not manage to escape, they found themselves too far forward and in an exposed position, the young subaltern very wisely led them back to the conforming British Line.

The capture of the German defence system at Ginchy was followed by a magnificent attack at short notice by the two Irish Fusilier Battalions on the enemy position north of Combles. This point was causing a lot of trouble to our troops in the newly won trenches and well did the "Faughs" eliminate the cause.

Some idea of the severity of the fighting in which the Ulster Brigade and the 7th. Rifles had come through may be judged from the fact that their casualties ran into four figures, but although the price was high an important and far reaching victory had been won.

The 24th. Division was shortly afterwards taken out of the line ato reorganise and a few weeks of afterwards found it with the Second Army in Flanders alongside the 36th (Ulster) Division. Here both Divisions were to remain until they, side-by-side, carried all before them in that brilliant and most perfect battle of the whole war - The Battle of Messines.

To be continued...

The above text is taken from a typed manuscript which was written in 1966 and was signed with the initials W.A.S. If anyone knows who the original author was I would like to hear from you so that it can be properly attributed.

Image: 16th (Irish) Division Christmas Card

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Ulster at the Somme - The 36th (Ulster) Division

The 10th Corps consisted of the 32nd. Division, the 36th. (Ulster) Division and in support the 49th. Division. The 36th.Division embraced 3 Battalions of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, 9 Battalions of the Royal Irish Rifles and one battalion of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, each battalion about 1,000 strong. These battalions in three Brigades, 107th. 106th. and 109th. each of four battalions, together with One Battalion of Pioneers (16th. R.I.R), Divisional Artillery, Field Companies of the Royal Engineers, Army Service Corps and Field Ambulances, all volunteers and all Ulstermen.

The Ulstermen's front lay astride the River Ancre and along the lower slopes of Thiepval Ridge as far as the southern edge of Thiepval Wood. Facing its centre was the strongly fortified village of St.Pierre Divion and the notorious Schwaben Redoubt (the most formidable on the whole front) with the Stuff Redoubt supporting these two. The whole of this front was well covered by heavy machine-guns firing from Thiepval Village on the right and the fortified villages of Beaucourt and Beaumont-Hamel on the left, all supported with a great concentration of artillery of all calibres.

Shortly after dawn on the morning of Saturday 1st July every gun on a front of 25 miles was firing. The roar was incessant and quite indescribable, at eight minutes before zero hundreds of Stokes Mortars joined in with a hurricane bombardment of 30 rounds a minute on the German defences. At 7.30 a.m. wave after wave of British Infantry roso and with bayonets glistening in the morning sun moved forward as the hurricane barrage lifted to the German second line, the air was filled with smoke and mist in the trail of the great barrage. The Ulstermen carried all before them and immediately overran the German first and support line. Within half-an-hour the 9th Inniskillings of the 109th. Brigade weer in the enemy Second Line and were sending back prisoners. By 8.30 a.m. the 109th. Brigade after very fierce hand-to-hand fighting captured and firmly established themselves in the supposedly impregnable Schwaben Redoubt. On their immediate left the 11th. and 13th. Rifles advanced rapidly and before 9 a.m. were before the Hansa Line protecting the Thiepval-Grandcourt Road. It was most unfortunate for them that St. Pierre Divion had not been captured and was already being bi-passed by these two Rifle battalions. The 12th. Rifles and the 9th. Irish Fusiliers across the Ancre on their left, after an initial success were held up by the vicious machine-gun fire from Beaucourt and Beaumont-Hamel and the failure of the 29th. Division attack on the fortress of Beaumont-Hamel and the rising ground on their immediate front. The machine-gun posts at St. Pierre Divion wrought havoc in the ranks of the 108th. Brigade, the 12th. Rifles and the 9th. Irish Fusiliers were pinned down when they reached the enemy first line, and suffered terribly, the latter lost practically all their officers. A similar fate befell the 11th. and 13th. Rifles but in spite of the terrible casualties these two battalions, or what was left of them continued their advance to the outskirts of Grandcourt (this village was not to be entered again until after the fall of Beaumont-Hamel on 15th November). This produced a dangerous and exposed position for them, being fired on from both flanks and indeed their rear. The 107th. Bde. (Belfast) advancing in support of the two leading Brigades were now advancing through the positions captured by the two leading Brigades and were now attacking the Stuff Redoubt, a strongly fortified and stubbornly held enemy strong point in the German 3rd. Line. Near the spot called the Crucifix the 11th. Inniskillings and the 14th. Rifles (YCV) found themselves being machine-gunned and plastered with mortar fire from their rear and suffered terribly. German machine-gunners and mortar crews who had sheltered in the deep cellars during the heavy British bombardment now, it must be admitted with great gallantry, came up out of their caverns to fire into the rear of the advancing infantry. No-Man's-Land became a ghastly spectacle of dead and wounded. The 15th. Rifles of the 107th. Brigade were now in the Stuff Redoubt and set about dealing with numerous machine-gun nests who had emerged from their hiding places, the scene can only be described as bloody in the fierce hand-to-hand fighting which ensued and many were the acts of extreme gallantry, most of which passed unrecorded. The hurricane of machine-gun fire from the fortress of Thiepval, which had unfortunately not been captured by the 32nd. Division on the right, played havoc among the ranks of the 8th. 9th. and 10th Rifles as they moved forward in support of the advanced positions gained by the leading battalions, in spite of the awful carnage they continued unfaltering as if on parade. The 10th. Rifles suffered terribly and lost their Commanding Officer who was killed leading his battalion to the assault. Colonel Bernard was the only battalion commander killed on this day, as Commanding Officers were expressly forbidden to accompany their battalions in the assault and were ordered to control the advance of their respective units from their battle headquarters, no explanation is forthcoming as to why this C.O. found it necessary to lead his battalion into the attack.

The 107th. Brigade battalions, sadly depleted, reached the final objective together with the remnants of the leading Brigades. Along this, the "D" or Fourth Line, they proceeded to consolidate and establish themselves. Grimly they had to beat of continuous bombing attacks until the late afternoon. Several fighting patrols were sent forward and one such patrol actually entered the notorious Mouquet Farm and found it vacated.

It is now known that about this time the Divisional Commander 36th. Division (General Oliver Nugent) was considering whether to continue the advance into the open country which had now been reached. He had asked Corps Headquarters whether he should halt his advancing Division where they stood in view of the fact that neither of the Divisions on hos flanks had gained a yard. The reply was that a new and more forceful attack would be made on Thiepval Village and also on his left towards Beaumont-Hamel. He was assured that a Brigade of the 49th. Division was being sent to his support and that he should continue his advance as was the original plan. This order from Corps. HQ., however, was cancelled ¾ of an hour later. His advance forward had already begun and every effort was made to halt the advancing troops, but as communication was extremely difficult the message arrived too late. The job of communication had to be done by runner and the process was a very long affair, fortunate was he who crossed than zone of death unscathed. Of those who went forward in the advance into open country few returned to tell the story, as they ran into masses of enemy reinforcements moving forward to heal the breach made in their line by the Ulstermen. The Fourth Line was held, however, against all onslaughts by handfuls of determined men in the hope that the promised reinforcements would arrive, unfortunately this was not to be. The Ulster Division in spite of the fact that more than half its strength were now casualties held in their grasp the promise of a great and far-reaching victory if the breach which they had made in the strongest part of the enemy defence system could have been put to use. Some 5,000 Ulstermen, though closely wedged in all round by the enemy but thrust well into the enemy line, constituted what could have been the pivot for both wings of the British Line to move forward in the attack, but for some never explained reason nothing was done about it. The Thiepval spur was undoubtedly the German key position and when eventually in the month of October and early November it was finally captured the whole German Line was compelled to retire some distance and eventually as the newly won British positions made the enemy line untenable the whole German Army in the Somme sector retired "according to plan" to the Hindenburg Line 30 miles away. Unfortunately the British casualties in the Somme battles since 1st July had passed the 250,000 mark.

Meanwhile the situation had grown considerably worse for the already sorely tried Ulstermen in the forward zone of the deep salient which they had created. After beating off continuous hostile counter-attacks throughout the remainder of the day of July 1st by German bombers coming up from Thiepval in their right-rear and from Grandcourt on their left and with ammunition and supplies practically run out the situation became desperate. Officers in the advanced positions had observed through their field-glasses trainloads of German Reserves arriving beyond Grandcourt during the evening. A large scale counter-attack was launched by these enemy reinforcements at dusk and drove our exhausted men back into the 2nd. Line which they had overrun earlier that morning. The northern end of the Schwaben Redoubt was again in German hands. During the night of 1st/2nd July three battalions from the 148th. Brigade, 49th. Division were at last put at the disposal of the 36th. Division with the object of re-taking the Schwaben Redoubt and attacking Thiepval Village from the rear with the assistance of the remnants of the 107th. and 109th. Brigades. But alas at 1 a.m. two of these battalions had not arrived and the venture had to be called off. The near exhausted troops holding on grimly to the 2nd. Line had to beat off more enemy attacks throughout the night, but the Line held, and a number of prisoners were taken. The sadly depleted units in the line now held had to fight off vicious enemy attacks all through the second day and no further relief came. Casualties mounted and many who had survived the previous day's onslaught lost their lives due to the terrible artillery and mortar fire brought to bear upon them. The problem of reinforcing and supplying the units in the forward positions was fraught with danger due to the ever narrowing width of the salient held. Several parties of the 16th. Rifles (Pioneers) with supplies of bombs ammunition and water very gallantly went through the hellish enemy barrage in support of the men holding on grimly to the southern end of the Schwaben Redoubt and joined in in the defence with their hard pressed comrades.

That night, Sunday 2nd July, the Ulster Division was relieved by the 49th. Division, the relief was complete by 10 a.m. on the morning of the 3rd July when the battle scarred and weary remnants of the gallant Ulster Division, less than half the numbers who went "over-the-top" on the morning of 1st July, marched into the Martinsart Area and immediately flung themselves down to sleep.

Mention must be made of the supporting troops of the Ulster Division. All gave of their best in support of the heroic effort of the infantry. The Divisional Artillery under most trying conditions and continuous bombardment carried out their task in the true tradition of the British Gunner. The wire in front of all four German Lines was well out when compared with other parts of the battle front. This was in no small measure why the infantry was able to advance with such speed. It should here be mentioned that a Regiment of French Artillery also supported the Ulster Division during the assault and no doubt added considerably to the success of the effective role played by the artillery on this sector of the front. The Royal Engineers, who suffered severely, showed devotion to duty of the highest order regardless to the pounding they took from the enemy barrage of shell and bullet. The Field Ambulances worked unceasingly and heroically in their work of succour for the wounded and the dying. The Army Service Corps Supply Columns gave of their best in their vital supporting role and in common with other supporting elements suffered severe casualties. In all it can truthfully be said that the Division worked well in this their first major, and perhaps greatest, ordeal. All ranks from the highest down had acquitted themselves in the traditional fighting spirit of their race and in the best traditions of the famous Ulster Regiments to which they belonged.

The Ulster Division's assault on Thiepval Ridge and along the Ancre Valley though carried out with brilliant dash and complete success on the opening day and well into the second day and alone of all the divisions in the Northern Sector had taken all their objectives and held on to them for a day-and-a-half their success was not exploited. They had created a deep narrow salient 3,000 yards in depth and approximately half that distance in width, they had overrun and captured the most formidable and reputedly impregnable positions on the whole Western Front and inflicted severe casualties on the enemy, but the Divisions on both their flanks failed to make any movement forward leaving the strongly fortified village of Thiepval and the Leipzig Redoubt on their right and the fortresses of Beaumont-Hamel and Beaucourt on their left unconquered. In spite of this the situation created by the advance of the Ulstermen could have undoubtedly been exploited if someone with the initiative of a Montgomery or a Patton had been there and decided to infiltrate reinforcements into the large gap made in the hostile line, however, the word infiltration had not yet crept into the British military vocabulary and nothing was done and a great opportunity was lost. Haig as a cavalryman had an obsession for cavalry and had taken the Cavalry Units, who for over eighteen months had been used as Infantry in the trenches, out of the trenches and assembled a Cavalry Corps comprising three Cavalry Divisions at some distance behind the front attacked, in the hope of a breakthrough - but this was wishful thinking - Cavalry had long since ceased to fit into the pattern of modern war and the "Tank" was still on the secret list. In any case it would have been quite impossible for horses to make their way across the deep trench systems deeply shell-pocked and covered with forests of barbed-wire entanglements running to a depth of two or three kilometres before the open country was reached. No cavalry could have advanced in face of the thousands of enemy machine-guns which faced the British advance. Why then was the Cavalry not allowed to remain dismounted as Infantry and take their place in the general assault, three further supporting divisions would have been very useful as things turned out.

As previously mentioned, what remained of the 36th. Division was taken out of the line on the morning of the 3rd July and placed in reserve around Martinsart, a few days later it was taken further back to reorganise in the Bernaville area. The Divisional Artillery, the Royal Engineers and the 16th. Royal Irish Rifles (Pioneers) remained in the line to carry on their hazardous duties in support of other divisions. On July 12th the Division less Artillery received orders to move to Flanders.

So ended the 36th (Ulster) Division's first great ordeal. It had cause to be proud of the valiant part it played in this the greatest battle the world had ever seen. Against immense difficulties and the most formidable defences, both Officers and Men had shown the highest degree of personal courage and had won for themselves and their Province a proud place in history. This, alas, was achieved only at a terrible cost in young lives, the Division lost 5,553 Officers and Men in the two days they were in action and practically every home in Ulster was thrown into mourning. We can do no better than end the story of the Ulster Division at the Somme than with Winston Churchill's famous words to the men of the IV Army after the battle ended: "Unconquerable by death, which they had conquered, they have set up a monument of native virtue which will command the wonder, the reverence and the gratitude of our island people so long as we endure as a nation of men".

To be continued...

The above text is taken from a typed manuscript which was written in 1966 and was signed with the initials W.A.S. If anyone knows who the original author was I would like to hear from you so that it can be properly attributed.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Ulster's part in the Battle of the Somme, 1916

Ulster has reason to be proud of the part played by her sons in the Great War of 1914-1918 and particularly so during the great Battle of The Somme fought 50 years ago this year. Men and women of all creeds and classes joined up in the services in their tens of thousands. No fewer than 75,000 men voluntarily enlisted in the Army alone between August, 1914 and November 1918 and many thousands joined the Navy and Merchant Navy. Of these numbers over 50,000 were given by the City of Belfast, a truly magnificent record.

The establishments of the three Ulster Infantry Regiments was enormously increased as was the strength of the other Ulster recruited regiments. The pre-War strength of the three Ulster Infantry Regiments was two Regular Battalions each and seven Special Reserve Battalions, in support of the regulars. On the call for volunteers to fight for King and Country the Ulster Regiments were increased as follows:--
             The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers 13 Bns.
             The Royal Irish Rifles (now R.U.R) 21 Bns.
             The Royal Irish Fusiliers 11 Bns.

Other Ulster Regiments and Corps which greatly increased and played an outstanding part in the war were:-
             6th. Inniskilling Dragoons (now 5th. Innis. Dragoon Guards)
             5th. Royal Irish Lancers (now 16th/5th. Royal Lancers)
             8th. Royal Irish Hussars (now Queens Royal Irish Hussars)
             North Irish Horse
             36th. Div. Artillery (153rd. 154th. 172nd. 173rd. Bdes.)
             36th. Divisional Royal Engineers (121-122nd. 150th. Field Coys)
             36th. Divisional Signal Company
             The Irish Guards (a large proportion recruited in Ulster)
             The Machine Gun Corps (107th. 108th. 109th. Bde. M.G. Coys)
             36th. Div. Train & Supply Column, Army Service Corps.
             108th. 109th. & 110th. Field Ambulances, R.A.M.C.
             48th. Mobile Section Army Veterinary Corps.

Many hundreds of men joined other Irish and cross channel units, particularly: The Connaught Rangers (two-thirds of the 6th. Bn. The Connaught Rangers was recruited in West Belfast), The Royal Irish Regiment (several hundreds were recruited in Derry & Tyrone) and several hundred Ulstermen were already serving with the 6th. Black Watch, T.A.). All this in addition to the several thousand men who were serving as Regulars and Special Reserve and the many Army Reservists who were called to the colours on mobilisation.

During the Great War Ulstermen were awarded thousands of decorations of varying kinds for gallantry in action. Amongst these awards no fewer than 23 Victoria Crosses were won by Ulstermen, of these 9 were won in the Ulster Division - four of them on 1st July, 1916.

This is indeed a splendid and imposing record for a small area the size of Ulster and one of which all Ulstermen may well be proud.


1st July to 18th November, 1916

The Allies had been at war with Germany and the Central Powers for just under two years, the opposing armies had "gone to ground" in the early winter of 1914. The old British Regular Army as we knew it had long since disappeared in a war of attrition in its most ghastly form. The French had been bleeding to death for months in the immortal defence of Verdun and the German Army sat tight in their formidable, self chosen, defensive positions of elaborate trench systems, fortified villages and woods. Something had to be done to relieve the pressure on our French Allies - to quote Winston Churchill - "All the spring of 1916 the French had been battling and dying at Verdun, immolating their manhood upon the anvil-altar; and every chivalrous instinct in the new British Armies called them to the succour of France, and inspired them with sacrifice and daring". This was the situation confronting the British Commander-in-Chief (General Sir Douglas Haig) when he decided in collaboration with the French Commander-in-Chief (Marshal Joffre) that we should take the offensive for the first time since the war began.

The Allied Commanders selected as the point of their offensive what was undoubtedly the strongest and most perfectly defended position along the whole length of the Western Front. They were certain that if the enemy could be defeated here he would be more disheartened than being overcome on some easier battleground.

The point to be assailed was the high ground astride the River Somme extending for some 45 Kilometres from a point near Sommecourt on the left, to Maricourt on the right, as the British Sector; thence further south to a point just south of Chaulnes as the French Sector. We are concerned here only with the destinies of the British Army but with special reference to the part played by the various Ulster Regiments throughout the long drawn out series of battles lasting some four-and-a-half months from 1st July to 18th November, 1916 and referred to as the Battle of The Somme.

The British IV Army, commanded by General Sir Henry Rawlinson, comprised six Army Corps, the 7th. 8th. 10th. 3rd. 15th. and 13th. in line in that order from the left. Sir Douglas Haig decided that the 7th. Corps should carry out a subsidiary attack, only, in front of of Sommecourt on the left flank. The German intelligence, it is now known from records, were fully aware that a large scale offensive was pending, but they mistakenly misjudged the actual point of the attack as being between Vimy Ridge just north of Arras to the southern tip of the Thiepval Spur near La Boiselle, and it was along this sector that, we now know, that the enemy had laboured unceasingly for months to considerably strengthen the many Redoubts and Fortified Villages and no pains were spared to render these defences impregnable, it was along this sector that he had deployed his best and most thickly concentrated forces. The first and second defensive systems each consisted of several deep trenches, out into the chalky countryside and well provided with the most elaborate dug-outs as safe shelters against bombardment. The front of each system was well protected by elaborate wire entanglements, many of them in two belts, forty yards wide, built of iron stakes interlaced with vicious barbed-wire almost as thick as a man's finger. The labyrinths of deep bob-proof shelters surrounded each fortified position and were used to provide safe cover for the hundreds of heavy machine-guns and mortars and their crews during bombardment. Some of these dug-outs were in the stories and were of the most elaborate nature. Each strong-point was self contained and its heavy armament of heavy machine-guns cunningly concealed and sighted to bring mutual support by enfilade and flanking-fire to fire to their neighbouring garrisons. Supporting artillery and mortars were similarly arranged to produce the most effective cross-fire.

This was the situation confronting the 8th. Corps facing the Serre-Beaumont Hamel Sector and the 10th. Corps Sector astride the Ancre Valley and facing the formidable Thiepval Ridge. South of La Boiselle in the sectors Fricourt, Mametz, Montabaun and a dozen more villages attacked by the British and French the enemy was taken at a disadvantage.

To be continued...

The above text is taken from a typed manuscript which was written in 1966 and was signed with the initials W.A.S. If anyone knows who the original author was I would like to hear from you so that it can be properly attributed.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

The Oul Irish Fire Brigade

'Twas a stormy winter evenin' at the back en' o' the year.
We were sittin' at the station, smokin pipes and dhrinkin' beer.
When a telephone message came along the private wire.
That the Fire Brigade was wanted for the village was on fire.

So we begged a box o' matches, an the engine fires we lit,
An' we had a glass o' whisky when the wather boiled a bit.
We borrowed Mickey's oul blind horse that didn't shy at light.
An' well within three hours we'd set out, the flames to fight.

Now, Mickey's was an oul'ish horse, and sure he's quite forgot.
The way a horse should gallop, an' he'd never learned to trot;
He had a funny gait with him, an action all his own.
'Twas somethin' between walkin' slow, an' leavin' it alone.

That's how he went on level groun', but when he had to clim',
Av coorse we all got out to help the craythur ivery time;
We used to tie him on behin' when goin' down a hill,
For fear we overtook him. He was best at standin' still.

That's why at fires we always sent a lad in front to say
They might expect us any time, for we were on our way,
We hadn't got far on our way when we shouted out "Bedad.
It's Mrs Dooley's shanty, an' the chimney's smokin' bad."

An' Mrs Dooley, decent sowl, was stannin' at the door;
We swore we'd save the woman's life, if we could do no more.
We didn't go inside for fear the smoke would make us cough,
But we showered on Mrs Dooley till we pumped the water off.

Then Mrs Dooley disappeared she hasn't since been found.
An' some there are who'll tell ye they believe that she was dhrowned.
But we played upon her shanty till we'd washed it clean away.
An' where the pigsty used to be there is a lake this day.

We called on Pat O'Rafferty, an' foun' the boy in bed.
So we woke him up and toul' him he was just as good as dead.
An' he clim'd out o' the windae though he hadnt much to wear.
An' then shinned down the wather spout, while we came down the stair.

By this the population was awake, and cryin' out like mad,
An' throwin' out the windaes ivery blissed thing they had;
'Twas risky work for us below, but with undaunted heart
We picked them up an' hid them safe inside the salvage cart.

There were people sittin' on the roofs o' ivery house in town.
An' so we threw up ropes to them, an' then we pulled them down.
We dived into the cellars: we were boys that knew no fear,
An' we saved ten jars o' whisky an' a cask o' bitter beer.

Then when we reached the lawyer's house he asked us for a match.
Because he was insured an' feared it mightn't catch;
But he wouldn't stan' us anything, and so we hung about
Till he got the fire well alight, an' then we washed it out.

An' then we tried the public house, though it hadn't got alight,
But we went inside the tap-room tae be there in case it might.
They said there was no danger, but we thought at any rate
As precautionary measure that we'd play upon the slate.

So when we'd washed the slate quite clean, an' wiped off all the score,
We spent the night in dhrinkin' there an' runnin up some more:
An' when the score we're running' now has got a little higher,
Well bring the engine roun' again an' have another fire.

While the origin of this rhyme is uncertain it relates to a time when the town commissioners of any sizeable place in Ireland had their own part-time brigade. The horse-drawn vehicles would have had hand pumps. And their crews would often have been the butt of ridicule.

Image: Ballymena steam fire engine and horse drawn manual engine with fire crews. 1908. Any similarity is not intended.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Newry Church Lads' Brigade 1900

Five Years' Service in the Church Lads' Brigade.

By J. H. R.

THE Church Lads' Brigade is an Incorporated Society numbering about 50,000 members, in all parts of the world, and having for its object "the Advancement of Christ's Kingdom among Lads of all classes."

By means of a military discipline and drill, extending if possible over five or six years (or from thirteen to nineteen years of age), it teaches lads to be obedient, punctual, cleanly, and smart. By encouraging healthy and manly exercise it improves their physical condition, and by enforcing attendance at Sunday School and through the teaching of its chaplains, it aspires to lead them to be true Christians. Ends such as these, it is evident, cannot be attained suddenly -- quite the reverse -- the lessons which the Brigade teaches are learnt almost insensibly, and it must be so, if they are to form a part of what is known as one's character; indeed, in the fact that the Brigade is an environment which enters into the daily life of its members, lies its great strength.

During a year about a hundred ordinary parades are held, besides numerous football matches, social club meetings, and drill competitions, with perhaps a week's camp, so that a considerable amount of a member's time is spent in the Brigade, its influence being steadily brought to bear on him till in time its principles become his principles, and its ideals his ideals.

What, then, are the potent influences of the Church Lads' Brigade System? Briefly, Example, Esprit de Corps, and Emulation. Since there is no means of punishment, there are practically no commands; therefore obedience is voluntary; but it would be a mistake to suppose that everything a member is asked to do is pleasant. Frequently he has to undertake duties which are most distasteful. Why, then, does he perform them? If he be a private, probably from force of an example set or from force of habit. If a corporal, sergeant or lieutenant, because it is his privilege to set that example. In the same way habits of cleanliness, punctuality, and smartness are acquired. Much care is taken to cultivate an esprit de corps such as exists among the regiments of the army. Each lad is taught to remember that he is a member first of the great society called the Church Lads' Brigade, and must endeavour to be a credit to it and its uniform, and next by individual good conduct, smart appearance, obedience, and proficiency in drill, he must help to make his company the best in his district.

As all promotion is for good conduct, good drill, good attendance, good character, a healthy spirit of rivalry exists -- each private aspires to be a sergeant, and knows that his promotion depends upon himself; and drill and gymnastic competitions are also frequent, and prizes given, and in these classes there is always keen competition.

It is just five years since the local company of the Church Lads' Brigade was enrolled. During that time many changes have occurred, both in the number and ranks of its members. It is very gratifying, however, to note that of the first six privates enrolled, three now hold the rank of lieutenant, and one of sergeant. The predictions of the then officers with regard to one of those privates were not destined to be fulfilled. "He'll not stay long," said one. " If he does, we'll have nothing but trouble," said another. And at first the lad was troublesome. Slowly, however, he became interested, attended regularly, became steadier, and was made corporal. Since then, by steady stages, he has risen to his present rank -- a good example of the result of five years' service; and only by such lengthened service can lasting and real effect be produced. It is folly to suppose that if a lad is cleaned up and supplied with a cap, belt, and haversack, he is reformed; such a result can only be attained after some years of continuous and careful training.

Such, then, are the benefits a lad may derive from five years' service in the Church Lads' Brigade.

This article was originally published in "The Open Window Illustrated - Literary Annual and Year Book of Local Annals" in 1900 which was centred on the Newry area. 

Newry Catholic Boys' Brigade (1900)


SINCE The Open Window was last published many changes and innovations have occurred, and in this "changing of the old order to give place to new," none is more striking than that presented by the Catholic Boys' Brigade. The brigade was started only six months ago, and what are the results? To-day we find 600 Newry boys banded together in a voluntary association for their moral and physical improvement, amenable to discipline, subject to the orders of their superior officers, and in possession of all the advantages, educational as well as recreative, that could be conferred by a great public school. The Brigade has fife, drum and bugle bands, and an orchestra consisting of three first and two second violins, cello, cornet, piccolo, and concert-flute. Vocal and instrumental contests are held, and every Wednesday night is devoted to amusement, while to vary the programme a Christy Minstrel troupe has been organised, and will give performances throughout the winter.

"Church-parade" of the C. B. B. is already a recognised local function, and is apparently as keen a delight to our townspeople as the old-established Military Service of Sunday. Dressed in their smart uniform (sashes of St. Patrick's blue, and forage-caps banded with the same shade), headed by their bands, they march to the Pro-Cathedral, Hill street, where a special service is held for them. Here it may be mentioned that total abstinence and a monthly approach to the Sacraments are the most stringent rules of the Brigade.

The steps that have been taken to secure for Newry the benefits accruing under the Technical Instruction Act render it reasonably hopeful that the rising generation, through the influences of the Brigade, will be found equipped for the introduction of new industries and all the higher grade systems of trade.

Signal success has marked the efforts in connection with fife, drum and bugle bands, and while every praise is due to the training and tuitional expertness of the conductors (Mr. T. Ruddy and Mr. M. McGuill), no small share must fall to the individual musical aptitude of the boys. Mr. Ennis, too, who is the physical drill instructor, is to be congratulated both on the efficiency of his methods and on the ability of his numerous pupils.

Altogether the C. B. B. presents an object lesson well worthy of imitation, and all the success of the undertaking, its initiation, its working and influences for good are to be ascribed to the unwearying efforts of the president, the Rev. Father E. M'Givern.

This article was originally published in "The Open Window Illustrated - Literary Annual and Year Book of Local Annals" in 1900 which was centred on the Newry area.