As surprising as it may sound, with the memory of what had occurred in the previous year and with the fighting that was ongoing on other fronts, the first few months of 1916 on the western front were considered relatively quiet, at least for the British units that were entrenched there. An Allied conference at the end of 1915 had decided that a new offensive would be enacted in 1916, in coordination with Russia and Italy. Originally intended to be a largely French offensive with the British handling the north flank, circumstances changed following Germany’s own initiatives.
Part of what drove forward the preparations for what would become the Battle of the Somme was the titanic clash that the French got involved in from February 1916 to the end of that year, as a German offensive in the Verdun region, part of a calculated strategy to destroy French military power by sheer attrition, sucked in millions of troops, eventually resulting in nearly a million casualties. The battle would eventually end in a nominal French victory, but in the meantime the Allies at large had their ability to go on the attack severely reduced. The Anglo-French offensive to the north suddenly became one where the British would take the main part, to relieve some of the strain being felt by their allies, and to make good on the thousands of soldiers flooding into the front line from Kitchener’s “New Army”, those men who had joined up earlier in the war.
For the new Irish battalions, regiments and divisions on the western front, the first half of 1916 was a time to acclimatize to the trenches and get vital experience in the form of warfare now taking centre stage. The 36th (Ulster) and 16th (Irish) Divisions were fully there by February, taking part in the mundanity of what trench fighting represented: lengthy periods of quiet wherein tasks such as trench maintenance, personal sanitation and equipment repair were the order of the day, and briefer moments of sheer terror, as troops dealt with artillery bombardments, mining, snipers, poison gas or even the occasional trench raid (both defending and prosecuting). Prisoners had to be processed, key points of transport had to be guarded and, of course, you always had to be ready for the chance that a mass enemy offensive might be coming at you from the other side of no man’s land. Even in the “quiet” months of early 1916, plenty of Irish troops were fighting and dying.
The task was to maintain discipline and to improve military skill in such times, a difficult thing to do. Bored soldiers tend to indiscipline and atrophy: cavalry units, such as the North Irish Horse, are noted as having their primary abilities be reduced dramatically during this period, as the British Army had little use for mounted scouts in the face of the trenches. Units rotated in and out of the trenches, serving in the front trench line only briefly, before being moved back to support and communication trenches. These too had their terrors, but were generally less troublesome than the firesteps. And, of course, sometimes units would get to be removed from the front-line completely, and get some time away from the growing horror.
One of the most notable incidents Irish troops were involved in during this time was the German gas attack at Hullach, part of the Loos sector, between the 27th and 29th of April. The attack was essentially a localised raid in force, preceded by a bombardment of lachrymatory shells and then the releasing of chlorine gas. The 16th (Irish) Division was in the middle of the German line of attack: the inexperienced regiments struggled to get their masks on quickly, and then to operate properly in the resulting fog, where visibility was a few feet at best.
Nevertheless, the 16th beat back the first German infantry advance with small arms and machine gun fire, before being forced backwards by a second. A rapid counter-attack from support trenches drove the Germans back in turn. German shelling and raids continued for another few days, but a few instances of contrary winds blowing gas back on the attackers took the sting out of the German effort. Over 400 men of the 16th died in the engagement, a grim baptism of fire.
While they were adapting to the reality of chemical warfare, the Easter Rising back home was coming to its conclusion. We will, of course, come to the rebellion in time, but for now it is enough to note that its impact on Irish soldiers serving in British uniform, at least in the short term, was largely negligible, despite the fears of military leadership. Plenty of Irish soldiers would have had sympathy for the Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army, but plenty of others would have been hostile to them to the same degree. It is possible that some Irish regiments were taken out of the front line during this time over worries that their loyalty might be in question, but it would be another year before the possibility of mutiny became a serious concern in the trenches.
Within a while, any concerns about Irish loyalty had to be put to the side, as the need for troops for the coming offensive overruled everything. The long awaited “great day”, after some prevaricating, would eventually end up as July 1st, with hundreds of thousands of troops earmarked to advance on German positions in the Somme sector. It was to be a joint British/French advance, as the sector was where their trenches intersected, though it was the British taking the main weight.
This part of the line was largely unremarkable: rolling farmland amply supplied by being in the basin of the Somme and Ancre rivers, rising to a height on the German side, with soft ground good for digging entrenchments (something the British would learn at great cost). The British plan was, as they tended to be, bluntly straightforward when it came right down to it: after a large-scale artillery bombardment lasting up to a week, the Allies would attack on a broad front, breach the German lines to the depth of their fifth trench system, and open up enough of a gap that British cavalry would be able to chase down the retreating enemy. With a huge hole blown open in the enemy lines, the pressure on Verdun would be relieved, and there would be a possibility of breaking out from the static strategic situation on the western front. Indeed, so large-scale was the coming fighting that referring to it as a single “battle” is a misnomer, as even the individual divisional attacks involved thousands of men on both sides: the “Somme Campaign” would be a better descriptor, though for the sake of brevity I will attempt to limit my own coverage of the event.
Of all of the Irish units about to attack the Somme, the 36th (Ulster) Division has tended to hold pride of place in popular remembrance. Their objectives would be northward, along either bank of the Ancre River: the Hamel Railway line, Beaucourt Station and most importantly of all, the fearsome Schwaben Redoubt, an impressive German fortification protected by up to 16 lines of barbed wire and machine guns placed for enfilade fire. Beyond these, the Division was expected to advance on and seize the village of Grandcourt, all on the first day of the offensive. As elsewhere, the difficulty of the Germans defences were supposed to be neutralised by the scale of the artillery bombardment.
Elsewhere on the front, other Irish units at regimental level, part of other divisions, were being flung into the fray also. South of the 36th, elements of the Royal Irish Rifles and Tyneside Irish were aimed towards the settlements of Ovillers, Contalmaison and Memetz. North of the 36th, battalions of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, Royal Irish Fusiliers and Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers were assigned the town of Beaumont Hamel and the Hawthorne Redoubt. Other Irish units were kept in reserve, and would see the fighting in time.
Whatever the individual soldiers thought, whatever the Generals believed, whatever the Germans suspected, when “Zero Hour” came on the 1st of July, few could have realised the sheer scale of what was about to occur, and how it would be etched into history.
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