September was wearing on, and the weather was getting steadily worse, but the Somme campaign continued. The 36th (Ulster) and 16th (Irish) Divisions had share their share of the fighting (and the casualties) but plenty of other Irish units separate to them – or the original “named” regiments –were fighting and dying on the Somme.
One of them was the Irish Guards, who had entered the fray properly during the fighting around Ginchy and then advanced again on the 25th September, as part of the larger Guards Division’s assault on Lesboeufs. The attack on this area was part of the larger Battle of Flers-Courcelette, a combined British-French assault that aimed to push on from the capture of Guillemont and Ginchy and take the next section of German lines, the last of those kind of assaults that would take place during the Somme. Lesboeuf had already been the target of assault, none of which had been successful.
The Irish Guards were in the support phase of the attack, carried out primarily by battalions of the Coldstream Guards, but they were caught in an intense German artillery bombardment as they moved forward behind their own creeping barrage. Between that, repeatedly having to pause to deal with defensive impediments and the machine gun fire, the advance was brutally slow and costly, but the first trench lines were reached. Before long, the casualties that had been incurred were so large that the various regiments of the Division in combat melded into ad-hoc combined units to consolidate the gains and resist the German counter-attacks, By the end of the day, the 2nd battalion of the Irish Guards had less than 170 men left, but the objective had been taken. However, the larger point of the whole operation fell to the wayside due to failures elsewhere, that prevented any hoped for rout of the enemy.
This assault is notable for probably being the first time that Irish units went into battle supported by the latest military innovation set to change the face of warfare (eventually): the tank. The new trundling machines made their first battlefield appearance during the Somme, albeit one of limited effectiveness, as the vehicles were slow, prone to breakdown and often ended up being death-traps for the crews inside.
Much of what was left of the battle involved desperate efforts to capture new tracks of high ground that had come within attacking range, such as those at Thiepvel or near the Ancre River, with a heightened sense of urgency given the nature of the changing weather and the reality that soon further offensive operations would be made impossible. The Royal Irish Fusiliers were some of the next Irish units involved in these attacks as the fighting moved up into October, launching offensives from the Lesboeufs area, towards sections of the German trench line code-named “RAINY” and “DEWDROP”. German gunners withheld their fire during the Fusiliers’ advance, before opening up when they were massed in their sights. Going on the attack was at least pro-active, as otherwise they merely stayed in place in captured trench line and withstood a constant artillery bombardment. The Fusiliers took nearly 400 casualties as part of their efforts, and were forced backwards. Having suffered so many casualties during their time in the line, the 1st battalion had to be withdrawn from the front entirely.
One of the last co-ordinated British offensives of the battle was the effort to take Le Transloy, wherein the Allies would essentially reach the high water mark of the campaign. The 2nd battalion of the Dublin Fusiliers took part in the fighting, again operating from near Lesboeufs, and subsequently aimed at German machine gun nests and other strongpoints, positions they were only partially able to take, with German machine gunners again waiting until the last moment to concentrate fire. The advance had been delayed until late afternoon, in the hope that hanging mist would dissipate, but it did not. Le Transloy would remain outside of the Allies’ gains as the fighting drew to a close.
One of the last Irish units to be engaged in the battle was the 10th battalion of the Dublin Fusiliers, a unit that had already seen fighting before the Somme, indeed, before they had even gotten to France, having been employed as part of the British counter-response to the Easter Rising. Due to quirks in the operational reality for the British Army – the disbanding and merging of reduced regiments across the board – when the 10th Dublins arrived in the Somme, it was as back up to the 63rd (Royal Navy) Division, a unit made of Navy and Marines volunteers and reservists not needed for naval service. Their casualties had been so extensive that regular infantry now had to fill the gaps. That, and in the aftermath of the Rising, British high command were reluctant to place more Irish units together, at least in the short term.
The Battle of the Ancre, which followed the Battle of the Ancre Heights, was the last significant engagement of the Somme campaign. By now it was November, and the fighting was talking place during snowfalls, the misery of the mud and the shelling compounded by the bitter cold. This final offensive, using units of the British Reserve Army, was inherently limited in nature, designed to help pave the way for assaults in the new year, and to force the Germans to maintain troop deployments on the western front for the benefit of allies elsewhere.
The 10th Dublins attacked German trenches near Beacourt on the 13th of November, on the northern section of the campaign front. Beacourt should have been taken in the first days of the campaign, but the general failure of the northern half meant it still lay in German hands. The tanks supporting the attack became stuck in mud. The 10th sustained brutal casualties – nearly 50% of the battalion strength – but took their objectives over two days of hard fighting.
The Battle of the Somme ended only a few days later, with the loss of life and terrible weather preventing the possibility of further attacks. Over a million men on all sides had become casualties: Somewhere in the region of 30’000 of these had been Irish or been from Irish “named” regiments. In return for this, the Allies had advanced little more than six miles at the deepest point of penetration.
Intense debate has raged in the century since the Somme, discussing whether the battle had been worth it, and whether it could be called an Allied victory. Certainly, the Allies gained ground, and at a rate that they had been unable to since the trenches had first been dug. It is also important to note that the mass casualties were more keenly felt by the Germans, who could not as easily replace the soldiers killed there as Britain or France could (having, at the time, still a war against Tsarist Russia to fight). The British Army, so largely inexperienced before the battle started, gained a lot of insight into how industrial warfare had to be fought.
But was all that worth the 623’000 Allied casualties? And the casualties incurred in the Battle of Verdun fought further south? It is the personal opinion of this writer that it was not, though that is an opinion coloured by the 20:20 provided by hindsight. Taking such meagre amounts of ground at such an expense of blood should never be deemed acceptable, even in the pursuit of the sometimes legitimate strategy of attrition. The attacks on the 1st of July should have been better organised through the use of shorter-term hurricane bombardment and better infantry tactics, and when that attack failed a more considered re-appraisal of what to do with the offensive should have been carried out, rather than the continued frontal assaults that resulted in so much bloodshed.
The 36th and 16th Divisions had been shattered, but both would fight again, and before too long. 1916 had been a terrible year on the western front, and 1917 presaged little better. Across the various fronts of the First World War, Irish regiments would have to steel themselves to the continuing reality of the war, and the fighting that was yet to come.
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