The war in France 1916: ‘No village now, only a hole in the ground’

The 16th Irish Division paid a terrible price for its heroics in the capture of the Frenchvillages of Guillemont and Ginchy in 1916

 

Not since the great Home Rule rally of March 1912 had the streets of Dublin seen anything like it. The crowd assembled in College Green spread like tributaries of humanity into adjoining streets and lanes surrounding Dublin’s great gathering point. It was the middle of November, yet extraordinarily mild.

Crowds clapped and cheered as ex-British servicemen marched in two directions to converge on College Green. One group left from, of all places, the General Post Office (GPO) now rebuilt after its role as the birthplace of the Republic in 1916. The other contingent came from Dame Street. The Union flag flew from Trinity College Dublin and from other buildings – though no longer the national flag.

The veterans marched proudly or limped. All wore their medals from the first World War. One old veteran wore his from the 1882 Nile campaign; others were just children wearing their father’s medals.

Big crowds had turned out for a victory parade in Dublin in 1919, before independence. The crowds that descended on the centre of Dublin for Armistice Day 1924 took everyone by surprise, not least the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) which had no traffic contingency plan in place. It anticipated a small crowd.

But a crowd estimated at 50,000 turned up on a normal working day. Many stayed until late that night. They had kept silent and their grief to themselves, but now seized of the opportunity to make a public display of their sorrow, they did not want to come home.

The war had left a terrible legacy of suffering in Irish households. AP Connolly, the head of the British Legion in Ireland, estimated that 165,000 Irish children had lost a parent, mostly a father, during the war period, 35,000 men had lost a leg or arm, 6,450 men had gone insane and were detained in “lunatic asylums” and 3,150 were suffering from epilepsy.

It was eight years after the Easter Rising. It was less than three years since the foundation of the Irish Free State. Yet here was nationalist Ireland paying tribute to the men who fought in British uniform during the first World War.

Many in nationalist Ireland were apt to remind those who had fought in British uniform of what had been achieved by fighting against and not for the British and previous Remembrance Day services had been the subject of clashes between republicans and unionists, but it was an altogether more sombre, subdued crowd on Armistice Day 1924.

The object that had prompted this national outpouring of grief and remembrance was a large Celtic cross, 13ft 6in high made of solid granite and weighing three tonnes. It was enclosed by a metal railing measuring 15sq ft. At its base was an inscription in Irish and English: “Do chum Gloire De agus Onora na hÉireann” (To the Glory of God and Honour of Ireland).

“In commemoration of the victories of Guillemont and Ginchy Sept 3rd and 9th 1916 in memory of those who fell therein and of all the Irishmen who gave their lives in the Great War RIP.”

A wreath was laid by Senator Col Maurice Moore, formerly of the Connaught Rangers. It read, “O Rialtas Saorstát Éireann i gcuimhne na nÉireannach uile a fuair bás son choga mór (From the Government of Saorstat Éireann in memory of all the Irishmen who died in the Great War)”.

One wreath came from Mary Kettle, the wife of Tom Kettle, who was killed at the Battle of Ginchy on September 9th, 1916.

It was the high watermark of Free State remembrance commemorations. In 1925, Republicans, angered by the Border Commission’s decision to confirm the borders of the Free State, threw smoke bombs into the crowd. Within two years it was moved to the relatively peripheral Phoenix Park, though huge crowds still attended. The League of ex-Servicemen wanted to place a permanent Irish war memorial in Merrion Square, opposite Government Buildings but the Free State was vehemently against something so close to the seat of power.

A beautiful if peripheral location was eventually found for the Irish National War Memorial in Islandbridge.

* * *

The 16th (Irish) Division spent almost three years in France from the autumn of 1915 to the autumn of 1918, only being out of the line for three weeks in all that time. Its involvement in the attacks on Guillemont and Ginchy were its first operations in the Somme and its first major offensive operation.

These two unremarkable villages are just two kilometres apart, but the road between them is all uphill and soaked in the blood of friend and foe.

The division arrived on the Somme in late August 1916. The battle, the biggest of the first World War, was nearly two months old and went on despite the horrors of its first day.

The attack north of the Albert-Bapaume road, which included the assault of the 36th (Ulster) Division on the first day, was a complete disaster, but Haig saw enough progress south of the road for the battle to resume. This sector would consume most of the energies of the British Fourth Army for the summer.

In particular the woods in this area would cost the lives of thousands of men – High Wood, Delville Wood (known as Devil’s Wood), Mametz Wood, a place of sorrow for the Welsh.

It took two months of attritional warfare for the British eventually to take High Wood, once described by the military historian Richard Holmes as “ghastly by day, ghostly by night, the rottenest place on the Somme”.

This deadly slogging match in July and August 1916 would suck in all parts of the Empire.

On the road between Albert and Bapaume is the village of Pozieres. On July 23rd, 1916, the 1st Australian Division made an attack on the fortified village and captured it, the beginning and not the end of their ordeal.

The Germans shelled it day and night. The Australians sustained 23,000 casualties during the Battle of Poziéres.

It was into this maelstrom of slaughter that the 16th (Irish) Division arrived on the Somme. They had spent months recovering from the three days of horror in late April when they were subjected to the gas attacks at Hulluch. But they were not permitted much respite. The men were constantly involved in raiding enemy trenches, dangerous work of dubious military value. Some 380 died and 2,670 were injured in the time between the Hulluch gas attacks and moving to the Somme.

The 16th Irish Division was withdrawn from the Hulluch sector on August 24th, 1916, transported in cattle trucks to Amiens and then marched the 22 miles to Bray-sur-Somme. It was allocated to XIV Corps, in turn part of the Fourth Army.

The division was needed for the attack on Guillemont and Ginchy to the extreme right of the British line. These two villages were on a hilltop overlooking both the British and French lines. The ultimate goal was Ginchy, but Guillemont blocked the way to it.

Neither village stands on a great elevation, but it was enough to command panoramas of the eastern end of the British section of battlefield. The previous captures of Delville and High Wood at such a colossal loss mostly to Welsh, Australian and South African forces would ultimately be in vain if German machine guns and artillery could still use the heights to block any further British advance.

To the east of Guillemont lay the cone-shaped Trone Wood, another deadly abode.

Repeated attempts to take it cost thousands of lives but it was eventually captured on July 14th, opening the way for an assault on Guillemont. But, once again, the village would not be surrendered cheaply by the Germans. The 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers entered the village on July 30th but were all killed or taken prisoner. The battalion suffered a horrendous 650 casualties. The next attempt, on August 8th, was by the 55th (West Lancashire) Division which included the Liverpool Irish of 164 Brigade. The attack failed. The village was ruined but the Germans were carrying on a deadly underground battle.

“[The village] was simply a very strongly defended position,” explains Michael Redfren in his book Guillemont. “The depth of dugouts and the many interconnected tunnels meant that any limited British infantry advance into the village could then be isolated and dealt with as the German defenders emerged to take these units in the rear.”

The attempt to take Guillemont cost the 55th Division 4,100 casualties. The 55th Division was replaced by the 3rd Division. It and the 24th Division renewed the assault on August 18th.

The 3rd Division included the 2nd Leinster Regiment. In his brilliant memoir Stand To!, Colonel Francis Hitchcock observed the bombardment of Guillemont.

“Shell-fire was hellish all afternoon. Box barrages were put down all round and the earth was going up like volcanoes completely smothering us. During a bombardment one developed a craze for two things: water and cigarettes. Few could ever eat under an intense bombardment especially on the Somme, when every now and then a shell would blow pieces of mortality, or complete bodies which had been putrefying in no man’s land and slap into one’s trench.”

On August 23rd Guillemont Station, to the east of the village, was captured. By then the British surrounded Guillemont from the west and south, but the Germans still blocked the advance to Ginchy.

The assault was repeatedly delayed by bad weather but it was agreed to go ahead on September 3rd with the 20th (Light) Division and the 16th (Irish) Division attempting what had been beyond previous attempts.

The 16th (Irish) Division arrived in the Somme in good heart. The 8th Munsters carried a beautiful banner of the Sacred Heart made for it by local Limerick women and the nuns of the Good Shepherd convent in Limerick. The men were assured that those who carried the banner “would have victory with them”.

The men lay down in their shallow trenches from 4am waiting for the assault. The regimental pipers were busy from early morning. They played Brian Boru’s March, The White Cockade, The Wearin’ o’ the Green and A Nation Once Again.

Months of shelling had reduced Guillemont to a spectral shell.

German soldier Ernst Jünger, whose book Storm and Steel is a classic of war literature, knew he had arrived in what had once been a village because of the colour of the earth. “The shell-holes there were of a whiter colour by reason of the houses which had been ground to powder. Guillemont railway station lay in front of us. It was smashed to bits like a child’s plaything . . . You could search in vain for one wretched blade of grass. This churned-up battlefield was ghastly. Among the living lay the dead. As we dug ourselves in we found them in layers stacked one upon the top of another. One company after another had been shoved into the drum-fire and steadily annihilated. The corpses were covered with the masses of soil turned up by the shells, and the next company advanced in the place of the fallen.”

The Germans turned the cellars of bombed-out houses into death traps for attackers. Yet this abyss had to be taken. The men of 47 Brigade from the 16th (Irish) Division had to wait eight hours for the bombardment to begin at midday. The delay was to give the Germans less time for a counterattack. On the northern side of Guillemont village, the 7th Leinsters lay down in trenches so shallow that if they even sat up they could be fired upon.

The Irish battalions involved in the Battle of Guillemont were the 7th Leinsters, the 6th Connaught Rangers, the 8th Royal Munster Fusiliers and the 6th Royal Irish Regiment.

The assault was to be made via a creeping barrage with the infantry following on at precise intervals. The 10th Kings Royal Rifle Corps from the 20th Division led the attack followed by the 6th Connaught Rangers. The Connaught Rangers suffered 200 casualties from friendly fire as a result of misfired shells before they joined in the attack.

Their commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel John Lenox-Conyngham, was killed as soon as he stood on the parapet to wave his men on. Undaunted, they pressed ahead. Within minutes, the German’s front positions in the village were overrun.

The 7th Leinsters dashed for the German lines as soon as the artillery barrage was lifted and surprised the Germans .The men of the 20th (Light) Infantry 59 Brigade reinforced by the 6th Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry and the 7th Somerset Light Infantry took their second positions on time. The soldiers of the 6th Connaught Rangers were “leapfrogged” by the 8th Royal Munsters.

At 2.50pm, the advance to the third objective the Maurepas to Ginchy Road outside the village was made by the 6th Royal Irish Regiment, who moved forward to their sound of their battalion pipes.

The British captured more than 700 wounded and unwounded Germans. Guillemont was in British hands.

* * *

Preparations began for the assault on Ginchy. The first attempt to take Ginchy occurred on September 6th, but was beaten back. The attack was rescheduled for September 9th and would be preceded by a long preliminary bombardment lasting from 7am.

The 48 Brigade of 16th (Irish) Division would lead the assault with the much-depleted 47 Brigade guarding its right flank. It moved forward at 4.45pm precisely. The 47 Brigade was held up by fire from the enemy trenches southeast of Ginchy. A trench which the Connaught Rangers hoped was empty was full of Germans manning machine guns.

The 8th Munsters and the 6th Royal Irish Regiment were met with withering fire. Of the 1,328 men the brigade could muster for the attack, 448, a third, became casualties. The 7th Leinsters following on behind advanced over the broken bodies and dismembered corpses of their comrades.

The 48 Brigade, however, had a much better outcome. The brigade’s lead battalions were the 1st Munsters and the 7th Royal Irish Rifles who were so depleted from friendly shelling that they needed the 7th Royal Irish Fusiliers as support. The 1st Munsters were already severely depleted from the battle of Berenfey Wood on September 4th and had an effective fighting force of just 408 men. Together the two battalions assaulted the enemy front lines. The shelling had shaken the Germans so badly that they surrendered en masse.

The follow-on battalions, the 8th and 9th Dublins, consolidated the hold on Ginchy. When night came, the Germans opened up an artillery barrage on the men occupying Ginchy, who dug in as best they could. The men found the village well-stocked with provisions including cold coffee, bread and sacks of apples and augmented food supplies with the rations from dead enemy.

Early on September 10th, the 16th (Irish) Division was relieved by the 3rd Guards Brigade. The 16th had suffered the worst that the Somme could offer. And Ginchy had been all but wiped off the face of the earth. “There was no village there now, only a hole in the ground,” one private put it.

Two Victoria Crosses were awarded to Irishmen at Guillemont. Private Thomas Hughes from Castleblayney, Co Monaghan, was with the Connaught Rangers. He was initially injured, but had his wound dressed and returned to battle. He singlehandedly disabled a German machine gun post.

The other VC went to Lieutenant John Holland of the 7th Leinsters, the son of a vet from Model Farm, Athy, Co Kildare. He showed extraordinary dash in leading his men on a bombing party which cleared German trenches and captured some 50 prisoners.

The 16th (Irish) Division paid a terrible price for its heroics in the capture of two ruined villages. Of the nearly 11,000 officers and men who arrived there on September 1st, more than 4,300 were casualties. The number of dead amounted to 1,067.

Throughout the 16th (Irish) Division’s travails on the Western Front, the 11th Hampshire had been its faithful pioneer (engineering) battalion, building roads, repairing trenches and generally making life bearable for the men at the front. After the Battle of Ginchy, the pioneers came across oak beams from a ruined farmhouse. They fashioned the timber into an impressive cross approximately 20ft tall. The cross stood forlorn in a field between Guillemont and Ginchy, anchored to a base of stones and concrete. On its base was inscribed the words: “To those who fell at the capture of Guillemont and Ginchy, September 1916, RIP.” In 1923 Major-General Hickie and Major General Bryan Mahon, both senators in the new Free State, made a public appeal through the newspapers for money to provide permanent memorials to the Irish who fought in the first World War.

There were three crosses in total, the first for Guillemont, the second remembered the 16th (Irish) Division’s liberation of the Flanders villages of Wytschaete and a third was erected in the mountains of Macedonia to remember the 10th (Irish) Division and their involvement in the Salonika campaign on the Eastern Front.

The Ginchy cross is now housed, and only available by appointment to see, at the war memorial gardens in Islandbridge.

The memorial party which arrived in Guillemont on August 23rd, 1926, had been moved and upset by a tour of the old battlefields, starting with the cross that was unveiled at Wytschaete near Ypres. They arrived in Albert to find the little town had been substantially rebuilt save for the cathedral. Corn meadows and fields full of poppies had replaced the trenches and the shell holes.

The locals of Guillemont had prepared a banner across the main street that proclaimed,Viva l’Irlande. The local fire brigade turned out in uniform; children picked wild flowers from the fields and placed them at the base of the Celtic Cross which was located next to the rebuilt Catholic Church.

The principal guest was Marshall Joseph Joffre, the acclaimed saviour of France and the victor of the most important battle of the war, the Battle of the Marne in September 1914 .

The Battle of the Somme continued for two months after the Battle of Ginchy.

Ronan McGreevy is an Irish Times journalist. His book Wherever the Firing Line Extends: Ireland and the Western Front will be published on July 1st.