Thursday 24 July 2014

Ulster at the Somme - 1st and 2nd Battalions Royal Irish Rifles

Simultaneously with the attack on Thiepval Ridge by the Ulster Division and the 32nd. Division on the 1st July, the extreme southern end of the ridge was attacked by the 8th. Division who formed part of the 3rd. Corps. In the 25th. Brigade of the 8th. Division was the 1st. Bn. The Royal Irish Rifles. The battalion was in the line directly opposite the strongly fortified village of Ovilliers just a few hundred yards north of the main Albert-Bapaume Road or what was left of it. The objective of the 25th. Brigade was the village of Pozieres, two kilometres further along the Albert-Bapaume Road -- a rather ambitious project. The battalion was to advance in support of the other battalions in the Brigade. The leading battalions having taken Ovilliers -- 1 RIR was to move forward and consolidate with the leading battalions, it was then to make the assault an Pozieres itself.
As mentioned in the story of the Ulster Division's attack on the Thiepval Ridge, a tremendous bombardment preceded the attack. At zero. 7.30 a.m. the Brigade advanced forward to the attack on the German Front Line. They were met with a veritable avalanche of machine-gun and mortar fire. Few men of the leading battalions ever reached the enemy wire, which had not been thoroughly cut by the British bombardment and presented a difficult problem for the leading sections. The few sections who did enter the enemy front line held on grimly against a fierce fusillade of fire from the enemy until the arrival of the 1st. Rifles who were advancing to their support. The Rifles advance was met with similar shattering fire from a mass of strong points covering the German positions which had been entered and were being assaulted by the supporting Rifle Bn. The village of La Boiselle on their right flank had not been captured and from this point the enemy poured a hurricane of machine-gun and mortar fire into the ranks of the attacking riflemen and only a mere handful of men ever reached the German Front Line. These together with those of the leading battalions who were already in the enemy front trenches had to beat off continuous hostile bombing attacks from the enemy elements who had been sheltering in their deep cellars during our bombardment and now came out into the daylight to fire on our already severely mauled infantry. The company on the left, "A" Coy., overran the German Front Line and reached the second support trench and inflicted men losses on the enemy holding out there but alas due to their flanks not succeeding they were eventually forced to withdraw. Eventually all the British troops who had entered the enemy positions had to retire to their own front line, these represented only a mere fraction of those who went into the attack. As was the case on Thiepval Ridge, the flanks having failed any small breaches made were forced to fall back to secure their flanks. The Battalion lost its Commanding Officer, its Adjutant and six other Officers, twelve Officers were wounded and other ranks casualties amounted to 348, many of these were 'Missing' believed killed.

Every man had given of his beat, the men had gone into action with high hopes of victory and fought as though they expected it, but their task was an impossible one, they gained nothing but glory, Ovilliers was a very strongly fortified objective in common with other villages on this part of the front and was not to be entered again by British Troops until the end of September.

What remained of the battalion was taken out of the line that night and a couple of days later was ordered north to the rather more quiet area around Bethune.

However, its association with the Somme battlefield was not at an end. On October 14th the battalion entrained at Lillers for its second venture on the Somme. While the 2nd. Bn. was involved in the Battle of the Ancre Heights over the same ground attacked by the Ulster Divison on 1st July, the 1st. Battalion went into the attack with the 8th. Division between Morval and Les Boeufs. The objective of the 25th. Brigade was Zenith Trench and 300 yards further on a trench known as Misty Trench. The Bn. advanced in support of the 2nd. Lincolns and the 2nd. Rifle Brigade, although limited success was achieved the assault was a failure, in no small measure due to the severe casualties inflicted on the advancing troops of the Brigade by our own artillery and to the fierce stubborn resistance put up by the enemy holding on to what they considered a key position.

The battalion was now moved to Trones Wood where it remained in the line for two or three weeks and had to endure terrible privations due to the appalling conditions in the trenches, if they could be called trenches, the British Front Line consisted of a mass of water filled shell holes and craters, many of them containing half decomposed bodies which could not be properly buried in the circumstances prevailing. On top of all this the enemy kept up a continuous bombardment both day and night, in which gas was largely used and the battalion suffered severely. This was probably one of the worst periods of endurance the battalion had to suffer during the whole war, the long exposure to wet and cold without cover of any kind beggars description, the strain on the men was almost intolerable, but somehow the battalion came through but lost a great proportion of its strength by the time it was relieved for a few days respite. With the fall of Beaumont-Hamel and the capture of St. Pierre Divion and Grandcourt on the Ancre on 15th November and the following two days the Battle of the Somme came to an end on 18th November, 1916. At this time the 1st. Bn. Royal Irish Rifles were holding the line facing the village of Le Transloy on the main Bapaume/Perrone Road from which line the Germans were, a couple of months later, compelled to retire "according to plan" to the new Hindenburg Line.

2nd. Bn. The Royal Irish Rifles.

A few days after the 1st. Battalion was withdrawn from the line on the night of July 1st., the 2nd. Battalion came into action at practically the same spot facing the German Line between Ovilliers and La Boiselle. It formed part of the 74th. Brigade, 25th. Division in the newly formed 5th. Army (later to become famous) under General Sir Hubert Gough.

During the first few days of July further strong attacks were made on both Ovilliers and La Boiselle and although a foothold was gained in La Boiselle, the fortress of Ovilliers resisted all attempts at capture. By 5th July La Boiselle was completely in British hands and in an effort to exploit this advantage and outflank Ovilliers, the 47th. Brigade was put at the disposal of the 12th. Division. The Brigade was to attack towards the eastern side of the Ovilliers defences. The Rifles advanced in support of a battalion of the North Lancs and a battalion of Cheshires. The leading battalions advanced with great dash and by 9 a.m. the whole of the German front protecting the eastern defences of Ovilliers was in our hands except a gap of some 400 yards in front of the Cheshires. The 2nd. Rifles were now ordered to assault this gap, capture and consolidate it. During consolidation the men were amazed by what they found in the German dug-outs and the palatial underground dwellings with separate quarters for Officers, kitchens, telephone exchanges, elaborate first-aid quarters and well appointed bunks for the men up to the standard of any barrack room. Our army had never experienced anything approaching this.

During the night the 2nd. Bn. made bombing attacks and further progress was made into the hostile defensive system. During the following day the enemy made strong counter-attacks but all were beaten of with considerable loss to the enemy. This type of fighting continued for the next day and on this night the battalion was relieved having suffered some 200 casualties in the three days fighting.

Their rest in reserve lasted only two days before they were back in the line again, this time facing Ovilliers itself, the attack on this fortress village, which had resisted all attempts to reduce it, was to be made at dusk with all three brigades of the Division, each Brigade having not more than 300 yards frontage, a moat ambitious venture in the darkness. The attack was not a complete success, despite the large force employed. The advance was raked with machine-gun fire and casualties were heavy. As a consequence of heavy losses and disorganisation in the darkness the battalion was forced to withdraw with the other units in the brigade. On the right of the Rifles a battalion of the Warwickshires was cut off and the only way to relieve them was for the 2nd. Rifles to bomb its way up a trench which led to the surrounded Warwicks. Although the bombers fought desperately no progress was made, continued efforts were made next day but only slight gains were made. Eventually towards dusk on the second day a renewed attack was made with the help of a battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers. The fighting was desperate and when it was seen that no progress could be made, suddenly there came the dramatic end, a white flag was hoisted by the enemy, orders were passed to our men to stand upon their guard, it might be a trick, but no! from all sides heads appeared and hands were raised to the accompaniment of "Kammerad"! The whole party had surrendered, Ovilliers had fallen, an expensive victory but nevertheless it put new life into our men. The Bosche had made a splendid defence, but now they seemed to be delighted to be taken prisoner and out of it all, and insisted in shaking hands with their captors. A great quantity of booty of all kinds was taken during the 'mopping-up' of the elaborate trench system which continued throughout the following day. Later that night the battalion was relieved and marched back to Beauval to rest.

After several days rest the battalion moved into the line again to engage trench warfare, it relieved another battalion of Ulstermen, 1st. Bn. Inniskilling Fusiliers of 29th. Division opposite the village of Beaumont-Hamel and the salient known as Mary Redan. This was the part of the line north of the River Ancre where the attack on 1st July had been a total failure and No-Man's-Land was still full of 29th. Division's dead. This was the pattern of trench warfare in which the battalion engaged for the next month or two moving in and out of the line at places well known to the Ulster Division, but now static, namely the Schwaben Redoubt, Thiepval Wood, St. Pierre Divion etc.

In the month of October the 2nd. Bn. took part in the Battle of the Ancre Heights which included the capture of many places which had been taken by the Ulster Division on 1st July but which had to be evacuated because no advance had been made on their flanks. The Bn. took part in the capture of Stuff Redoubt, Houquet Farm, Regina Trench, Courcellette and St. Pierre Divion. The casualties in these actions were comparatively light compared with earlier Somme actions, this was probably due to the fact that British troops were now in possession of many German fortified positions with their elaborately furnished underground cellars which afforded perfect cover against bombardment. It can be said with certainty that enemy losses were very considerably more than British losses in these final actions during the closing days of the Battle of the Somme.

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.

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