Lessons learned and ignored: When two Irish divisions were united in Flanders Fields
The entire conflict has been portrayed simplistically as senseless and wasteful. That was far from the truth, writes Brendan O’Shea
Preparing to advance at Passchendaele, Flanders, 1917. Photograph from “Father Browne’s First World War” edited by by EE O’Donnell, published by Messenger Publications
A digital database of Ireland’s Memorial Records is located at the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres, Belgium. It can also be accessed online at imr.inflandersfields.be and contains the names of over 49,000 Irish soldiers, sailors and airmen who served in Irish regiments and died during the Great War. However, that tells merely half the story because amongst those who survived were countless others severely wounded, permanently disfigured, deeply traumatised and psychologically scarred for the rest of their lives.
Their world was also destroyed, as was that of the families to whom they returned who had no knowledge of what they experienced and were completely ill-equipped to deal with the consequences.
For the past 100 years these people, both living and dead, who came from every town and village in Ireland and from the diaspora beyond our shores, and who had served our country with dignity, honour and bravery in the ranks of several Allied armies, ended up becoming a national embarrassment. The gratitude they received from the vast majority of their fellow countrymen was to have the memory of their sacrifice ignored because it simply did not fit the preferred historical narrative.
To make matters worse, whenever discussion of their exploits raised its head, instead of being seen as a just and necessary response to unprovoked aggression it was frequently dismissed by suggesting that somehow or other they had all been duped into joining the services and were then sacrificed at the altar of military expediency by British generals who were either indifferent to their suffering or so out of touch with the reality of evolving warfare that they were incapable of adjusting their flawed strategic thinking.
The entire conflict was portrayed simplistically as senseless and wasteful with many critics of Irish involvement quite content to go one step further and claim it also to have been an act of treachery in the context of the revolutionary war being conducted concurrently at home by the Irish Republican Brotherhood.
In reality the Great War was none of that, and the uncomfortable truth is that over 49,000 Irishmen fought honourably and died in a just war which was both complex and multidimensional.
And 100 years ago, during the spring of 1917, two distinctly Irish units of the British Army – the 16th (Irish) Division and the 36th (Ulster) Division – were busy preparing to engage in a major battle, the outcome of which was expected to significantly alter the course of the entire war.
The units were commanded by two extremely competent Irish generals: Maj William Hickie from Terryglass, Borrisokane, Co Tipperary (16th Div) and Maj Gen Oliver Nugent from Farren Connell, Co Cavan (36th Div).
By the end of February 1916 95,000 new Irish recruits had enlisted (25,000 from the Ulster Volunteers, 22,000 from the Irish Volunteers, and 48,000 who were non-aligned) and, together with Irish personnel already in the regular army, these new soldiers made their way to France and Belgium where, after a period of adjustment and in-theatre training, they eventually became embroiled in the Battle of the Somme which lasted from July 1st to November 18th 1916.
This was attrition warfare at its worst and ultimately resulted in 420,000 British Army casualties, many of whom were Irish. On the first day alone 19,240 of that number were killed, with the 36th Ulster Division suffering almost 2,000 fatalities.
The 16th (Irish) Division suffered 4,330 casualties between September 1st and 10th, of which 1,067 were fatalities, including Lieut Tom Kettle, who died leading his company during the attack on the ruins of Ginchy village.
Whether the cost of this endeavour was worth the sacrifice; whether the entire enterprise should have been embarked upon at all without more comprehensive training; or whether there was adequate logistics support to sustain a prolonged attack are different questions entirely and require other answers.
However, it cannot be doubted that in spite of the resource shortfall and the horrific casualties which ensued, several military effects were achieved on the Somme and numerous valuable lessons were learned which would in turn enable both Irish divisions subsequently to take to the field of battle later on, side by side in common purpose.
In order to make that happen, when their operations on the Somme were complete both units were relocated north by rail into the Ypres sector where they joined the Second Army commanded by Gen Sir Hubert Plumer and coordinated by his chief of staff Maj Gen Tim Harington.
Having taken on replacements for those lost in previous months, the generals commenced a comprehensive programme of training, utilising two new training manuals (SS.135 & SS.143 –Training for Offensive Action) which would enable all three corps of the Second Army to mount a co-ordinated attack on the fortified German positions which occupied the strategically important terrain known as the Messines Ridge.
Plumer and Harington also determined that if an attack was to be successful the artillery would have to concentrate their fires in such force as to enable the infantry to advance on their objectives under the protection of a creeping barrage. No longer would the infantry simply leave their trenches and advance unprotected in wave after wave across open ground.
They also explored new ways to employ tanks, identified procedures for closer ground-to-air cooperation, integrated the use of mines into their planning, and continually studied new ways to exploit the effect of the numerous pieces of artillery now available to them. Plumer’s entire philosophy of warfare was based on three “T”s (Trust, Training and Thoroughness) together with a determination to concentrate his artillery in massive force, thereby giving the infantry the greatest protection possible. He also believed in continuous rehearsal until every soldier in his army clearly understood the part he was about to play.
Accordingly, when 19 huge mines exploded beneath the German strongpoints on the Messines Ridge at 0310 hours on the morning of June 7th, 1917, and all 2,266 artillery guns began to fire at their maximum rate, the Second Army’s 80,000 assaulting troops (supported by 72 Mk4 tanks) who left their trenches to begin the attack were as prepared as they possibly could be and clearly understood what they were required to do.
In the centre of the line were the two Irish divisions, brothers in arms, advancing side-by-side on German fortified positions amongst the ruins of Wytschaete village. The mines had done their work spectacularly, with most of the fortified positions destroyed, the artillery was providing the cover of a creeping barrage, and the German soldiers still occupying front line positions were for the most part disoriented and confused.
Some resistance was encountered in deeper positions, but the offensive spirit could not be curtailed, and by 1200 hours all objectives had been taken, 2,300 prisoners of war had been captured, and an advance of two miles had been achieved, thereby enabling the artillery to begin moving their guns forward in order to protect the gains made.
While cost was light, the 16th Division still suffered over 1,000 casualties, with 134 of those proving fatal, and amongst whom was Maj Willie Redmond, who was wounded twice leading his company of the 6th Battalion Royal Irish Regiment.
However, and of necessity, Redmond’s death was soon put to one side as both Irish divisions found themselves on the move once again. In many ways now the victims of their own success, they were assigned to the Fifth Army under Lieut Gen Hubert Gough in order to commence preparations for a major breakout from the Ypres Salient. The attack was scheduled to commence on July 31st and designed as a follow-up operation to exploit Plumer’s success at Messines.
However, this story was not about to end well for either Irish division; Fifth Army planning and preparation was so bad that the attacking troops had little prior knowledge of the terrain and defence systems through which they were expected to fight. In fact, the German defence system had been converted into several integrated lines of mutually supporting reinforced concrete pill boxes intermingled with wire, machine gun emplacements and strongpoints which were now almost impregnable, impervious to shellfire and virtually unaffected by the standard infantry assault across open ground.
Initially used to support other divisions in the first phase of the attack, and suffering huge numbers of casualties due to gunfire, shelling and the quagmire conditions caused by incessant rain, the ability of the both Irish divisions to continue operating competently was reducing by the hour.
Then they were reconstituted as attacking units in their own right and tasked to assault the village of Langemark on August 14th, even though by now completely exhausted and jaded. Nevertheless, two days later both Irish divisions attempted to complete their mission but were unable to cross the one mile of open ground before they could engage the German positions. They also found themselves faced with a massive German counterattack and before long were beaten back to their own start line. The attack had proved to be a complete failure, with the 16th Division alone suffering 988 dead and 3,287 wounded between August 1st and 20th – casualty rates from which it would never recover as the supply of replacements from Ireland had now literally dried up.
The Third Battle of Ypres would drag on until November 10th, 1917, and see Gough replaced by Plumer before the Canadians finally entered what remained of Passchendaele village at a total cost of 301,000 Allied casualties – one third of which were fatal. The Germans in turn suffered approximately 270,000 casualties and between them, Haig and Gough bore full responsibility for the futility of attempting a war-winning breakthrough when the possibility of success was so remote.
This time it was very difficult to justify the manner in which military assets were employed, especially when it became clear the required effects could not be achieved. Gough, in particular, stood accountable for failing to plan properly, and his unwillingness (or inability) to learn from Plumer’s methodology at Messines ultimately cost him his job in order to save Haig. The latter clearly should have called halt when it became clear the human cost had begun to outweigh any military or political gain.
The combined mistakes of Gough and Haig 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 – and even then with limited expectation of success.
But for a short time during the summer of 1917 Ireland was united on the battlefields of Belgium as the 16th (Irish) Division and the 36th (Ulster) Division came together in common cause to fight and die side by side in order to defeat aggression and ensure that small nations like our own could live in peace and freedom. This is something all Irish people, of every persuasion and none, can and should be immensely proud of. None of our soldiers who gave their lives in the cause of freedom deserve to be ignored or to have their memory expunged from the historical narrative. Rather it should be the solemn duty of succeeding generations to ensure that their names really do live for evermore.
Col Brendan O’Shea, a member of the Irish Defence Forces, holds a PhD in history from UCC. He is the author of numerous books and articles on the modern Yugoslav conflict, the Middle East and Irish history. In 2010, with Gerry White, he edited A Great Sacrifice – Cork Servicemen who Died in the Great War (Evening Echo Publications).