One hundred years ago today, after the largest preliminary bombardment ever fired, British, Newfoundland and French troops attacked in Picardy on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Originally in a supporting role to a larger French attack, the plan for the British was changed radically in the Spring of 1916 after the German attack at Verdun. The Battle of the Somme became a largely British offensive that aimed to draw German forces away from the besieged French defences north of that symbolically important city. The first day of the battle was a costly failure for the British—thirteen divisions attacked along a 25,000-yard front north of the River Somme and a little under 20,000 men were killed and twice that wounded with little to show for it. By 18 November, when the battle ended, the Allies had advanced up to six miles on a 16-mile front. Although casualty figures are difficult to know precisely, the cost was immense: over 146,000 British Empire and French troops were killed and over 620,000 wounded. The Germans suffered horrendous losses also, estimated at over 600,000, about a quarter of whom were killed.
It is impossible to know how many Irishmen died during the course of the battle. Irishmen served in almost every division of the British Army, in addition to making up 36th (Ulster) Division, which attacked at Thiepval on 1 July, and 16th (Irish) Division, which attacked at Guillemont and Ginchy in September (there were, for example, three Irish battalions in Pat’s 29th Division). In association with It’s a Long Way to Tipperary – An Irish Story of the Great War, a guest post by Nick Metcalfe pays tribute to the soldiers from Ireland who lost their lives during the battle.
‘Noise fearful and never ceasing…’
‘The Div South of us has got on pretty well except on our immediate right, which has been hung up.’ Pat Armstrong’s reference was to the attack by 36th (Ulster) Division astride the River Ancre. The majority of the Division attacked out of Thiepval Wood on the high ground south of the river, against the formidable Swaben Redoubt. On the north of the river, however, two battalions of 108th Brigade—12th Royal Irish Rifles and 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers—attacked from the trenches at Hamel on the immediate right of Pat’s Division. This was the attack that was ‘hung up’.
The Ulster Division largely comprised men of the Ulster Volunteers, raised to oppose the imposition of Home Rule for Ireland in the troubled period immediately prior to the war. The 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers—comprising men from counties Armagh, Cavan and Monaghan—was renowned for its discipline and cleanliness. Much of this reputation was down to the influence of its commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Stewart Blacker. Blacker was a former Royal Artillery officer and a driving force in the Unionist movement in County Armagh before the war. He took command of the Battalion on its formation in September 1914. From his arrival in France in October 1915 Blacker wrote to his wife, Eva, almost every day.
Throughout June 1916 the Battalion was in reserve training for the forthcoming attack. Blacker wrote of the training and with hope for the attack to come:
(Saturday, 10 June) I fancy we shall get into the Bosche trenches easily enough and without much loss, but staying there will be costly.
(Wednesday, 14 June) We go into the line Monday, for some days. I’m sure the Battalion will do well. I pray it may not suffer. With a little luck we ought to be all right.
(Thursday, 15 June) Am doing a useful day’s work in camp; musketry, gas helmets, bayonet work, etc. Floods of orders and instructions keep coming in; hard to take them all in. Only 20 officers are to be taken, and much grief and heartburning on those left behind.
(Friday, 17 June) We had a satisfactory morning practising attack by ourselves; no-one to waste our time. We had an aeroplane to practise signalling to, and everything was successful.
The preliminary bombardment began on ‘U-Day’, Saturday 24 June. When it began the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers were forward in the trenches at Hamel awaiting the morning of the attack - ‘Z Day’, Thursday 29 June. From the trenches Blacker wrote:
(Saturday, 24 June) Rather a bad relief. Heavy thunderstorm 3.00 p.m. to 5.00 p.m.; turned the tracks into mire, and trenches into rivers. Kit and men got very wet. Not finished till midnight. Bombardment now going on, but at present not very severe, and the Bosche has not warmed up yet.
(Sunday, 25 June) Bombardment still continuing, Bosche not replying much. Last night he put in a lot on our front line and we had two killed, and 11 wounded.
(Monday, 26 June) Noise fearful and never ceasing. Three more casualties (all wounded) … Orders and instructions pour in… We are getting very bored with the din. The Bosche is not retaliating on us much.
(Tuesday, 27 June) We had about 20 casualties yesterday—three killed. Heavy rain all night and today so far; makes things unpleasant.
Late on 28 June the Battalion was withdrawn from the line—the attack had been postponed for 48 hours. Blacker wrote of his impressions moving back:
(Thursday, 29 June) Came back very short distance. Such a wonderful scene. The heavens alight for miles with discharge of guns, and a continuous roar, which goes on without ceasing.
On the night of 30 June the Battalion moved back into the line. The following morning 621 officers and men attacked alongside 12th Royal Irish Rifles. The weight of machine-gun fire proved too much and the attack foundered. The 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers suffered grievously: including the seven men killed and over forty men wounded in the period between ‘U Day’ and the morning of the attack, the casualties totalled 582 all ranks, of whom 255 were killed in action or died of wounds.
The scene of the attack by 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers
(Saturday, 1 July) Safe and unhurt, but broke. The Battalion is no more. At least 400 casualties, but hard to estimate, as they keep coming in. … Every officer who went over is a casualty. … The men were splendid! … I was never in any danger, but am tired to death, and so sad.
(Sunday, 2 July) My beloved Battalion and the companions of the last two years swept away in a few short hours. They did splendidly; on they went regardless of loss of officers, and charged, a mere handful of some half dozen. … Eight [officers] missing and seven wounded. The Battalion about 170 strong. I am heartbroken. So gallant and so splendid they all were.
The tight-knit Battalion had been recruited from very close communities and the impact at home in Ireland in the days and weeks that followed was immense. Initially, there was celebration as word of the scale of the offensive and the success of the Ulster Division was reported in the local press. Then came the telegrams and casualty notification letters, the casualty lists in the newspapers, and the stories from the returning wounded. The families of the missing endured a long wait of months, or years in some cases, before it was confirmed that their men-folk had been killed.
After a period of refitting the Battalion moved to a sector south of Ypres and was back in the line by the end of July 1916. Lieutenant Colonel Blacker continued to write daily to his wife until March 1917, when he returned to Ireland to command a reserve battalion.
Nick Metcalfe is the author of Blacker’s Boys, the history of the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers and the editor of the online project Blacker’s Letters. He is the author of For Exemplary Bravery, the story of the Queen’s Gallantry Medal, and Sacrifice—an online project about the Great War casualties commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in the United States.
Follow the story of the Armstrong family from Co. Tipperary during World War 1 at the University of Limerick great war exhibition online at longwaytotipperary.ul.ie or 'Like' the Facebook page for the diaries or follow the family on Twitter.