Ireland’s Wars: The Somme Continues

There was little time for the British, or the Irish, to fully contemplate the scale of the disaster that had occurred on the 1st of July. The Battle of the Somme, and indeed, the Battle of Albert, were only just beginning, with the Allies holding firm to the point of the offensive. As soon as the final hours of the 1st of July, more Irish regiments were being thrown into the fray, namely the 1st Royal Irish Regiment, who were sent across no man’s land from a reserve position, in order to support the gains that the Manchester Regiments had been able to make. The following day, the shattered 36th (Ulster) Division was pulled back.

Douglas Haig, against the wishes of French commanders, elected quickly enough to abandon the offensive on the northern part of the Somme sector, where the majority of British losses had been incurred. Instead, he decided to re-direct units further south, where elements of the British Fourth Army had found some success, along with the more substantial gains of the French. In a series of attacks over the remainder of the month, Irish units were involved in this effort to further the Allied line and fulfil those objectives that had been illusive on the opening day.

One of the major fights for the British in the aftermath of the first day was the attack on Mametz Wood, an area the opposing sides had been fighting over since the earliest days of the war. The 2nd Royal Irish went forward as part of the 7th Division, one of its first major actions since its reformation, having been almost entirely annihilated in the fighting of 1914. Operating under a rudimentary form of “creeping barrage” – wherein British artillery fired just ahead of the intended line of advance, aiming further forward by a strict timetable so as to leave the enemy as little time to reform as possible – the Royal Irish were among those to take the German front-line and support trenches, securing a vital victory, albeit one that came at a frightful cost: in three days of fighting, the Royal Irish took over 200 of the Division’s 3’380 casualties.

At least some of the British commanders were learning the lessons of the first day quickly, and on the 14th of July, Irish regiments benefitted from some sharp changes to operational procedure. The second phase of the Somme opened that day, with a concentrated offensive launched from just behind the captured Mametz Wood area, aiming at the village of Bazentim-le-Petit and a few others, along a 5.5 kilometre front. A brief “hurricane” bombardment of around five minutes in length savaged the German line, before the infantry advanced behind another creeping barrage. The 2nd Royal Irish, presumably still smarting from the events at Mametz, were deemed strong enough to be flung into the fray again.

As part of a second movement, following up on an initial strike, the Royal Irish were tasked with the direct capture of the village itself, which they were able to achieve relatively quickly, the combination of improved artillery tactics and rapid movement forcing the Germans back, with the Irish taking relatively few casualties, along with a number of prisoners. The success was short-lived, with the Bazentin attack remembered largely as one of missed opportunities: the British failed to take advantage of their initial gains due to a combination of poor communication and bad decision-making, and the Royal Irish were soon beating off sustained German counter-attacks aiming to take back the village, with help from the Leicester Regiment and the Gordon Highlanders. Another 300 of them were killed or wounded, with a bitterly contested new frontline in the area of the village being fought over by other units for days afterward.

At the same time, the 2nd battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles was engaged in the fighting at Ovillers, which had been continuing non-stop since the 1st of July. Ovillers had not been taken then, and the 1st battalion of the Irish Rifles had been among those mauled in the attempt to do so. Initially, they had much the same outcome, sustained German rifle and machine gun fire tearing into the waves of infantry. When the attacks broke down through lack of leadership and cohesion, whoever survived had few options other than to hunker down, wait for darkness, and then withdraw. A few days later, the Rifles were involved in the rescue operation that saved the Royal Warwickshire Regiments’s soldiers, who had been cut-off from their forward positions following a German counter-attack. By that point, the Irish were so fatigued that some allegedly fell asleep in lulls of the fighting, despite being only yards from where the fighting was hottest. While they needed significant reinforcement to do it, the Rifles were among those to break through and save the Warwickshire’s.

At Contalmaison, on the 16th July, it was the 2nd Royal Munster Fusiliers’ turn. They would have been one of the most experienced units in the British Army, having been in or near the front-line for almost the entirety of the war thus far: now they were asked to follow-up on the capture of the village of Contalmaison, which was already largely just a ruin, both because of the fighting in taking it and subsequent artillery barrages from the Germans. Explosive and shrapnel shell had turned to gas: when the Munsters arrived in what was left of the village, it was enveloped in a cloud of poison.

The attack, on the German lines behind the town, thus went forward with the Munsters heavily laden with gas masks, but the offensive was a success nonetheless. Several German lines were taken in fierce hand-to-hand fighting, trench storming at the time consisting of close assault, grenades and the bayonet. The Munsters’ commanders saw the opportunity to press the attack onto the nearby village of Pozieres, which apparently lay undefended after the German withdrawal, but they were denied permission to advance. If the village had been as undefended at the time as the Munster claim, it was a terrible decision, as the eventual taking of Pozieres would cost many lives once the Germans were back in place. The Munsters repelled counter-attacks for a time and then were pulled out of the line until the following month.

It should be stated that every one of the mentioned operations were massive affairs, all involving tens of thousands of men and many more in support roles with artillery, field hospitals, and even the Royal Flying Corps. They were all battles in their own right, with thousands of casualties. By now the larger Somme battlefield was a true charnel house of churned mud, craters, and multitudes of dead bodies littering every other patch of ground, a testament to the sheer scale of what was occurring.

But the Allied leadership wasn’t interested in calling things off yet: indeed, the smaller-scale successes of the rest of July were showing that positive results could be found. But it remained to be seen whether the cost in men would make such gains pyrrhic in nature. As July became August and the fighting continued at its relentless pace, it was soon the 16th (Irish) Division’s turn to be thrown into the fray.

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

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2 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Somme Continues

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

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Guillemont And Ginchy | Never Felt Better

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