Western Front: from Messines to Passchendaele

Fighting for the British Empire: the story of the Irish who lost their lives needs to be told

 

1917. The year the US entered the first World War, and although France and Italy would come close to collapse, the Allies made important gains in the Middle East against the Ottoman empire. But it was a year when the Western Front fought to a standstill, tragically epitomised above all in the drowning fields of deadly, cloying mud, and of the stubborn, mule-headed generals of Passchendaele, the Third Battle of Ypres. Russia’s revolutionaries overthrew first tsarism and then those who would not end the war, effectively withdrawing as a force from the conflict in early 1918.

Against that backdrop, Ireland domestically was seeing the reinvigoration of nationalist confidence a year from the Rising with prisoners returning from Frongoch and Sinn Féin winning key byelections. An Irish convention to consider home rule, convened by Lloyd George in Dublin at John Redmond’s request as an alternative to a partitionist parliament, would be boycotted by Sinn Féin and Labour. It was a measure of their confidence that the tide was turning. Redmond’s star was waning.

This supplement, the 11th in the “Century” series to mark the decade of centenaries, tells the story of what happened to those men who went from every corner of this island, north and south, many responding to Redmond’s call to enlist, to fight for the British Empire – 49,000 would die. In 1916 on the Somme they paid a terrible price – the 16th Irish Division alone suffered 4,330 casualties, a quarter of them fatalities.

In 1917 the carnage went on and on – more than 1,000 casualties at Messines Ridge where the 16th famously fought, with great success – alongside the 36th Ulster Division, nationalists alongside unionists. And then in July on to Passchendaele and remorseless rain, a further 3,287 were wounded and 988 died. How many drowned in the mud is not known. The village, what remained of it, would cost the Allies, by November, 301,000 casualties, the Germans, 270,000.

“The combined mistakes of [Gens] Gough and Haig [at Passchendaele] virtually destroyed the Irish divisions and although both would live to fight again, their combat power had been so degraded as to render them only capable of minor operations,” military historian and soldier Col Brendan O’Shea writes. But their story of extraordinary courage needs to be told, an important, and neglected part of our history.