In the aftermath of the failed offensives of earlier in 1915, and as thousands of Allied troops were fighting and dying in the futile Gallipoli effort, the British and French armies made one more attempt to force a breakthrough on the western front. This particular attack allows us the opportunity to look at one of the non-Ireland based named Irish units of the British Army, and their role in yet another Allied failure.
It was September, and the French were trying their luck in the Artois sector for the third time, and John French was pressured to make the BEF contribute their own offensive in support. The chosen ground would be in and around the town of Lens, around 20 miles south of Ypres. French was unimpressed with the directive from above, feeling that the German held high ground of the coal slags (it was a mining area) and intelligence about defences in depth made the location a disaster waiting to happen, but was over-ruled by men like Secretary for War Kitchener. They felt that the situation was better than it may have appeared, and they had a trump card to overcome the German defences: the first British deployment of poison gas weapons. Six British divisions, some of them new to the front, were thrown into the battle on the 25th of September. Three of them were Irish.
First there was the London Irish. They had first come into being during the Victorian era of militia recruitment as the “28th Middlesex (London Irish) Rifle Volunteer Corps”. The Irish diaspora meant that every city in Britain had some form of Irish community, and London was no exception, and there was no bar to such a unit, of obvious nationality in its background, from being formed. Several others were formed for the First World War, and we will discuss them in time.
The London Irish sent a small company to fight in the Boer War, before being made part of the Territorial Force, the established reserve element of the British military, in 1908. The 1st battalion of the London Irish were mobilised shortly after the initial declaration of war, and was sent to the front as soon as they were ready, part of the London Territorial Division.
The line of advance for them was in the land between Lens and the smaller settlement of Loos, from which the battle would gain its name. The British forces released their clouds of gas, and the London Irish followed, essentially leading the way. A popular story has the London Irish kicking a football ahead of them as they went, and cheering every time it went into an enemy trench, but it is unclear how much of this is true and how much of it is a popular invention.
What is true is that despite the German fire – for the gas was unreliable, as always, and the artillery bombardment had failed again – the London Irish hit their objectives, pushing the Germans back from their front-line trench, and then two more support trenches behind, before pushing into Loos itself. They were eventually forced to consolidate in the third German trench line, something that amounted to rapidly using what was to hand to make for a haphazard defence, like moving fire steps and parapets from one side of the trench to the other.
Elsewhere, the Royal Munster Fusiliers’ 2nd battalion was also involved in the attack, suffering from the fact that a turn in the wind resulted in the British gas rolling back over British soldiers, causing many casualties and mass confusion at a critical moment of the planned advance. This was before they had even got going: some of the Munster companies resorted to climbing out of support trenches in an attempt to get through the backlog, and were cut down by German fire. Their resulting attack at Bois Carre was easily repulsed.
On the 27th the newly raised second battalion of the Irish Guards were involved in another disastrous attack at a placed dubbed “Chalk-Pit Wood”. The larger brigade was tasked with attacking the wood – a very small arrangement of blasted trees at this point – and establishing defensive positions on the east side, and while they accomplished the first part easily enough, they found the chalky ground difficult to dig into. When the Germans counter-attacked, nearly the whole battalion was forced back, save for a small amount that held grimly on in the north-east of the wood. The effort to rescue them resulted in the original line being re-captured, but no more gains were possible, and after a day and night of holding the line, the Guards were relived. Among the casualties of their endeavour was a Lieutenant John Kipling, son of Rudyard.
The London Irish, and the other units that had made gains, were left pitifully unsupported, as confusion in the high chain of command meant held back reserves took an age to be committed, and by the time that they were, the chance of a decisive breakthrough was gone. The Germans re-organised and counter-attacked, and so the Loos offensive became little more than a brutal effort to hold onto another salient, with the London Irish forced to endure three hellish days in the captured trenches before being pulled back. On the 28th, the British retreated to their original positions, having taken nearly 60’000 casualties.
It was the beginning of the end for French, already under fire for his conduct thus far in the war, and who was accused of misusing his reserves. By the end of the year he was replaced by Douglas Haig.
The rest of 1915 passed relatively quietly, as the exhausted armies and deteriorating weather, not to mention the troops being wasted in Gallipoli, meant that the season for full-on offensives had passed. Of course, that doesn’t mean that people weren’t still fighting and dying, but not to the same degree that they had been before, and no more meaningful exchanges of territory took place that year. It was in this time that the first of the “New Army” divisions took their place in the line, which included the 36th (Ulster) Division and the 16th (Irish) Division. For them, the end of 1915 was a miserable time of acclimating to the rotten realities of trench warfare in winter, a mixture of flooded, dilapidated trenches, freezing weather and frequent artillery barrages. But at least there was a period, lengthy enough as it turned out, where the major attacks ceased. It wouldn’t last of course, and the spectre of 1916 loomed large.
But before we go there, we need to go back to the summer of 1915, to the southern coast of Ireland, where a critical incident occurred, one that would help to draw the last of the world’s great powers into the conflict in time.
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