Easter Week 1916: the gassing of the Irish

More Irish people died in the Hulluch gas attacks, fighting in the British army, than during the rising against British rule at home. For one family the events brought a double tragedy


In French Flanders the wind blows in strongly from the English Channel, gusting across some of the flattest terrain in Europe. Around the old mining town of Loos, west of Lille, the only protrusions on the landscape are the crosses of sacrifice that mark the war cemeteries and the two giant slag heaps that dominate the surrounding area. At nearly 200m they are the tallest in Europe. This entire postindustrial landscape is now a Unesco World Heritage site.

Here, during Easter Week 1916, more Irishmen were slaughtered than died in the Easter Rising. Four hundred and eighty-eight died during the rebellion at home. Five hundred and thirty-two died here. Even by the ghastly standards of the first World War the ordeal of the 16th (Irish) Division between April 27th and 29th, 1916, was awful.

Those men who were not poisoned by chlorine gas were shelled, shot or bayoneted by the enemy, for whom this battle was equally bloody and futile. Heaps of bodies lay in the trenches or on the Irish lines.

Many of the men of the division, overwhelmingly Catholic and nationalist, had been in the Irish Volunteers before the first World War. When John Redmond, the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, called on Irishmen to go “wherever the firing line extends in defence of right, of freedom and religion in this war” they answered the call. The others, initially a small minority, stayed at home to foment rebellion.

The 16th (Irish) Division was approved in September 1914, the same month that the Irish Republican Brotherhood sanctioned an armed rebellion against the British. During Easter Week 1916 both sets of armed Irishmen put their military acumen to the test, but only one would be celebrated and commemorated in the new Irish State.

While Patrick Pearse acknowledged the support of “our gallant allies in Europe” his countrymen were engaged in a life-and-death struggle against those same allies in the trenches opposite the towns of Hulluch and Loos.

The division arrived in northern France in late 1915 and occupied an area of the front line where the British had suffered great losses during the futile Battle of Loos that autumn. Putrefied human remains were a common sight for these Irishmen, all volunteers and new to the horrors of this war. “Almost the first thing I saw was a human head torn from the trunk, though there was no sign of the body,” Fr Willie Doyle, a chaplain, wrote in a letter home to his father.

Chlorine gas

The German attack began at 4.35am on April 27th, when its soldiers used machine guns and artillery against the Irish lines. The Germans knew the Irish would return fire: they would all approach the fire step to respond in kind, the front-line trenches packed with men.

Ten minutes later, and to plan, the Germans released chlorine gas from 3,800 cylinders on to the Irish lines. A “dense cloud of black gas and smoke between us and the sun” drifted across the Irish lines, according to Lieut Col Edward Bellingham, from Co Louth, the commanding officer of the 8th Royal Dublin Fusiliers.

Such was the density and scale of the gas that it poisoned two kittens well behind the lines. It could be smelled more than 20km away.

Under cover of the gas the German assault troops entered the fusiliers’ front-line trenches. The soldiers on both sides dreaded hand-to-hand combat most. Shells and machine-gun bullets at least had a degree of anonymity. The dead and wounded lay together often in a congealed mass of blood amid the choking gas, which gave everything a greenish pallor.

In this encounter the fusiliers came off worse. “Nearly all the men were killed or wounded,” Bellingham recorded in the regimental diary. The Germans “were put out again and the line held for the rest of the day by the remnants of the two companies.”

The night of April 27th was spent evacuating the injured and burying the dead, “identifying where possible”.

In two days 368 men of the 8th Royal Dublin Fusiliers were killed, wounded or missing, of a full battalion strength of 946. The list of casualties, which is included in the regimental diary, stretches to 10 pages.

Farther north, on the front of the 7th Inniskilling Fusiliers, the Germans infiltrated the trenches. In the ensuing outburst of savage hand-to-hand combat 66 men from the battalion were killed, but they held on and expelled the Germans.

The men were complimented for their courage. “You have proved yourselves good men of your country. Ireland can be proud of you,” their brigadier general, Philip Leveson-Gower, told them.

Although they had the advantage of gas and surprise, the Germans too suffered terribly in the trench raids. Their own dead numbered in the hundreds.

The following day was quiet, as the wind meant there could be no gas attack, but the Germans resumed hostilities on April 29th, the last day of the attack – and the last, and bloodiest, day of the Easter Rising.

The chlorine gas was carried over to the Irish lines on a light breeze; it took 45 minutes to drift across no-man’s-land. British air reconnaissance noticed that the gas trail left a trail of dead vegetation “down to the last blade of grass”.

The lingering gas killed many more men. “Scarcely a man could survive the attack,” Bellingham wrote. “The casualties from gas poisoning were more severe than on the 27th, owing presumably to the gas clouds meeting and remaining stationary and concentrated over the trenches.”

On April 29th the 8th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers replaced the 7th. It was their turn to face the Germans. Their 214 casualties included 62 dead.

Hundreds dying

The 8th Royal Munster Fusiliers, pressed into action on April 28th, were confronted with a ghastly sight. “I saw hundreds dying all round me,” wrote Pte Michael Ridge. “I was practically walking on dead bodies all the way. You take no notice of dead bodies out here.”

Although the men of the 16th Irish Division had respirators, they proved to be faulty. Burying the dead was left to the men of 47 Brigade, who had been in reserve.

“I thought I was accustomed to war and all its frightfulness, yet this fairly staggers me,” Capt Charles Weld of the 7th Leinster Regiment wrote in its diary.

Fr Doyle was equally confounded. “There they lay, scores of them (we lost 800, nearly all from gas) in the bottom of the trench, in every conceivable posture of human agony; the cloths torn off their bodies in a vain effort to breathe.”

One of the dead was Pte John Naylor of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, who died on April 29th. His wife, Margaret, was shot the same day, during the Easter Rising in Dublin, as she crossed Ringsend drawbridge. She had gone out to get bread for her children. She died two days later, leaving three orphans.

The Battle of Hulluch had been in vain. Perhaps 1,000 men died on both sides, but the 16th (Irish) Division had held the line at a terrible price. More than 2,200 men were killed, wounded or missing.

Redmond was doubly outraged by the rebellion, given what had happened in France: “Is it not an additional horror that on the very day when we hear that the men of the Dublin Fusiliers have been killed by Irishmen on the streets of Dublin we receive the news of how the men of the 16th Division – our own Irish Brigade, and of the same Dublin Fusiliers – had dashed forward and by their unconquerable bravery retaken the trenches that the Germans had won at Hulluch.”

“Heavy uproar in Ireland!"

Two days after the end of the gas attack the Germans hung a sign in front of the 8th Royal Munster Fusiliers. “Irishmen! Heavy uproar in Ireland! English guns are firing at your wifes and children.”

The man who ordered the capture of the sign – now in the National Museum of Ireland at Collins Barracks in Dublin – was Maj Larry Roche, second in command of the battalion. Roche had won an All-Ireland football medal with Limerick Commercials and chaired the Limerick county board. He was middle aged, propertied, a justice of the peace and a renowned athlete. He risked everything, including his life, in signing up to the British war effort. Afterwards he was targeted by the IRA and had to leave Ireland.

The 16th (Irish) Division suffered 2,000 additional casualties from May until it moved to the Somme, in August 1916.

All that remains of the division’s presence in this part of France is a beautiful marble statue in the Church of St Martin de Noeux-les-Mines. The church was destroyed by a German shell minutes before Notre Dame de Victoires was due to be placed on her pedestal. The statue was installed after the war, after the church had been rebuilt. The inscription translates as: “To the memory of the officers, subalterns and soldiers of the 16th (Irish) Division who died on the field of battle or who died of wounds or disease contracted during the war in France in 1916 RIP.”

Ronan McGreevy will speak at a conference on the Hulluch gas attacks organised by the Royal Dublin Fusiliers Association, at Dublin City Hall, today from 10.15am. His book Wherever the Firing Line Extends: Ireland and the Western Front will be published in June

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