For the BEF and the Irish regiments, the winter of 1914/15 was a miserable enough time. First Ypres had been a grinder: nearly 75% of the overall force were casualties. The famous truce passed quickly, and was only observed in certain sections of the line, with differing repots on how involved the Irish regiments were. At home, people crowded around casualty lists. Troop depots continued to be busy, shipping out reserves. Those units still coming in from Imperial garrison duty, like the Inniskilling Dragoons and the 1st Dublin Fusiliers, were moving to the front line. There, units cycled in and out of the still rudimentary trenches, dealing with the biting cold and flooded surrounds, while also dodging snipers and shells. There was still hope that 1915 could prove a year of victory, but that hope was to be dashed in a succession of bloody encounters on the western front.
By March, the initial engagements of what would become the Second Battle of Ypres were already beginning, with veteran and newly arrived Irish regiments thickly involved. South of Ypres, the Royal Irish Regiment and Royal Leinsters attacked the village of St Eloi and “the Mound”, a rise outside the village. St Eloi was taken with little trouble, but the Germans were better dug-in at the Mound, and machine gun fire caused terrible casualties among the Royal Irish. The Germans counter-attacked into the town, and brutal street-fighting resulted, that soon had the main thoroughfare littered with bodies of both armies. St Eloi and the ground around it would become a hotbed of mining and counter-mining, wherein both armies would attempt to dig through No Man’s Land and get under opposing trenches, and part of the reason this became such a feature of fighting in the area was the casualties that occurred when surface actions were taken.
The fighting now began to focus on the previously mentioned town of Neuve Chappelle, where the BEF planned an offensive that they hoped would open up enough of a gap that a dash to Lille could even be thought of. As elsewhere, the Germans were not of a mind to give up the town lightly, covering its approaches with machine guns and artillery: when the BEF advanced on the 10th March, the results were predictable. The Royal Irish Rifles were part and parcel of a truly heroic effort wherein the first few lines of German trenches were taken, despite fearsome casualties, with the town itself within sight. But the advance was not sustainable, and the BEF didn’t do enough to exploit their limited breakthrough, allowing the Germans time to organise a counterattack. The Rifles, their position surrounded on three sides, were ordered to attack again the following day. They were cut to pieces, suffering 400 casualties. The next day, the Germans swept the British back to their original positions, having inflicted over 11’000 casualties overall. In terms of World War One’s reputation for being a war filled with bloodbaths undertaken for no gain, Neuve Chappelle was an excellent example.
Now it was time for the hellish Ypres sector to take centre-stage yet again, as the weather improved, a bit, and both sides again contemplated the possibilities of a breakthrough. The British began to take the opportunity to train new arrivals in the rudimentary art of trench storming, making liberal use of grenades and other innovations. At the same time, the Germans were preparing what they hoped would be their own path to victory through military innovation, albeit of a much more insidious sort.
On the 22nd of April, the Germans attacked around the aptly named hamlet of Gravenstal, releasing over 170 tonnes of chlorine gas before they did so, marking the start of a new phase of murderous technological development in the war. The gas, as it would do throughout the war, was only partially effective: dependent on favourable wind, it would often blow right back into the faces of those that had released it, and it often caused those it was supposed to be aiding to be overly-hesitant in advancing in its wake. Still, it could have a devastating and disruptive effect on enemy defences: It was French and French-colonial troops who took the first bitter taste of chlorine on the western front, with the Germans opening up a sizable gap in the Allied lines as a result. The Germans had, in fact, under-estimated what the gas would do, and thankfully for the Allies, didn’t have enough men to fully exploit the glorious opportunity that had come their way.
At the town of St Julian was where the Irish regiments were introduced to their battle, with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers the first to face gas attacks. Gas masks were still to be made widely available, and often the only defence men had was to hold a soaked rag around their mouths. Usually, the only liquid readily available was urine. Already heavily engaged in a more conventional sense, this battalion of the Dublins was effectively annihilated that day and in the days that followed. The Germans took St Julian, but rapidly deployed reserves stemmed the tide somewhat, among them the Royal Irish Regiment, that seized nearby heights and used the advantage to great effect.
On the 25th what was left of the Dublins, in concert with the Fusiliers, counter-attacked St Julien, and were felled in droves, taking many of the 2’000 BEF casualties. The day after, the Connaught Rangers were thrown at German positions nearby at a place called Mauser Hill, and were promptly thrown back with a combination of small arms fire and gas, losing over 350 men. They were just small cogs in a huge effort to stem the tide and stabilise the line, a process that the Allies succeeded at, at huge cost, as the fighting continued on into May.
While Second Ypres continued, the BEF was also called upon to play a part in what became known as the Second Battle of Artois, south of the Ypres sector. It was a largely French attack, that helped alleviate pressure in Ypres, but to little overall strategic gain. The British were tasked with the taking of Aubers Ridge, which they attacked on the 7th of May: on the 8th, the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Munsters was sent forward to attack the small settlement at Rue de Bois. Ahead of the fighting, 800 men assembled at a road-side shrine to receive a general absolution from a Father Francis Gleeson, the battalion chaplain, the source of a famous painting of the era. The subsequent Munster charge towards the German trenches took heavy casualties from machine gun fire, caught haplessly by barbed wire defences the pre-attack artillery strikes had failed to destroy. While the few men who had advanced far enough to contest the forward trenches fought a near hopeless battle, the rest stuck in No Man’s Land were soon the subject of friendly fire from their BEF artillery. Eventually, the Munsters fell back, with over 400 men killed, and a few hundred others incapable of parading back at the shrine.
On the other flank of the assault, at Fromelles, other Irish regiments were thickly engaged. The Irish Rifles too were caught up in wire and found themselves unable to advance effectively. Their brigade commander, Brigadier-General A.W.G Lowry-Cole from Fermanagh, was shot dead at the front of his troops, almost at the lip of the German trenches. The Rifles took over 450 casualties and gained ground, but the BEF couldn’t sustain the advance, and what the Ulstermen had bled to win was quickly lost. The overall battle was another disaster for Sir John French, whose BEF took 11’000 casualties.
Despite the losses (and, perhaps more importantly, the negligible gains they had won) General French was persuaded to continue the BEF’s support of the French Army’s offensives elsewhere in the Artois sector, and on the 15th May they attacked again, this time at Festubert, south of Neuve Chappelle. A multi-day artillery bombardment again largely failed to do what the British leadership hoped it would do, and when the infantry went forward, they again went straight into barbed wire entanglements and machine gun fire. The 2nd Innsikillings lost 650 men in a few hours on the right flank of the advance, with the British taking over 16’000 casualties overall, for a gain of roughly three miles when the offensive petered out a few days later.
Second Ypres came to a merciful end in late May, with Second Artois following suit a month later. Between the two battles, 300’000 men had been killed, injured or captured. The end result was that the Ypres salient was compressed back to a narrow bulge outside of what was left of Ypres itself, and in Artois the Allied line had advanced a few miles. Just as in the aftermath of First Ypres, a lull in active operations followed, as both sides took stock of what had occurred, and exhausted, battered armies did their best to restore their strength.
The fighting of 1914 had, up until its last months, been characterised by a significant amount of manoeuvre, but the first six months of 1915 cast an ugly light on what the First World War had become. Neither side had managed to catch up, in terms of military innovation, with what the machine gun and trenches represented. That would, very slowly, start to change in the latter half of the year, but not soon enough to help the heaps of dead men littering the churned ground between the lines. The Irish had suffered terrible casualties, and many battalions had all but ceased to exist.
Yet even while the flower of the British army was being ground into the mud on the western front, another military operation of breath-taking ambition and jaw-dropping failure was being played out at the other end of Europe. The epic effort to take the Dardanelles was already well under way, and the Irish were there too.
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