A courageous Inniskilling is killed during a trench raid, 15th/16th July 1916.
Trench raids were carried out by both sides, usually at night, for a variety of reasons:
- To obtain information on enemy defences and units.
- To capture prisoners for interrogation.
- To seize maps and documents.
- To maintain an ‘offensive spirit’ among the men. Many British officers felt that the men got slack during quiet times.
- To keep the enemy on edge, kill sleeping men and lower morale.
Faces blacked with burnt cork, a small group of lightly equipped men would crawl across no man’s land and invade the enemy trenches. As it was important to overcome resistance and sentries as silently as possible, and rifles and bayonets were too clumsy, the men were equipped with a variety of purpose made wooden and metal clubs, not far removed in design from medieval weapons. They also carried a supply of hand grenades to throw into dugouts as they left.
Raids were unpopular among the men, they were not voluntary and often brought enemy retaliation. Losses were very high, often for little meaningful return.
Cormac Wray, son of John Francis Wray, a solicitor in Enniskillen, was a member of the Irish Volunteer movement in Co Fermanagh. It was pledged to support the introduction of Home Rule in Ireland.
Like many nationalists, he responded to the call by John Redmond, political leader of the Home Rule movement, to enlist in the army on the outbreak of war.
After training as an officer, in April 1916 Cormac was posted to France to join the 8th Inniskillings, 16th (Irish) Division.
In early July, the Division was not on the Somme front, but was on a relatively quiet sector to the north, near Béthune. Cormac was killed in the aftermath of a trench raid.
The Battalion report on the raid runs to three pages. The purpose of this raid was to obtain information on the German defences opposite, on the other side of no man’s land. In this it was successful.
The raid was preceded by the explosion of two mines, which left craters about 60 yards wide near the German front line. Simultaneously, British artillery, trench mortars and machine guns swept the German trenches and parapets.
The raiding party of one officer (Cormac Wray) three NCOs and 18 men was divided into three squads. They left their trenches at 11.00 pm. The first two squads successfully entered the German trenches, bombing enemy dugouts as they advanced. Meanwhile, Cormac reconnoitred the enemy defences. After 35 minutes, he led two of the squads back, capturing a wounded German on the way. The third squad encountered fierce resistance and had to withdraw to one of the new craters.
While Cormac was preparing his report outlining the layout and construction of the German trenches, for example, he reported that the dugouts were 25 feet deep, were built in pairs and had two entrances, he learned that this squad was in difficulties. He returned to his men and found a fierce fight in progress around the crater against a greater number of the enemy. His determined action rallied the men and the Germans were driven back and dispersed. At this point he was severely wounded by an exploding grenade. He died shortly after being brought back to his trench.
He was 21 years old, and is buried in Philosophe Military Cemetery, alongside many of his comrades of 16th (Irish) Division. His headstone bears the inscription,
“Oh Holy Cross, under thy shadow I will rest.”
Nine other Inniskillings died in the raid, and 29 were wounded. This included men in the covering party which was in no man’s land.
The Division’s commanding officer, Major General Hickie, wrote to his father:
“Dear Mr. Wray,
I beg that you will accept the expression of my sympathy with you in the loss of your son. He was a very fine young soldier, and had he lived, he would have been recommended for the Military Cross for his gallant action on the day of his death. He had fulfilled his mission and had successfully accomplished the raid which puts us in possession of valuable information. It must be a consolation to you to know that your son died in the execution of his duty, and was not killed in back billets by a chance shot, but in the forefront and in the glow of success, and that he left an honourable name behind him.
Yours very truly, W.B. Hickie.”
The Military Cross could not be awarded posthumously.
Cormac was ‘Mentioned in Despatches’ (MiD), a decoration for bravery which could be awarded posthumously.