Irishmen killed in forgotten first World War battle to be remembered

New memorial to be unveiled in France to the 177 men who died at Le Pilly outside Lille

The Battle of Le Pilly was a short but bloody encounter which led to the destruction of a proud Irish regiment in October 1914. Video: Ronan McGreevy

 

In October 1914, 177 men from the Royal Irish Regiment, a regiment that recruited predominantly in the counties of Waterford, Wexford, Tipperary and Kilkenny, were killed outside Lille.

The Battle of Le Pilly, as it became known, was a terrible encounter which occurred during the so-called “Race to the Sea” in the early days of the first World War.

Having initially taken the village of Le Pilly, now a suburb of Lille, the men from the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment became isolated from their supporting division.

They were surrounded and either killed or captured. Of the 904 who presented to arms on October 19th just 136 were available three days later. The battalion diary was chilling in its succinctness. “Little evidence is available of what happened on this day”.

The memorial emphasises peace and the inscription remembering those who died in the battle is in English, French and German

One Irish survivor of Le Pilly who had been a veteran of many British colonial campaigns, said of the battle: “You could not call it war. It is murder and nothing like the game as it is played in Africa and the Chitral Expeditions, through both of which I went.”

The battle claimed the lives of 29 men from Waterford, 27 each from Tipperary and Wexford and 13 from Kilkenny.

Among the dead were 16-year-old Private Stephen Collins from Waterford city, one of four brothers to die in the war, and Captain James Smithwick from Kilkenny, a scion of the famous brewing dynasty who died afterwards from his wounds.

Ireland's own 'Saving Private Ryan'

Accidental rediscovery

Yet, this battle was completely forgotten about until it was rediscovered by Tipperary-based historian Michael Desmond quite by accident 15 years ago. He had been retracing the war records of a man who had been killed at the Battle of Mousetrap Farm in May 1915 who had been serving with the same battalion as the men killed at Le Pilly.

Mr Desmond found a footnote on the battle in a contemporary book and his interest was particularly piqued by the reference in the battalion diary to no information being available about what had happened.

He spent eight years piecing together what had happened at Le Pilly. His research came to the attention of locals in Le Pilly which is now incorporated into the Lille suburb of Herlies. It solved a century-old puzzle for them. The whole area had been evacuated during the German occupation in the first World War and yet a German painting, which hangs in Herlies town hall, showed a battle which occurred locally.

They knew nothing either about the Battle of Le Pilly and were keen to find out more. In 2014 Mr Desmond visited Herlies and gave a presentation about the battle.

Locals resolved to remember the Irish who died at Le Pilly before the centenary of the first World War was out.

They will make good on that promise when a new memorial is unveiled on the site where the battle occurred 104 years ago this weekend.

The monument consists of three stones, each weighing two tonnes, designed by the French sculptor Frédéric Cassarano. They are based on drawings of soldiers by another French artist Virginie Gallois who said she hoped the monument would teach passers-by “restraint and humility, the hope of not starting wars again”.

Peace

The memorial emphasises peace and the inscription remembering those who died in the battle is in English, French and German.

The monument will be unveiled by the Irish ambassador to France Patricia O’Brien and the Mayor of Herlies Marie Francoise Auger. Mde Auger said she was overcome with emotion when the stones were put in place a few months ago.

“Four years ago, we did not even know there was a battle at Pilly. And today, we have before our eyes this magnificent work that stands here,” she said.

The monument is one of three unveiled this year on the Western Front to the Irish who died in France during the first World War.

In July a memorial was erected in the village of Essigny-le-Grand to the men from both the 16th (Irish) Division and 36th (Ulster) Division who were killed during the German Spring Offensive of 1918.

Last week men from the 6th Connaught Rangers, who were killed during the German Spring Offensive and were drawn mostly from the nationalist Falls Road in Belfast, were remembered on a new plaque in the village of Ronssoy.