Legendary rearguard WW1 stand by Munster Fusiliers to be remembered tomorrow

The action at Etreux by Irish soldiers helped save the British Army from annihilation

Tue, Aug 26, 2014, 01:00

RONAN McGREEVY

One hundred years ago tomorrow the Royal Munster Fusiliers made one of the most famous rearguard stands of the first World War.

The Munsters were part of the first corps of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), which was seeking to get away from a German force twice its number in what became known as the retreat from Mons.

The Fusiliers were part of the 1st division of the British army. The division was trying to squeeze through the narrow streets of the northern French town of Guise to escape the advancing Germans.

The Munsters were charged with fighting a rearguard action against the German army to hold them up just long enough for the rest of the division to escape. At the appropriate time, they too would be ordered to join the retreat.

The 2nd battalion of Munsters made their stand outside the village of Étreux, 32km northeast of St Quentin. The Munsters were 200 short of a battalion strength of 1,000 men, comprising three companies under Maj Paul Charrier, the tallest officer in the British army and also regarded as one of the best.

The Munsters had support from two cavalry units and an artillery battery, but found themselves facing an enemy six times their number from the German 2nd Army.

The battle began in the morning and at 2pm the rearguard was ordered to retreat, but the message never got through to the Munsters.

They fought against overwhelming odds for another nine hours. Dead bodies, both German and Irish, littered the fields. At one stage the firing was so intense that the Germans used a herd of cows as cover.

The battle finally ended in an orchard where the Munsters, out of ammunition and surrounded, surrendered. Of the 800 or so men who started out that morning, 127 were killed, 450 were taken prisoner and the rest escaped. The last stand of the Munsters will be honoured tomorrow in the same orchard where they surrendered. Some 50 members of the Royal Munster Fusiliers Association (RMFA) are expected to attend.