A history of Ireland in 100 objects
Lamp from ‘River Clyde’, 1915
This lamp is from a converted collier, ‘River Clyde’. On April 25th, 1915, it lit the way to hell for 2,000 soldiers, mostly members of the Munster and Dublin Fusiliers. They had been chosen as the shock troops of an Allied landing near Sedd-el-Bahr at Cape Helles, on the southern tip of the Gallipoli peninsula, in Turkey.
The Gallipoli assault was intended to break the stalemate on the western front of the monumental clash of the great European empires that began in August 1914 and quickly earned its name as the Great War.
‘River Clyde’ was deliberately run aground beneath an old fortress, supposedly to make the landing of the Munsters easy, while most of the Dubliners tried to get ashore in open boats. Both regiments made perfect targets for the Turkish gunners in the fort.
One officer recalled that the men on the open boats were “slaughtered like rats in a trap”. Another recalled that the part of the landing he experienced “was pure butchery and we were at the receiving end. They called it a ‘landing’ but it was hardly even that at the beginning. The dear men were just mown down in scores into a bloody silence as they showed themselves at the ‘Clyde’s’ open hatches.”
The Dublins had 25 officers and 987 other ranks, but only one officer and 374 others made it ashore, many of them wounded. Among the Munsters, about 600 were killed or wounded.
The scale of the casualties was such that the Dubliners and the Munsters had to be amalgamated into a single unit, known as the Dubsters.
It would have been hard to remember, at that point, that the outbreak of the war was greeted by many in Ireland with some relief. Ireland had been on the brink of civil war over Home Rule. Nationalists responded to the establishment of the Ulster Volunteers with the founding of the Irish Volunteers. The infinitely larger conflict superseded this insular row: Home Rule was finally passed in September 1914, but its implementation was immediately postponed for the duration of the war.
The Nationalist leader John Redmond supported the war effort and urged Volunteers to join the army. More than 200,000 Irishmen fought in the war.
Optimists dared to hope that the experience of fighting side by side in a relatively short and triumphant campaign would create a new sympathy between Ulster Protestants and southern Catholics.
Optimism, not just for Ireland but for humanity, was bled dry on the beaches of Gallipoli and in the mud of France and Belgium. A year after Sedd el Bahr, the 16th (Irish) Division suffered the horrors of a gas attack at Hulluch. On July 1st, 1916, the 36th (Ulster) Division was in the forefront of the offensive on the Somme, suffering 5,500 casualties, including 2,000 dead – a catastrophe seared into the collective consciousness of Protestant Ulster. The 16th lost 4,330 men (1,200 dead) in the same battle in September.
At Messines Ridge in June 1917 the two divisions went into battle together; among the dead was Redmond’s brother Willie. In all at least 35,000 Irishmen died. The war did form a common experience for Irishmen of different traditions, but it was the experience of a scarcely imaginable cataclysm.
Thanks to Lar Joye
Where to see itNational Museum of Ireland – Decorative Arts and History, Collins Barracks, Benburb Street, Dublin 7, 01-6777444, museum.ie