Death, misery and mud: the Irish debacle at Langemarck
It was the worst day for the Irish except for the first day of the Battle of the Somme
Members of the Metropolitan Police Service Emerald Society Pipe and Drum Band pictured in the Island of Ireland Peace Park in Messines, Belgium, on Remeberance Sunday in 2008. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
The images of man and beast floundering in suffocating mud would define not only the Battle of Passchendaele, but the first World War in the popular imagination. Tens of thousands of men died because British generals lacked the moral courage to call the whole doomed enterprise off.
As military historian John Keegan observed of the British commander-in-chief Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, the principal architect of this disaster: “In his public manner and private diaries no concern for human suffering was or is discernible. At the Somme he had sent the flower of British youth to death or mutilation; at Passchendaele he had tipped the survivors into the slough of despond.”
The Irish who fought at Passchendaele were not spared.
Since the unveiling of the Island of Ireland Peace Park at Messines in 1998, much attention has been given to the Battle of the Messines Ridge in June 1917. Here the two Irish divisions, the 16th (Irish) Division and the 36th (Ulster) Division, fought together and won an incontestable victory at relatively little cost by the standards of the first World War.
The symbolism of Catholics and Protestants united against a common enemy was easy to grasp, but that battle has obscured the fact that the two divisions fought together for a second and final time at Passchendaele and it was a complete disaster.
“It has been a truly terrible day,” Maj Gen Oliver Nugent, the general commanding the 36th, wrote to his wife on the evening of August 16th, 1917.
“Worse than the 1st July [1916, first day of the Battle of the Somme] I am afraid. Our losses have been very heavy indeed and we have failed all along the line and the whole division has been driven back with terrible losses.”
Nugent was wrong in his belief that the events of Frezenberg Ridge on August 16th were worse than the first day of the Battle of the Somme, but in the immediate aftermath of a terrible and fruitless assault, his sentiments were understandable.
Respite in France
After their triumph at Messines Ridge, the two Irish divisions, the 16th (Irish) Division and 36th (Ulster) Division, moved across the border to the French town of St Omer. Away from the cramped, unsanitary trenches and the constant deafening din of artillery, the troops took their respite. These were days remembered with fondness by the men in both divisions. The weather was beautiful, the training for the coming offensive not too taxing.
Both divisions were part of XIX Corps, which consisted of four divisions: the 15th (Scottish) Division, the 55th Division, the 16th and the 36th.
After Messines Ridge, the Irish divisions left the Second Army for the Fifth Army commanded by Gen Hubert Gough. He would not be a success and his command would have tragic consequences for both Irish divisions. The Battle of Passchendaele began on July 31st as did the rain. During the month of August 1917, 127mm of rain fell in Flanders.
All the preparations for Passchendaele were confounded by the one thing no general could legislate for. The rain was rotten luck for the poor British infantry and their German adversaries. Each of the millions of shells burrowing into the cloying earth sent up fountains of mud and left huge craters.
The rain made it impossible for tanks to traverse the ruined waterlogged bog, negating a potentially important advantage for the British. Shell holes filled with water. Men fell into them and drowned.
The two Irish divisions moved to the left of the British attack near Langemarck. In the territory held by XIX Corps, the assault was carried out by the 55th and the 15th (Scottish) Division on the first day of Passchendaele. Both divisions had initial successes.
The village of Frezenberg was captured, but, typically, and this would become a pattern throughout the battle, they reached their initial objectives only to be subjected to counter-battery fire by the Germans followed by a devastating counter-attack.
Enter the Irish
On August 4th 1917, the Irish divisions relieved them and moved into these trenches. They would not leave them for nearly two weeks.
Even in reserve the men were not spared the horrors of Passchendaele. They were pressed into the battlefield to evacuate the wounded, dig forward trenches and bury communication cables, which were, as often as not, destroyed a short time afterwards by shellfire.
Years of shelling had reduced the whole landscape to a dun-coloured wasteland of bombed-out buildings and trees reduced to withered stumps. There were no discernible landmarks left, nothing to relieve this pitiless vista.
The next phase of the attack was scheduled for August 14th, but the rain was unrelenting and it was postponed for two days.
This phase would become known as the Battle of Langemarck. Gough’s Fifth Army was tasked with the assault assisted by the French on the left.
By the time the 16th and 36th were readied to go over the top, they were down a third on their strength and even those men available to go over the top were so weakened by their ordeal that they were not fit for combat. Most had not slept except in stolen moments between the incessant shelling.
The portents were not good. An inch of rain fell on the battlefield on August 14th and 15th. Maj Noel Holmes, the deputy assistant adjutant general of the 16th (Irish) Division, went to take a look for himself at the terrain the men were supposed to attack.
He was aghast and told Maj Gen William Hickie, the man commanding the 16th, that the men could not be expected to advance in such conditions. Hickie responded knowingly. “I’m not going to mention your name, else they’ll say, ‘What does this young pup know?’ ”
This was exceedingly dangerous territory. The two divisions between them held a front of 2,700 yards from the Ypres-Roulers railway line to outside the village of St Julien. The German frontline opposing them was a series of blockhouses, pillboxes and ruined farms turned into fortifications on the slopes of Frezenberg Ridge, a gentle rise that overlooked the Irish trenches.
In order to have any chance of success, the British artillery had to accurately target the German strong points, there had to be an element of surprise – preferably with poison gas to stun the defenders – and the attackers had to have overwhelming force. None of these conditions was present for the Irish at Passchendaele.
Over the top
At zero hour, the divisions went over the top but in reality most of them were only at half-strength. The men from the 16th were hit before many of them had even left the trenches.
Lieut Arthur Glanville of the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers recalled that, to his horror, the battalion’s advanced companies were almost “completely wiped out” in the initial attack.
“Under hellish fire I collect as many of the company as possible and give the signal to advance, but one after another is shot down. It is death to move – to raise oneself an inch out of the mud.”
In his otherwise exhaustive account of the 36th during the first World War, Cyril Falls, the historian of the division, deals with Langemarck succinctly:
“The story of the attack, alas! is not a long one. Enemy machine guns all along the front opened fire almost simultaneously with our barrage. There were assuredly not 2,000 infantrymen in the force who went over the top. The foremost wave must have consisted of less than 300 men, probably reduced to a third within half a minute.”
About 9am waves of German infantry came over the crest of the Zonnebeke-St Julien ridge and drove the men back to the start. The battle was over.
After Langemarck, the British press were full of tales of doomed Irish heroism.
Percival Phillips, of the Daily Express, concluded that the men’s sacrifice had not been in vain. “There are incidents of courage and devotion that will live as long as there are men of Ulster and men of Clare. The battalions of the North and South are proud of each other.”
But they had died in vain. August 16th, 1917 was an unmitigated disaster. There was no glory, only death, misery and mud.
Nugent knew who to blame for the failure of the attack. He wrote to his wife shortly afterwards: “I went to see Gough this afternoon. He was very pleasant and is a charming man as he always is, but my dearest, no one can talk to him and come away thinking that he is mentally or intellectually fit to command a big army.”
Philip Gibbs, of the Daily Chronicle, chafed under the restrictions of wartime censorship. He waited until after the war to deliver his withering verdict on Langemarck: “The two Irish divisions were broken to bits and their brigadiers called it murder. They were violent in their denunciation of the Fifth Army for having put their men into the attack after those 13 days of heavy shelling.”
It had been a terrible time for both divisions, who had nothing to show for the horrors they endured and for the almost 8,000 casualties they had suffered in less than two weeks.
Yet, even those figures as recounted in the British official history do not tell the whole story. It has taken 100 years to determine the full extent of the tragedy on Frezenberg Ridge on August 16th, 1917. In Flanders Fields, the organisation that runs the Cloth Hall museum in Ypres has determined that on that day 1,198 men from the two Irish divisions died – 595 from the 16th and 603 from the 36th. This makes it the worst day for the Irish in the war with the exception of the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
Not a success
The Battle of Frezenberg Ridge was not a success like Messines Ridge, Guillemont or Ginchy. It was not a disaster to be analysed and commemorated like the first day of the Battle of the Somme or the landings at Gallipoli. It was not remembered for good or ill. It was simply forgotten.
It was just a terrible incident in a terrible stage (the Battle of Langemarck) of a terrible battle (Passchendaele).
The Irish debacle at Langemarck, though, was remembered by a retired Belgian army officer, Erwin Ureel.
In 2014 he assisted the Royal Welsh Fusiliers Association in the creation of the Welsh National Memorial Park in Langemarck. Ureel had the foresight to order an extra memorial stone with a view to erecting a memorial to remember the Irish who died on August 16th, 1917.
He recalled: “For 10 years I tried to promote the story, but to no avail. Nobody seemed to be interested in Langemarck. It is a story of triumph and disaster. The triumph was Messines; the disaster was Langemarck.”
The memorial stone is now in place at a site opposite what was once the Pommern Redoubt. Affixed to it will be a bronze plaque commissioned by the Royal Dublin Fusiliers’ Association.
From this vantage point, the high ground that cost the blood of so many brave Irish sons is barely discernible against the broad horizon.
Somewhere beyond lie the bodies of men who were every bit as much victims of British military obduracy as they were of German bullets and bombs. The most famous Irish casualty of August 16th was Fr Willie Doyle SJ. Before he was killed, he wrote of those lost men shortly before he would join them, all of them asleep forever somewhere in Flanders fields.
“My poor brave boys. They are lying now out on the battlefield: some in a little grave dug and blessed by their chaplain, who love them all as if they were his own children; others stiff and stark with staring eyes, hidden in a shell-hole where they had crept to die; while perhaps in some far-off thatched cabin an anxious mother sits listening for the well-known step and voice which will never gladden her heart again.”
The updated paperback version of Ronan McGreevy’s book Wherever the Firing Line Extends: Ireland and the Western Front will be published by The History Press in May. It contains a new foreword by Mary McAleese