Monday, 1 July 2013

The Ulster Division

After the taking of Thiepval

By Qui Vive.

The following graphic description of the great attack by the 36th (Ulster) Division on the 1st July, 1916, on the Somme, is told by an officer who took part in this famous achievement, which resulted in the capture of four lines of the German defences.

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The Ulster Division proceeded on active service in the beginning of October, 1915. By the end of that month one Brigade was already in the trenches of the Serres-Beaumont Hamel sector, having been detached from the Ulster Division and attached to a Regular division then operating in this area.

The conditions prevailing in the trenches of this section were recognised as being amongst the worst to be found in the whole length of the British line. The hardships endured cheerfully by the officers and men of this Brigade during the wet, cheerless days and nights of winter defied adequate description. So thorough, however, had been their training that the wastage from sickness, trench feet, etc., was very slight, and compared favourably with that of the regular soldiers amongst whom they were privileged to find themselves.

When the time came for them to rejoin their own division, the Divisional General, under whose orders they had been acting, testified to his high opinion of their soldierly qualities, and expressed himself satisfied in every way with their performances under his command.

In 1916 the remaining Brigades of the Division, which had been assiduously training some weeks behind the line, joined the Brigade already in the trenches, taking over from the regular division, and prolonging the line of their own Brigade southwards, almost to the Ancre -- a river which they were destined to know better in later days.

This line the division held solidly during the remainder of the winter, sprinG and early summer.

They proved their mettle in patrol work and many minor enterprises. They matched the cunning of the Bosche with counter-strokes of slimness, and generally brought to nought the enemy's divers plans for their downfall.

Enemy attempts to break into the British line in this sector were frustrated by the alert, determined garrison of North Country Irish men, and where by chance he did succeed in setting foot in their trenches, he was immediately expelled by vigorous counter-attack.

During this period the Division endured the rigours of winter and discomforts of wet trenches, not only uncomplainingly but with a sporting spirit, which showed itself in the mutual banter of the men.

The ridiculous-looking garb necessary to protect them from cold and wet, also the difficulties of "navigation" in the trenches, stirred them to that originality of remark and frequency of phrase in which the Irishman is more than ordinarily fertile.

In May, 1916, the Division slightly altered its front.

"Side-slipping" south, they occupied the trenches astride the River Ancre, and found themselves opposed to the strongly entrenched German line, buttressed by the fortified places Thiepval and St. Pierre Divion.

Here they pursued the same vigorous policy which have come to be associated with their trench life.

They raided successfully the enemy lines on both sides of the Ancre. They harried the enemy in every way practicable, and stirred a formerly quiet sector into a condition of "some liveliness." In this line the Ulster Division still found themselves on July 1st, 1916, the initial day of the Somme offensive.

From these trenches they carried out an attack which in gallantry of execution was in keeping with the highest traditions of the British Army.

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The attack commenced on the morning of the 1st July. Abundant artillery had been continuously bombarding the enemy lines fur almost a week.

Viewed from our lines, after the artillery had been operating for some days, the different German trench lines were almost undistinguishable, so great had been the destruction wrought at every point in their front system of defences.

It seemed as though no living thing could exist amid the scene of general destruction.

The remains of the Chateau at Thiepval

The light of after events, however, has shown that the super-industry of the Hun during two years of stationary warfare had accomplished more than he was given credit for. Although his trench system was completely destroyed, he was yet in deep, commodious dug-outs, able to preserve the greater part of the garrison unharmed against the moment when we should launch our infantry assault. A short bombardment of incredible intensity preceded the attack.

A portion of one Brigade attacked on the right or North bank of the River Ancre.

The main attack was carried out by the remainder of the Division from Thiepval Wood, on the left or Southern bank of the river.


The first waves, composed of men of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and Royal Irish Rifles, advanced steadily on the front German trenches.

So perfect was the alignment, and deliberate the advance, that one might well have thought them to be carrying out a practice manoeuvre on a divisional field day.

That day, however, each man's heart was set on a sterner work, and their unfaltering footsteps bore witness to the determination with which they set about it.

The first German trenches yielded easily to their assault. Casualties were comparatively few.

In spite of heavy losses, however, including almost all their officers, they pushed gallantly on and eventually succeeded in penetrating the advanced German defences.

Clearing up parties, which killed or captured Germans left in dug-outs, were dropped, as the main attack swept forward to the enemy second line.

Sharp and vigorous work with the bayonet and rifle soon overcame the enemy's resistance here.

A large number of prisoners were taken, and this trench also fell into their hands.

Up to this point the casualties of the leading battalions had not been unduly heavy; the waves of the immediately supporting battalions, however, suffered very severely. The gabble of the death-dealing machine guns was incessant from Thiepval, on the right flank, and from St. Pierre Divion on the left.

Enemy's trench mortars were also by this time in action, and wrought havoc in the ranks of the Ulstermen.

The attack carried out by other troops against Thiepval itself had failed, and the additional machine guns, which had earlier been used in beating off the frontal attacks, now poured a deadly enfilade fire into the advancing support lines of the Ulster Division.

St. Pierre Divion, on the left flank, was also attacked, and enemy machine guns from this point further thinned the supporting lines of the Northerns.

The flanks of the advance were thus in the air, but, in spite of the galling fire, there was no flinching on the part of those determined troops.

They advanced with unslackened vigour to the attack on the German third line, speedily conquering the garrison by the vigour of their onslaught, and sending back a large number of prisoners.

Germans were everywhere fleeing, putting up their hands in great numbers, waiting for no more than the sight of the bared steel in the capable hands of the doughty Northerns.

The work of consolidating these conquered trenches was already begun but was rendered exceedingly difficult by reverse fire from Thiepval, enfilade fire from St. Pierre Divion and the heavy barrage put down by hostile artillery.

The supporting troops had perhaps the stormiest passage of all.

The enemy artillery and machine gunners, now thoroughly alive to what was taking place, had marked down the point of debouchement from Thiepval Wood.

No smoke barrage existed to screen the advancing troops, who were in consequence subjected to fire of the heaviest description, on their way through the wood and during the crossing of "No Man's Land."

Blasted by machine guns on either flank, harassed by the fire of heavy trench mortars, the supporting troops yet pressed forward unflinchingly through the thick barrage put down by the enemy artillery, passed through the advanced lines of the leading brigades, eventually pressing their attack home and setting their feet in the enemy's fourth line, the farthest limits of the objective.

Strong enemy counter-attacks, preceded by heavy bombardment, repeatedly made throughout the day, were beaten off in the most gallant fashion, many instances of extraordinary individual bravery on the part of the men being seen.

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So ended the attack of the Northern Irishmen on the opening days of July; days of which Ulster may ever be proud, by reason of the self-sacrifice, courage, and dauntless spirit displayed by her valiant sons in the bloody valley of the Ancre.

This article and photos were taken from  a publication entitled "The Undivided Irish Divisions and How They Fought in France and in Flanders." Date of publication currently unknown.

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