The last days of the 16th (Irish) Division

The 50,000-strong unit paid a high price to restore peace to France and Belgium: in the final two years of the first World War, 27,000 became casualties, of which 8,000 men lost their lives

German soldiers on the offensive. Photograph: Neurdein/Roger Viollet/Getty

German soldiers on the offensive. Photograph: Neurdein/Roger Viollet/Getty

 

At 4.40am on the morning of March 21st, 1918, three German armies unleashed 6,473 heavy guns and 3,532 trench mortars upon 50 miles of the Western Front then occupied by the Third and Fifth British Armies. Calculating ammunition requirements by the “train-load” and firing in excesses of three million gas and high-explosive shells, a deluge of death and destruction pulverised the exposed soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) for a full five hours. The impact was catastrophic, and created wholesale confusion, but this was only the prelude to a huge follow-on ground offensive designed to break the Allied line, advance and capture Paris, and push the British all the way back to the Channel Ports.

Operation Michael was one of the most decisive moves of the entire war – and in the middle of the Allied front line near the villages of Ronssoy and Lempire stood the 16th (Irish) Division with orders from their army commander, Gen Hubert Gough, amounting to little more than a crude directive to hold their ground and prevent a breakthrough. Outnumbered six to one by virtually the entire German Second Army, the 16th (Irish) Division was about to die on the battlefields of France and the political dream which had inspired its creation four years previously would end amidst the chaos of a battle which could and should have been fought in an entirely different way.

Had wiser counsel prevailed within the headquarters of the BEF, and had Gen Gough not decided to defend an un-defendable line, it is reasonable to argue the result could have been significantly different – at least in terms of the numbers of casualties sustained. At 100 years remove, it is now appropriate to re-examine the last days of the 16th (Irish) Division and the events which led to the destruction of a proud Irish fighting force who went to war for many reasons – but primarily for the Glory of God and the Honour of Ireland.

Raised in Ireland in 1915, drawn from every parish in the country, and representing all religious denominations and none, the horrors of this war quickly became apparent when during Easter Week 1916 the Division deployed into the trenches at a place called Hulluch, France, and suffered hundreds of casualties when attacked with phosgene and chlorine gas. Later, they were moved south to partake in the Battle of the Somme and although distinguishing themselves in victory at Guillemont and Ginchy in September, they continued to suffer appalling losses. By the end of 1916, the Division had suffered more than 10,000 casualties, of whom 20 per cent were fatal.

The grave of an unknown Irish soldier lies in the Messines Ridge military cemetery in Messines, Belgium. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
The grave of an unknown Irish soldier lies in the Messines Ridge military cemetery in Messines, Belgium. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Disaster at Frezenberg

A victory at Messines Ridge in Flanders in June 1917 fighting side by side with the 36th (Ulster) Division was followed by disaster at Frezenberg, east of Ypres, from August 16th to 18th when bad senior leadership insisted on a strategy of trying to smash though five interlocking lines of German fortifications. This simply could not work and resulted in another 4,000 casualties.

By January 1918, the Division had returned to the Fifth Army in France and took over 7,000 yards of front line previously occupied by the French – but it was now a shadow of its former self. Recruiting in Ireland had effectively ended, Irish identity was being lost, and replacements were drafted in from all over England.

Then the commanding officer, Maj Gen William Hickie, from Tipperary, became ill and was replaced by Maj Gen Amyatt Hull, who was working with Irish soldiers for the first time. To make matters worse, every division in the BEF was then reduced by 25 per cent. This was directly related to a blanket refusal by prime minister David Lloyd George to release any further reserves to France and Belgium and came at the very moment Germany was re-locating several divisions from the Eastern Front following Russia’s capitulation when it signed the punitive Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on March 3rd.

Faced with all of these changes, British commander-in-chief Gen Douglas Haig correctly decided to weight his overall defence in favour of protecting the channel sports in the north and to accept risk further south where the Third and Fifth Armies were deployed. In that context, it was also incumbent upon him to instruct his general staff and army commanders to minimise that risk by taking proper measures to preserve the lives of his soldiers, who were all now seriously exposed.

However, rather than develop a concept of mobile defence, the general staff attempted to copy the defensive tactics used by the Germans in Flanders the previous year without fully understanding them, or having either the resources or time to construct the fortifications required.

What all divisions in both armies were tasked to do was create a forward zone close to the front line to disrupt the first wave of attack, a battle zone 2,000 yards further back to engage the enemy from fortified positions, and a rear zone four to eight miles further back again from which counter attacks could be launched. Essentially, these three zones would constitute the complete defence until they were either over-run or the enemy withdrew.

There was no plan to trade time for space by thinning out the forward zone before the main attack, nor to occupy the battle zone for only for a limited time before moving back into the rear zone from where the enemy could be engaged when most vulnerable. Equally, it appears nobody paid adequate attention to intelligence assessments or to the information coming from the civilian network of train watchers known as La Dame Blanche – all of which clearly identified the size of the force now being massed against them.

Not properly prepared

Instead, both the Third and Fifth Armies effectively locked their troops into rigid static positions which were not properly prepared, were two widely dispersed, could not mutually support each other and were effectively guaranteed to crumble if the German artillery bombardment was successful – which it was.

Therefore, out on the front line near Ronssoy, men from the Dublin Fusiliers, Munster Fusiliers, Royal Irish Regiment, Inniskilling Fusiliers and the Connaught Rangers all awaited the German attack and on that fateful morning the 16th (Irish) Division and the 66th (East Lancashire) Division beside them suffered the highest fatalities of all other divisions in the line – 721 and 791 respectively. The artillery bombardment pulverised the ground, the dead and dying lay everywhere, German stormtroops sprinted from the fog like ghostly shadows, and the forward zone was overrun in minutes.

Thereafter, some heroic actions took place in the battle zone but the casualties mounted and ammunition stocks quickly expired. The Fifth Army’s defensive system was a shambles and the chaotic withdrawal westwards which ensued was not orderly – it was a rout. At 2pm, Gen Gough finally issued orders to his corps commanders to begin a fighting retreat but by then it was far too late. The damage had already been done and was typified by the plight of the 7th Battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment, who started the battle that morning with 650 of all ranks. By 7pm, that evening there was just 41 still standing.

Twenty four hours after the attack began, the Germans had captured almost 150sq miles of terrain and punched a hole 20 miles deep into Allied defences. With casualties still mounting, on March 26th the remaining elements of the 16th (Irish) Division did manage to hold off a German attack for four hours before having to withdraw until by April 4th they could fight no longer. Fortunately, the German offensive also ran out of steam a few miles from the town of Amiens on the same day. Fifteen days of non-stop fighting had resulted in 7,149 casualties for 16th (Irish) Division, which when the final cost was calculated would prove to be one of the highest number suffered by any division in this particular battle.

Recriminations started

And then the recriminations started. Gough was fired and a variety of senior officers offered opinions that the Irish had not fought well and were probably affected by political change taking place in Ireland. Gen Hull, to his credit, immediately refuted these allegations and pointed out the heroic action of numerous Irish soldiers in the face of impossible adversity.

The reality is that there was nothing whatever to support this whispering campaign nor was there any evidence to suggest that political demoralisation had played any part whatsoever in the Division’s performance. They had fought bravely and hopelessly against a powerful enemy who outnumbered them six to one, and GenHubert Gough’s failure to plan and execute a proper mobile defence had effectively ensured this battle could only end in failure. While the Fifth Army fought tenaciously on their 38-mile retreat, and ultimately did not break, they managed to do this in spite of a coherent plan – not because of one. The 16th (Irish) Division deserved better leadership from their army commander in March 1918 – the reality is they did not get it.

Of the 50,000 officers and men served with 16th (Irish) Division from January 1st, 1916, to April 4th, 1918, 27,603 of them became casualties and the fatality rate was almost 30 per cent. This is the price one Irish unit paid to restore freedom to France and Belgium. Their endeavours were noble and their cause was just – and their sacrifice should never be forgotten.

Special order of the day by Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, Tuesday, April 11th, 1918:

Many amongst us now are tired. To those I would say that Victory will belong to the side which holds out the longest. The French Army is moving rapidly and in great force to our support.

There is no other course open to us but to fight it out. Every position must be held to the last man: there must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause each one of us must fight on to the end. The safety of our homes and the Freedom of mankind alike depend upon the conduct of each one of us at this critical moment.

Former Allied commander Ferdinand Foch writing in ‘The Irish Times’ in November 1928:

Some of the hardest fighting in the terrible days that followed the last offensive of the Germans fell to the Irishmen, and some of their splendid regiments had to endure ordeals that might justly have taxed to breaking point the capacity of the finest troops in the world. Never once did the Irish fail me in those terrible days.

In the critical days of the German offensive,when it was necessary that lives should be sacrificed by the thousand to slow down the rush of the enemy, in order that our harassed forces should have time to reform, it was on the Irish that we relied repeatedly to make these desperate stands, and we found them respond always.

Dr Brendan O’Shea is a former Irish Army officer and currently education officer (Ireland) with the Western Front Association

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