New details of gas attack on Irish born soldiers in 1916 emerge
Details of over 500 soldiers killed have been revealed by the UK National Archives in Kew
The National Archives: The list of casualties stretches to 10 pages.
In the space of three days between April 27th and April 29th 1916, while fighting was going on in Dublin, the Germans released poison gas into trenches held by British soldiers from the predominantly Irish 16th Division at Hulluch in France.
In advance of the 100th anniversary of the start of the first World War, the UK National Archives has released almost 4,000 diaries belonging to cavalry and infantry regiments which fought on the western front. The account of the gas attack is contained in the war unit diaries of the 8th Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers.
It is written by the officer in charge, Lieut Colonel Edward Bellingham from Co Louth, who wrote that the gas warning was given at 4.45am and by 5.30am on April 27th “a dense cloud of black gas and smoke between us and sun” settled over the Irish lines followed by a heavy bombardment of the frontline trenches.
The bombardment switched to the reserve and communications trenches and then the Germans entered the Irish trenches where hand-to-hand fighting ensued. “Nearly all our men were killed or wounded,” he wrote. The attack was eventually repulsed.
Burying the dead
The following day was spent burying the dead, but the gas returned on April 29th and settled over the trenches without any wind to move it.
“Scarcely a man could survive the attack,” he 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.”
The Germans poured chlorine gas into the lines which caused soldiers to choke to death or to be so incapacitated that they could not resist an enemy attack. Though the men of the 16th Irish Division had respirators, they proved to be faulty.
In two days the 8th Battalion lost 368 men out of 946. The list of casualties, which is included in the diary, stretches to 10 pages.
The 7th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers also suffered huge casualties as they were targeted on April 29th. They lost 263 men out of 647. In his diary the unit commander, who is not named, praised the Inniskilling Fusiliers for repulsing the attack.
“You have proved yourself to be good men of your country. Ireland can be proud of you. In future when asked what battalion did you belong to, you can say with pride you were in the 7th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, a fighting battalion, and you will not have to say anything further.”
On May 1st in the sector of the 16th Irish Division the Germans hung out a famous placard in front of the Irish lines which read: “Irishmen! Heavy uproar in Ireland. English guns are firing on your wives and children 1st May 1916.” It was shot up by the 8th Royal Munster Fusiliers and captured in a night raid.
The diaries can be accessed at https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/first-world-war/