Easter Week, 1916 : A Double Tragedy

Irish homes in mourning.

41 Irish soldiers died in the Dublin Rising, and 581 in the Battle of Hulluch in France. Well over 1,000 were wounded in the battle, including many gassed. For the rest of their lives these men suffered chronic lung and breathing difficulties. 

16th Division Insignia

16th Division Insignia

 

16th (Irish) Division is blooded 

Training

The Division was authorised in Ireland in September 1914.

47 Brigade 48 Brigade 49 Brigade
6th Royal Irish Regiment 8th Royal Munster Fusiliers 7th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers
7th Royal Irish Rifles 9th Royal Munster Fusiliers 8th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers
6th Connaught Rangers 8th Royal Dublin Fusiliers 7th Royal Irish Fusiliers
7th Leinster Regiment 9th Royal Dublin Fusiliers 8th Royal Irish Fusiliers

After training in Ireland and England, 47th and 48th Brigades moved to France in December 1915. 49th Brigade, the Ulster Brigade, was held back for further training.

Recruiting had been slow because many Ulstermen had joined 10th (Irish) and 36th (Ulster) Divisions. In February 1916, 49 Brigade sailed for France, with pipers of 7th Inniskillings playing “The Sprig of Shillelagh’.

Training for the whole Division had been fairly rudimentary. They were not to know that within a month of becoming fully operational in France they were to face one of the heaviest gas attacks of the year. There was no introduction to gas warfare or anti-gas training or drills.  Rudimentary gas masks were issued. These were the PH face masks (the Tube Helmet) which consisted of layers of flannel cloth impregnated with chemicals to protect against chlorine and phosgene gas.

PH Gas Mask

PH Gas Mask

During the first two months of the year, battalions were made familiar with trench life, given more training and were employed on trench digging duties. There was also some action and the first casualties.

With the arrival of 49th Brigade, 16th Division became fully operational on 1st March. It moved into the Hulluch and Puits 14 Bis (a coal mine) sector in the Loos salient. An advantage of the area was the plentiful supply of pit baths! Opposite was the German 4th Bavarian Division.

St Patrick’s Day

Every effort was made to make the 17th March a holiday. After Mass, brigade sports were organised, and evening battalion concerts held.

Loos Salient, showing Hulluch

Loos Salient, showing Hulluch

The Battle of Hulluch (North-East France) 27-29 April 1916

16th (Irish) Division faced its first big enemy attack.

27th April       

A gas attack struck the whole of 48th and 49th Brigades.

There had been some warning. A German deserter gave some indication, aerial reconnaissance showed gas cylinders in enemy lines and swarms of rats were seen leaving German trenches as they sought to escape leaking gas. On the British side, anti-gas agent sprays were checked and the gas helmets made ready. Defences, especially wire, were strengthened. In 49 Brigade, 7th Inniskillings and 8th Irish Fusiliers were up front, 8th Inniskillings and 9th Irish Fusiliers in support.

German Gas Attack

German Gas Attack

At 0435, the German attack began with intense machine gun and rifle fire. Ten minutes later a heavy artillery barrage began. Almost simultaneously, gas, a mixture of chlorine and phosgene (choking gases), was released from German positions, and a gentle breeze carried it forward across no man’s land. Visibility was reduced to three yards.

As the gas lingered over the battalions’ trenches, the bombardment lifted and moved rearward. It now included tear gas shells. Under cover of the gas and smoke, the Germans attacked. The feet and legs of the attacking troops were visible under the gas cloud and the Irish battalions opened up with rifle and machine gun fire.

German troops broke into several Irish trenches, and close hand-to-hand fighting followed. Some Irish prisoners were taken but many were killed by British counter-barrages. Though many gas casualties were inflicted, most Irish casualties were caused by the German bombardment which destroyed the front line trenches. Irish reinforcements were sent forward and eventually the Germans were driven from the trenches.

The 7th Inniskillings particularly distinguished themselves. The Times war correspondent said, “never was a job more quickly or more cleanly done”. Some 450 German dead were counted in front of 48th and 49th Brigades’ trenches. Two hours later a renewed gas and bombardment took place, followed by another attack which was beaten off. The wind changed and the German gas was blown back into their trenches. As the German soldiers tried to escape, British artillery and Irish machine guns took a heavy toll.

The 7th Inniskillings bore the brunt of the attack, and lost 68 soldiers killed, 52 wounded and 137 gassed. The commanding officer, Lt Colonel Young, said,

I desire to express to all ranks my high appreciation of their conduct and bearing,  when they displayed a high standard of courage and endurance”.

The Brigadier-General of 49th Brigade said to the survivors,

“When defending a position under a storm of shrapnel, high explosive etc, and at the same time being subjected to three gas attacks, as you were on 27thit is easy to get excited and cause a panic. You, however, stood firm, counter-attacked, and absolutely defeated the enemy’s attack. You have seen the worst of it, and have shown by your steadiness, coolness, and courage that you are good soldiers. You have proved yourselves good men of your country, Ireland can be proud of you”.

It was after this that the Battalion became known as the ‘Fighting Seventh’.

28th April was a quiet day, spent recovering the dead, wounded and gassed. Long lines of men filed down the choked and chaotic communication trenches, making their way to the Regimental Aid Post before being evacuated to Casualty Clearing Stations. The 8th Inniskillings relieved the 7th.

A lieutenant of the 7th Leinsters recorded the terrible task of recovering the dead and wounded:

“They were in all sorts of tragic attitudes, some of them holding hands like children in the dark”.

He and his men found themselves pestered for the next few days by “half-poisoned rats by the hundred”.

A chaplain, Fr William Doyle SJ, described the scene in a letter home:

There they lay in the bottom of the trench, in every conceivable posture of human agony; the clothes torn off their bodies in a vain effort to breathe, while from end to end of that valley of death came one long unceasing moan from the lips of brave men fighting and struggling for life”.

29th April 

At 0500, gas was released again, hitting the 8th Inniskillings, 8th Dublin Fusiliers and 8th Irish Fusiliers. It was preceded by a German artillery bombardment of the reserve and communication trenches. Again the Germans, as they massed for their attack, were overwhelmed by their own gas which forced them out of their own trenches into the open where they were caught by Divisional artillery and British small-arms fire. The expected German attack did not occur.

The 8th Inniskillings lost 63 killed and 214 wounded. In the two attacks the two Inniskilling Battalions lost nearly half their total strength. The 8th Royal Dublin Fusiliers (48 Brigade) had 183 men killed.  60 were buried in one shell hole.

Fermanagh’s dead

The men were all Inniskillings except two Royal Dublin Fusiliers (RDF):

2nd Lieutenant Noel Trimble, son of the proprietor of the local newspaper, The Impartial Reporter.

Corporal James Smith from Drumawill, Enniskillen

Lance Corporal Henry Phair from Lisnaskea

Lance Corporal Thomas Meehan from Monea

Lance Corporal Francis Beatty from Newtownbutler (RDF)

Private James Leonard (RDF) from London but whose parents came from Enniskillen

Private Irvine Brown from Shanmullagh

Private Patrick Boyle from Rosslea.

Five were killed by gas:

Corporal Peter Drumm from Enniskillen

Private Patrick McCabe from Derrygonnelly

Private Francis Donnelly from Enniskillen

Private Michael Corrigan from Belcoo

Thomas Cassidy from Irvinestown.

Fighting died down by 30 April and the Hulluch sector remained quiet for some time. The Germans had not had a particularly good experience with their own gas. On the British side there was an enquiry as to why there were so many gas casualties, even when gas masks were properly worn. Initially poor gas mask procedures or faulty masks were blamed but the limitations of the PH hoods became clear, particularly in high concentrations of gas. Production of the more effective French box gas masks was speeded up.

Post-script

German placard

German placard

News of the Dublin uprising travelled to the German lines. One placard erected by the Germans facing 16th

Division’s lines said:

Irishmen! Heavy uproar in Ireland.  English guns are firing on your wives and children.”

The 9th Munsters used the placards for target practice, and sent out patrols at night to seize them and bring them back to their trenches.

References:

The Battalion War Diaries

The Regimental Magazine, The Sprig of Shillelagh

Archives of the Inniskillings Museum

The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers in the Great War: Sir Frank Fox

Ireland’s Unknown Soldiers, The 16th (Irish) Division in the Great War: Terence Denman

Orange, Green and Khaki, The Story of the Irish Regiments in the Great War: Tom Johnstone

Deveron to Devastation, brother officers of 7th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers in the First World War: James Fraser Bourhill.

The Book of the Seventh(Service) Battalion of the Inniskilling Fusiliers, from Tipperary to Ypres: GA Cooper Walker

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