Ireland’s Wars: To The Trenches

The Battle of the Marne, known also as the “miracle of the Marne”, took place between 6th and 10th September 1914. The battle is primarily known as a French and German one in popular remembrance, the clash of arms wherein Paris, and the war itself, was saved for the Allies and where the eventual fate of Germany was sealed. There is much merit in this, as of the millions involved in this pivotal engagement, only a small fraction belonged to the British Expeditionary Force of Sir John French. But the BEF did have a role to play, as it did in the following battles that would lead back to the north-west, and eventually into the grim world of trench warfare.

The Marne’s result hinged on a sizable gap that opened up in the German line of advance, between the First Army of von Kluck and the Second of von Bulow, after heroic French counter-attacks and a succession of poor decisions made by German leadership. Despite their exhausted state, the BEF was thrown into the breach, widening it even more, and in the face of this setback, the German leadership reluctantly ordered a retreat. Many consider the moment a decisive one in the overall war, when a German victory became essentially impossible.

The Irish involvement in the battle was primarily in its later stages, as the Germans began a retreat to the Aisne River. At a smaller river, the Petit Morin, the 4th (Royal Irish) Dragoons were utilised in attacking a German position defending a bridge, capturing the crossing. In the nearby village of Boitron, the Irish Guards, in concert with elements of the Coldstream Guards, charged a series of German machine gun positions, in a fight taking place during a torrential rainstorm. The weather may have helped the Guards avoid destruction, as they captured the guns without the usual result of infantry advancing against machine guns. Later still, the 5th Irish Lancers served as part of the forward vanguard of the BEF, engaged repeatedly as the British advanced to the Aisne River.

On the 13th September, the BEF made their own crossing, commencing their portion of the battle named after the river. Some of the first units across were companies of the Connaught Rangers and Royal Irish Fusiliers, traversing the shattered remains of girder bridges at Pont Arcy and Bucy de Long respectively. The Inniskillings crossed at the village of Venizel, operating under heavy fire and holding a precarious bridgehead on the other side.

Crossing was one thing, but holding the position and advancing again was another. The Connaught Rangers withstood a spirited German attack on the 14th, stopping the enemy advance just short of their defences near the river, while the Irish Guards attacked other German positions uphill at a farm called Cour de Soupir, taking it after a difficult day-long fight. There, and in the days following, neither the British nor the French were able to make any serious progress advancing into the teeth of the German Army. By then, the BEF’s 6th Division, containing the Leinster Regiment, had arrived at the front, and the Leinsters were sent straight into the fight at Cour de Soupir.

Both sets of armies, Allies and German, now moved northwards, seeking to outflank and to avoid being outflanked. Just as at the Aisne, this “Race to the Sea” ended in stalemate, with Sir John French already ordering his increasingly stretched army to dig “strong entrenchments” all along the line of battle (around the same time, he proclaimed his fantastical belief that the situation was “stalemate in our favour”). By the end of it, the BEF was back in Belgium, in the Flanders region. Numerous Irish regiments had difficult times of it during the race, usually when they were placed too far ahead of supporting units.

By now, the manoeuvre warfare that characterised the early months of the war had essentially ended. Trench warfare is the defining aspect of the First World War, though it was neither invented nor refined in that conflict. People have been digging entrenchments for as long as they have been fighting wars after all, and even the style of trench warfare that came to dominate the popular consciousness of the First World War – largely ignoring the more fluid battlefields elsewhere of course, but I digress – could be partially glimpsed in places like Petersburg in the American Civil War or in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905.

But it was on the western front of the First World War that the concept of trench warfare found its highest level of notoriety. There was an inevitability about it all of course: both sets of armies now adapted to the reality that quicker firing artillery and massed firepower from dug-in infantry (with machine guns) made the idea of large mobile units of men, advancing in step, dangerously obsolete, and mounted cavalry suffered a similar fate. With armies equally matched, with the shells raining down, with the “mad minute” firing rate and growing amount of machine guns, digging in was a matter of practicality. The zig-zag patterns, duck boards, barbed wire, undermining, and bunkers would come later, as the duration of the war stretched out and it became patently necessary to make the trenches more liveable and defendable. But, for the moment, in the Ypres sector, the trenches were basic things, dug with whatever was to hand, with little thought for drainage, sanitation or long-term sustainability.

It was now October, and the almost non-existent drainage of these trenches encouraged the spread of disease and the first signs of what would become known as “trench foot”, wherein prolonged exposure to cold water caused sores, fungal infections and even gangrene to ravage soldiers’ feet. Neither army, but especially the Germans, were properly equipped to dig the kind of entrenchments that would later become endemic (the common answer when told to entrench being “With what?”). And the terrain too turned against them, with the arable farmland of the region liable to transform to the consistency of “cream cheese” in the late Autumn and Winter, as one British chronicler put it. The various canals, hills and woods of the area, along with other obstructions, made the terrain difficult, if not impossible, for effective use of cavalry and artillery.

As such the holding of towns and other strongpoints remained critically important, and so it was that the unfortunate Belgian town of Ypres became a focal point for both the BEF and the Germans. In a series of clashes that stretched to over a month – the First Battle of Ypres perhaps would be better described as a campaign – the Allied and Germans armies sparred for position, with the need so great for infantry at points that cavalry men were obliged to dismount and join the ranks. During Ypres, battalions of Irish regiments were arriving from other overseas service, most notably in India, and were thrown directly into the firing line also. The aim was for a joint British-French-Belgian advance that would split the German armies operating in Belgium apart. At the same time, the Germans were initiating their own advance, hoping, like the Allies, to pin their enemies against the sea.

The Irish regiments were part and parcel of the growing horror show, with many regiments, like the Royal Munsters, dependent on fresh drafts of troops sent from reserve units back in Britain. On the 17th October, the Royal Irish Fusiliers secured the village of Armentierres and pushed on, before suffering terribly from German sniper fire, a prologue to the constant threat from sharpshooters that would be a normal part of life in the trenches. A few days later, the Royal Irish Regiment captured the village of Le Pilly from the Germans, taking heavy casualties in the process, but were then left enfiladed when both units on their flanks, French to the right and the Middlesex Regiment to their left, either failed in their own attacks or fell back in the face of German counter-moves. The battalion of the Royal Irish, cut off, grimly held on to what they had won, depending on a counter-attack from their own forces to save them, but such an advance never came, the BEF not in a position to do so. Bombarded by artillery, raked with machine gun fire, and running out of ammunition after a day of perilous combat, the Royal Irish eventually surrendered, having lost 340 men dead or wounded, with over 300 other men now marching into captivity.

While all that was going on, the fresher Leinster regiment was also thickly involved in the fray, taking ground, losing it and attacking again just outside the nearby city of Lille. If they were late to the war, they now suffered as much as anyone, their 2nd battalion losing 400 men in just a few days. Shortly after, they were moved to the Neuve Chappele sector of the line, an Irish one in many ways, with the Irish Rifles and Inniskillings also engaged there. Here again was a mess of rudimentary trench warfare, of sudden advances, negligible gains and sudden counter-attack, as the BEF and Germans vied over their hastily made defences. The Royal Irish Rifles were particularly hard-pressed here, forced to withstand repeated German infantry assaults, later almost ceasing to exist after exemplary defensive actions at Heronthage Chateau.

On the 1st November, it was the Inniskillings turn to be the victim of bad communications, command orders still largely dependent on mounted or foot-based messengers. A withdrawal order for the 2nd battalion failed to reach two companies as they held a place called Douve Farm, south of Ypres itself. As the majority of the regiment fell back, the two companies faced an entire Corps of German infantry, and turned them back from their water-logged trenches.

The Irish Guards were placed at the Zillebecke section of the line, which they defended for the better part of nine days in early November, under near-constant attack from infantry and artillery. So bad were the casualties – over 600 in a week – that by the end of this specific deployment, other regiments were obliged to lend the Guards officers. The Connaught Rangers too suffered horribly at Ypres, to the extent that some of its battalions had to be merged to take into account what they had left.

“First Ypres” piddled out in mid to late November, as the sheer exhaustion of both armies made further large-scale operations impossible. It had been a truly miserable affair, even by the standards of the First World War, as the opposing armies, bereft of specific strategic guidance, with tattered clothes and positions in flooded, filthy trenches, largely stood and died or advanced and died, for a number of hellish weeks.

The Allies had won a victory of sorts, repelling the German attacks, preventing a breakthrough, and now held a salient outside of Ypres. The cost had been huge, especially for the focus of this series: it is estimated that in those frantic early months of the conflict, over 10’000 members of the Irish regiments were killed, wounded, captured or recorded as “missing”. In line with the larger casualties taken by the BEF in general – nearly 90’000, over half of those at Ypres – it was a shocking expenditure of experienced soldiery. From Mons to Ypres, it was little less than the destruction of the regular army, that now had to be made up with new recruits. Both armies settled in for the Christmas period, knowing now that any illusions about the wars length were just that.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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5 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: To The Trenches

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Second Ypres, Second Artois | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

  3. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The End Of The Spring Offensive | Never Felt Better

  4. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Some Last Words On The First World War | Never Felt Better

  5. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Rineen Ambush | Never Felt Better

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