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Irish soldiers have a proud history over hundreds of years of service with the British army.
They were always regarded as hardy soldiers, resourceful and brave, nowhere more so than in the set piece engagements that characterised the First World War. From Generals such as Field Marshal Sir John French, Commander of the British Expeditionary Force who, although born in England was of Irish descent, to 14 years old Private John Condon of the Royal Irish Regiment, recognised as one of the youngest casualties of the war. Scratch the surface of any major Great War engagement and you will find an Irishman.
A flavour of Irish involvement
For the British Expeditionary Force, the first set piece battle of the war. Different from many of the First World War battles, this was a battle of movement, where the heavily outnumbered soldiers of the BEF attempted to stop the German army sweeping through southern Belgium into Northern France. The first contact the BEF had with the German army in the First World War was by cavalry of the 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards on the morning of 22nd August 1914. In the subsequent battle the 2nd Battalion Royal Irish Regiment sustained heavy casualties. Despite holding the German advance, due to a French withdrawal the British were also obliged to withdraw to avoid being isolated. The first posthumous Victoria Cross of the First World War was won at Mons by Lieutenant Maurice Dease in charge of the machine guns of the 4th Royal Fusiliers. He was a native of Mullingar, Co Westmeath.
As warfare on the Western Front descended into the stalemate of trench warfare, a proposal was made to attack the Germans from the south, by mounting an attack in the Dardanelles and driving north through Turkey. The chief architect of this plan was Winston Churchill, who managed to overcome the objections of those who believed that concentrating on the Western Front was the only way to defeat Germany. The offensive was a debacle from the start and led to a humiliating withdrawal in January 1916 after many thousands of British, Irish, Australian, New Zealand and French troops were killed. Not to mention thousands of the mainly Turkish defenders. The first troops ashore in the amphibious landing on 25th April, were from the 1st Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers. Closely followed by the 1st Battalion Royal Munster Fusiliers. Both battalions were nearly annihilated by the defenders accurate machine gun and rifle fire. The 1st Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers also landed that day. For the duration of the offensive, there was strong Irish involvement, with the newly constituted 10th (Irish) Division playing a prominent role. In addition, many ANZAC (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps) casualties were recent emigrants from Ireland, or of Irish descent.
Two years into the war and finally the British and French were beginning to coordinate their efforts. The Commander of the French Army, General Joffre had planned a number of offensives for 1916 and requested that the British assist. Greater urgency was placed on this request due to pressure being exerted on the French by the Germans at Verdun. The lead for the proposed joint Somme offensive then passed to the British, with the French playing a minor role. Originally planned for 29th June the attack was postponed to 1st July due to bad weather. On the first day of the battle allied casualties numbered nearly 60,000. The major Irish involvement was that of the 36th (Ulster) Division, the majority of whom were recruited in the north of Ireland. They were amongst the few who achieved their objectives but sustained over 50% casualties – over 5,000 men, including 2,100 dead. The battle ground on for four months also involving the 16th (Irish) Division, Canadian, South African, Australian and New Zealand troops, but the anticipated breakthrough never materialised.
The objective of the Battle of Messines, was to seize Messines Ridge from the Germans as it dominated the Allied front line and supply routes to the rear. Capturing the ridge would assist the French as it forced the Germans to reinforce their defences at Messines using reserves facing the French. The battle opened at 3.10 am on 7th June with the detonation of 19 mines under the German defences utilising nearly 44 tons of explosives. From an Irish perspective the battle is significant due to the joint attack of the 16th (Irish) Division and the 36th (Ulster) Division who seized the strategically important village of Wytschaete, which dominated the ridge. Australian and New Zealand troops of the 2nd ANZAC Corps were also successful in achieving their objectives despite sustaining heavy casualties.
The 16th (Irish) Division and the 36th (Ulster) Division were to bear the brunt of this German offensive, code-named Operation Michael. The Germans’ objective with a massive concentration of manpower, was to break through to the Somme and isolate the British army in Flanders. The offensive opened with a massive bombardment targeting British lines of communication, and then the Germans deployed what came to be known as stormtroopers for the first time. These small, highly trained groups of soldiers were trained to punch holes in the defences and keep forward momentum leaving pockets of resistance to be dealt with by reinforcements following behind. The Germans had plenty of manpower due to the redeployment of Divisions from the Eastern front. The plan very nearly succeeded with the Germans advancing nearly 40 miles, but ultimately stretching their lines of communication too far. Each of the Irish Divisions sustained more than 7,000 casualties in this offensive, which basically rendered them ineffective as fighting units.
"At 1130 pm on Saturday 15 May 1915, men of the 2nd Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers advanced to attack strongly held German defences near the village of Festubert in northern France. By the time they were relieved forty-eight hours later near midnight on 17 May, they had sustained 649 … more
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