An Irishwoman’s Diary on a strange meeting near Ypres in 1915

A story from the western front

Royal Dublin Fusiliers

Royal Dublin Fusiliers

 

My father, Standish Smithwick, met the young German at the Christmas truce in 1914 who had once wounded him. The incident shook all his notions of warfare and continued to do so until he died, 44 years later. He was a humane man and the only person I have heard with anything good to say about trench warfare.

Apparently “mini-truces” were quite usual, right up to the mud-bound tragedy of Passchendaele. He talked about smelling frying bacon in the German trenches when they were close together and the men shouting fairly friendly abuse from both sides.

Early in 1915, my father was further wounded when a grenade hit his rifle. A sizeable piece of gunmetal lodged in his forearm and scores of splinters lodged in his arm and side.

Surgeon’s saw

Never one to hang about, he got a special licence and married his first wife and childhood sweetheart, Dolly Webb, at St Anne’s Church in Dawson Street. “He in plaster, she in tears”, said a spiteful wedding guest.

There was still deadlock in the trenches on the western front when my father was sent back after a short honeymoon in and out of hospital. The ending of the First Battle of Ypres in mid-November 1914 had resulted in a salient around the Flemish city of Ypres. In an attempt to break out of the deadlock and through the Ypres salient, using poisonous gas for the first time in large quantities, the Germans launched an attack on the city in April 1915. Canadian and Algerian troops suffered terrible losses in that gas attack.

Breakthrough

My father was back with the regiment, second in command to Col Loveband in the 2nd battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers. The focus of this later attack was at a farm named Mouse Trap Farm located about five kilometres north east of Ypres. It is still there, rebuilt, to this day. My father went to see what was happening, as the farmhouse seemed deserted. He walked through a wood, approaching from the side. It was at a back corner of the farmhouse that he met the young German, Sigmund, again. They stopped and stared, revolvers in their hands. Neither spoke. Then they turned round and returned the way they had come.

Gas attack

When the gas was discharged, it tended to sink, so the men in the trenches, with only the most basic protection or none, suffered hideously. Those with none coughed up their lungs and took up to four hours to die. I have read several accounts of the Canadians’ fate in the early gas attacks that failed to mention the Irish regiments.

For the Irish troops 1915 was a dreadful year. By a coincidence of history, the 1st Royal Dublin Fusiliers suffered appalling losses at Gallipoli in late April, while the 2nd Battalion was ravaged at Mouse Trap Farm a month later. These attacks almost finished the two Regular battalions of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. According to the war diary of the 2nd RDF, between April 25th and May 25 , 1915, the battalion lost 1,528 men, killed, wounded or missing. In 1917, the battalions were amalgamated.

In late April, in just thirty-six hours of combat, the 1st RDF in Gallipoli had suffered a loss of some 638 men. At Mouse Trap Farm my father was lucky. He wasn’t in the direct line of the gas. He was with the commanding officer, Col Loveband, who was killed the following day. The Germans had failed in their attempts to break through the Ypres salient and 1915 ended as it had begun, in stalemate.