The British and French had made some gains on the Somme, but a substantial advance or major breakthrough still eluded them as July came to a close. In August, much of the British focus of the battle would to rest on the two villages of Guillemont and Ginchy, both already shattered by the war going on all around them, but pivotally important points in the German defence that had to be dealt with, in a succession of assaults, several of which involved Irish regiments.
It was the 1st battalion of the 8th King’s Regiment – the Liverpool Irish – that were the first of the Irish thrown on the two objectives, in a 8th August assault on Guillemont. It was unsuccessful, the Germans holding strong positions, and capable of repelling most of the infantry waves flung at them. On the 18th, it was the Leinster Regiment’s turn, having been situated in the general region for several weeks before they were sent forward. Their part of the attack was largely a disaster, the men cut down in droves before even going over the top properly, owing to poor trench placement that allowed German machine gun fire from a nearby height. The German defence of Guillemont is especially renowned, regarded by many as their most impressive showing during the campaign.
The effort to take Guillemont, and then the nearby Ginchy, would soon involve the second of the Irish divisions committed to the western front, namely the 16th, who were now moved to the Somme sector a month after their Ulster counterparts had been pulled out. The 16th benefitted from the months of experience they gained in Loos earlier in the year, where they had gained a bit of a reputation as trench raiding specialists, though the cost had been, predictably, high. Thousands of soldiers had become casualties fighting in engagements that are barely remembered today, and that ordeal diluted the available experience of the regiments in the 16th, who had to keep replacing dead or wounded soldiers with fresh levies.
A new assault on Guillemont, attacked somewhere in the region of seven times without success in August, was arranged for the 3rd September, later than planned owing to a sudden turn in the summer weather, with heavy rain churning an already churned battlefield. The organisation of the assault was piecemeal, with the brigades of the 16th moved up individually, with some only learning they were going over the top hours before the attack began. The Germans were weary, with heavy artillery fire inflicting hundreds of casualties on the 16th before it had even gotten started.
The Irish advance was only one part of the assault, but involved thousands of men of its own accord. Battalions of the Connacht Rangers, Royal Irish Regiment and Leinster Regiment were among the first to charge for the village. They made it past the cratered landscape of no man’s land – that both impeded movement and provided cover – and into the German trenches, where hand-to-hand fighting was brutally carried out. The Leinsters were instrumental in taking the first line, and the attack was pursued to the second with a savagery that is noted in multiple accounts. The Irish experience in trench raiding – in the use of bayonet and bombs in cramped conditions – was crucial. The Royal Irish were among those who took the village a few hours after the initial go ahead, and then held it against numerous counter-attacks, before being relieved the following morning: by then, Guillemont itself was practically unrecognisable, just a terrible mix of craters and remnants of masonry.
Only a few days later, the 16th was back in action, this time against nearby Ginchy. On the 5th, in preliminary movements, battalions of the Royal Irish Fusiliers were badly mauled advancing through still standing cornfields, that hid German wire, losing over 450 men in the effort to secure the approaches to what was left of the village, already under nearly endless bombardment from Allied guns.
On the 9th, alongside two other divisions, the 16th went against Ginchy. One battalion, the 6th Connacht Rangers, had only 200 men after the weeks fighting, but British command ordered them forward anyway. The initial attack, from the regiments of the 47th Brigade, came up against German defences that had withstood the artillery very well and, in a grim recreation of the 1st of July, the Irish were turned back with heavy loss. So bad were the casualties that units in the second wave found their ability to get forward impeded by the wounded arriving back in the support trenches.
The 48th Brigade was next, and their contingents of the Royal Irish Rifles, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and Royal Munster Fusiliers took the first German line, with elements of the Dublin Fusiliers and Inniskilling tapped to continue the attack onto Ginchy itself. The fighting was brutal, with officer casualties again resulting in a lack of command over the ranks: Several Colonels were among the dead and wounded, fighting in the frontline out of a mixture of societal obligation, bravado and obstinacy.
The Dublins were among the first into Ginchy itself, the Royal Irish Rifles not far behind them, with some companies operating entirely of their own volition, having lost all their officers. A mishmash of different regiments was cobbled together in order to provide defence against the inevitable German counter-attacks, which were repelled in desperate fighting for the remainder of the day. The Irish were relieved that night. Ginchy was taken.
4’330 men of the 16th Division had been killed or wounded in the first ten days of September, with many more times that made casualties in the entirety of the British and French armies. In exchange, over two kilometres of ground had been gained, and the two villages secured, as well as high ground that could now be used to further bombard German trench lines. The expense of blood for such objectives – the term “measly” does easily spring to mind – still boggles the mind a bit, but it is important to note that Guillemont and Ginchy were necessary operations if subsequent efforts to bring the Somme campaign to a successfully close were to be undertaken.
As for the 16th, just like the 36th before it, it was now pulled out of the Somme sector, for rest and then redeployment, with many of its battalions shattered beyond recognition, and requiring significant amounts of new levies to once more be in fighting shape. Other Irish units scattered among the armies and corps of the British contigent of the Somme, remained in place. The Allies were still unready to call off the campaign, and the Germans were not prepared to pull back either. As the autumn turned to winter, and as snow began to fall, the fighting on the Somme continued.
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