Tuesday 1 July 2014

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

The following extract and associated articles were written in 1966.

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.

1 comment:

  1. War is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.