Somewhere in the chalky uplands of French Flanders lie the bodies of 162 Irishmen who died 100 years ago this month in a battle hardly anybody remembers.
Millions of men died in the first World War and have no known grave, but it is rare, despite all the unspeakable carnage, that the dead of a whole regiment would disappear without a trace.
The 2nd battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment had performed a redoubtable rearguard action at the Belgium town of Mons on August 23rd, 1914, which saved the British army from disaster, but they suffered a catastrophe at the French hamlet of Le Pilly just six weeks later.
The battle was part of the “Race to the Sea”, one of the first World War’s great misnomers. There was no race to the sea, just the Allies and the Germans who sought to attack each other’s flanks until the North Sea intervened.
The Royal Irish was part of the British Army’s 3rd Division which had taken its place in a line from Ypres to the Somme to ensure that the Germans would not capture the Channel ports. The unseasonably chilly days of mid-October were the last when the opposing forces faced each other in open warfare. At 3pm on October 19th, 1914, the Royal Irish Regiment crossed a turnip field attacked the German line with the commanding officer Maj Edward Daniell directing operations from behind a haystack.
The Irish successfully drove the Germans out of Le Pilly on October 19th under heavy shelling. They suffered an unknown number of dead while 165 wounded were evacuated. The wounded turned out to be the lucky ones.
The plan had been that the French would attack the neighbouring village of Fournes, but that attack never materialised.
During the night of October 19th, Maj Daniell asked for reinforcements to protect the flanks of his men who had dug in and made shallow trenches. The 4th Middlesex promised to assist at first light, but they were prevented from doing so by fierce German shelling.
The Irish were now on their own. The Germans ruthlessly exploited their weakness and surrounded them, cutting them off from their division. They were shelled and endured machine gun fire. At 4pm on October 20th, the regiment surrendered.
On October 19th, the Royal Irish had a battalion strength of 904 in all ranks. Two days later, all that stood to arms were 136 men who had been held in reserve.
Some 170 were killed and 302 taken prisoner. Just 100 were walking wounded. Among the prisoners was one Maurice Meade, who joined Roger Casement’s German regiment and fought with the Germans in Egypt. He returned to Ireland after the war, joined the IRA and then the pro-treaty forces.
The dead included Maj Daniell; 16-year-old Private Stephen Collins from Waterford city, one of four brothers to die in the war; and 2nd Lieutenant Alan Anderson from Dublin, described by his father as someone who“had just come down from Oxford, a boy of fine promise, full of love of his country”. Only the remains of eight have a grave.
The missing are commemorated on two panels at the Le Touret memorial nearby.
The regimental diaries for October 21st are chilling in their brevity. “Little evidence is available of what happened on this day.” It was a year before a narrative filtered through, provided by Capt James Smithwick from Kilkenny who was part of a prisoner of war exchange. His version of events was corroborated by a German prisoner of war Lieut Martens who, by coincidence, was captured by the same battalion he had fought against.
The loss of so many young men must have cut a swathe of grief and uncertainty through the counties of Waterford, Wexford, Tipperary and Kilkenny, from where the regiment drew its soldiers.
Yet, the battle left no folk memory in the southeast. Puzzled by this, the local historian Michael Desmond from near Clonmel, where the regiment was based, has been studying the Battle of Le Pilly for the last eight years.
On October 25th, he will give a lecture in the village of Herlies to a French audience curious to find out about a battle which occurred on their soil, but which they know nothing about.
Aside from a single bullet hole in the roof of the recently restored train station, there is no evidence that a battle ever took place.
He lives in hope that somewhere in the German military archives, there is an account of what the Germans did with the bodies of the men who were killed. If their bodies can be located, they can be given the proper soldierly and Christian burial that they deserve.