By Gary Enright
World War One “began on the 28 July 1914 when Austria declared war on Serbia following the assignation of Archduke Franz Ferdinand the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne” Russia declared war on Austria to aid its ally Serbia. With Germany being Austria’s ally (via the dual alliance) they declared war on Russia and following the failure to get guarantees of neutrality from Russia’s ally France, Germany declared war on France on August 3rd. “To strike at France, Germany needed to go through Belgium, her refusal to respect this neutrality, demanded a ultimatum, which brought Britain into the war on August 4”.
With Britain entering the war it was not long before Ireland became involved. “After months of debate John Redmond the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party made a famous speech at Woodenbridge on the 20th of September committing the Volunteers to serve abroad”. On the 11th September 1914, as part of his second new army, Kitchner the secretary of state for war authorised the formation of a 16th (Irish) Division, to be raised in Ireland. This was to contain a majority of Catholic Irish Volunteers. The 16th (Irish) Division’s most influential battle was the Battle of the Somme1916.
The 16th Divisions was withdrawn from the Hulluch sector on the 24th August and travelled to Corbie, east of Amiens. “On the 31st the division marched along the Amiens-Bray road to take its place as a reserve formation of XIV Corps, as part of the Fourth Army.” The Somme campaign was planned as a vast Anglo-French offensive to punch a hole in the German defense. On the 1st July an artillery bombardment moved deeper into the German positions, this signaled the British infantry to leave their trenches and alerted the Germans that the British were on the offensive. “The British opened the offensive on July 1st, they had to attack the crests of the hills heavily protected with barbed wire, behind the hills in dug-outs up to forty feet deep, the Germans waited secure from the artillery bombardment”. The opening day of the battle of the Somme ended with 60.000 casualties for the British, from which 20.000 were killed. It was the blackest day in the history of Britain.
On the 1st September the 16th Division’s 47th Brigade was in the line attached as reserve to the 20th Division. The 20th division was to capture Guillemont, a village north of the Somme. When the 20th Division was withdrawn it was left to the 16th Division’s 47th Brigade. The history of the battle speaks of “impetuous Irishmen charging in a wild rush” and the war correspondent of the Daily Chronicle reported “that the charge of the Irish troops through Guillemont was one of the most astonishing feats of war, all most too fast… A wild and irresistible assault” as one witness commented. After a number of counter attacks, Guillemont was captured. The 16th Division had won its first battle of honour. But the brigade’s casualties were heavy one thousand one hundred and forty-seven out of two thousand four hundred.
On the 4th September the 16th Division was ordered to capture the high ground around Leuze Wood north of Ginchy. The division was split up and sent to play its part in the mission of holding Bernafay Wood on 4th September. This resulted in twelve officers and two hundred other ranks in casualties. Another mission saw the 7th Royal Irish Fusiliers attacking Combles Trench, which resulted in defeat with eleven officers and two hundred and forty men killed and wounded. A Lieutenant of the 16th Division spoke of the situation “All three of our brigades have had a thorough grueling, have all done well and are still at it. This fighting is one of the goriest descriptions on both sides and the losses are wicked. Fortunately I think the hun gets quite as much as it gives…. The guns are never quiet a single moment now, night or day.”
Ginchy, a mile Northeast of Guillemont, was resisting all attempts of capture; this resulted in the involvement of the 16th Division. The 47th Brigade of whom the Rangers formed part was to cover the right flank of the 48th Brigade. The 8th Munster’s and the 6th Royal Irish would advance forward and be followed by the 6th Connaught and the 7th Leinster (these were all different sections of the 16th Division). The 47th Brigade failed following the failure to shell the German Trenches who in turn left the Brigade open to the German offences. This alone resulted in four hundred and forty eight casualties. The 48th Brigade proved more successful they successfully obtained Ginchy.
The 16th Division’s War ended on 10th September when the 3rd Guards Brigade relieved them. The 16th Division had fought exceptionally well on the Somme. It arrived there after a tiring six months in the Loos salient. It received no preliminary training over prepared ground but had been thrown into the Somme battle piecemeal .On the morning of 6th September the entire frontage of XIV Corps was being held by Irish battalions. General Ramsay’s report on the Ginchy fighting notes; When it is remembered that the troops had been out in so-called trenches, which were in reality merely shell-holes, for five days and nights prior to the attack. During which period they were wet through by rain and did not have the chance of obtaining a hot meal. I submit that the highest credit is reflected on all ranks, that the capture of Ginchy was affected under these conditions, and that the traditions of the Irish race were worthily upheld by these men of the New Armiens.” The Division received numerous other quotes of praise; Major William Redmond stated “the capture of the Guillemont and Ginchy was the best thing done on the Somme”. The war diary of the 16th Division noted “the spirit, courage and determination displayed by all ranks during these operations were beyond praise.”
The sacrifice for Ginchy and Guillemont remains debatable. Their capture had some tactical value but in realistic terms the only justification for these battles was that they played some small part in the steady process of wearing down the Germans. The Somme battle officially ended on 18 November. Victory on the Somme came at a price from the 1st to 10th September the division lost two hundred officers and four thousand and ninety men out of four hundred and thirty five officers and ten thousand four hundred and ten men who started the battle. Over one thousand men of the 16th Division had been killed on the Somme.
The 16th Division’s sacrifice in the Battle of the Somme for the past number of years has been forgotten. Only today is the Irish involvement being remembered 81 years latter. On the 11th November a round tower was unveiled by President Mary McAleese, Queen Elizabeth and Albert 11 of Belgium in memory of the Irish sacrifice in World War 1.
Bibliography Denman, T. Irelands Unknown Soldiers, Irish Academic Press, Dublin Ireland 1992 Dungan, M. Irish Voices from the Great War, Colour Books Ltd, Dublin 1995 Garraty , J. The Columbia History of the World, Harper and Row Publishers Gunner, C. Front of the Line, Adventures with the Irish Brigade. Greystone Books 1991 Hartigan, M. Europe 1870-1970 Recent Times. School and College Publishing Limited Ireland 1986. Mercer, D. Chronicle of the 20th century, Chronicle Publishing Belgium 1993.
Internet source http;//www.nedstat. nl/cgibin /viewstat
One source used for this essay was the book Irelands Unknown Soldier by T. Denman published in Dublin 1992. The Book follows the story of Ireland’s involvement in The Great War 1914-18. It centres on the 16th (Irish) Division.