On the western front, following the eventual end of the Somme campaign, soldiers settled in for a third Christmas and New Years in the trenches. 1916 had been a bloody year, with some gains and some victories to show for it. 1917 might not have the same infamous reputation, but was awash with its own blood strewn battlegrounds.
The winter was a bitterly cold one for the men occupying the opposing trenches, in places so close together that they were capable of conversing with the enemy. The iconic Christmas truce was not repeated, but there were sections of the line that went beyond quiet, and in January 1917, the Irish Guards occupied a section of the trench line where it was possible, albeit briefly, to step into no mans land and work on defences without the Germans shooting, and vice versa. At other times, Irish units were among those that would allow Germans to collect wounded without any interference. Command ended this situation quickly enough, but it is perhaps an inevitable reaction to the violence of the previous months and the need to focus on the environment as the primary foe at that time.
In terms of larger affairs, Douglas Haig launched divisionary attacks throughout the line and occasionally seemed close to ordering a major offensive action, but it took a while for anything substantial to take place. The focus of the main British military efforts – their force now extending to an astonishing 56 divisions on the western front – would now be moved back to Flanders, and primarily the area around the Ypres salient. Here, the German trench line bulged out from the norm on heights that provided a very strong defensive position: the Messines Ridge. Flattening this bulge would be a major part of British planning for 1917.
Both the 16th (Irish) and 36th (Ulster) Divisions, having suffered so much on the Somme, had been resupplied, reinforced and sent back to the front, now to Flanders and the Ypres sector, serving next to the other. While this area was quieter than the Somme – how could it not – the conditions of the trenches were arguably worse, with flooding being a major problem. The trenches here, out of sheer necessity, had actually been built up, not down, with earth piled up to create a trench, where digging down would simply have hit the unusually high water table. Some of the support and communication trenches were less than a foot deep. While the flung-up earth provided defence, the nature of these trenches could do little when it came to shellfire. Violent icy rainstorms in January exacerbated the misery as the men struggled to live in defences that were little more than mud-pits. Those in the front line were forced to spend hours a day at “stand-to” in arctic conditions. The rates of disease, most notably the dreaded trench foot, skyrocketed.
Eager to maintain the discipline and “fighting spirit” of its units on the western front ahead of any major offensive, command ordered a constant series of raids, operations that could be useful in disrupting the enemy and gathering intelligence, but which rapidly came to be dreaded by those tasked with carrying them out. The raids mostly consisted of using the cover of nightfall to quickly make their way across no mans land, hopefully surprise the defenders of the section of trench they were attacking and then kill or capture as many of the enemy as they could as quickly as they could, after which they would pull back just as quickly so they could avoid an inevitable counter-attack.
Sometimes such raids would go very well: others, like that undertaken by the 6th Connaught Rangers on the 19th February, were spotted before they had a chance to each the enemy, resulting in 44 casualties out of 199 men taking part: a rather extreme ratio for what was a relatively unimportant operation. That same month the 7th Leinster lost eight men killed in a raid, and in March their 7th battalion lost eleven more. On other occasions, the treacherous terrain and lack of visibility could be a detriment, turning units around so that they blundered back into their own trenches, becoming victims of friendly fire. And there was also the danger posed by German raids, the enemy hardly being passive themselves, that had to be defended against. Only a few weeks after suffering their own losses, the 6th Connaught Rangers repelled a German raid on the 8th of March, peppering the enemy with smaller bombs to drive them out of their trenches before harassing them with machine and Lewis gun fire.
All the while, the British were enacting their plan to neutralise the Messines Ridge, by tunnelling underneath it, setting up a colossal amount of explosives, and blowing it up. The Germans were slow to counteract this plan, believing for a long time that British efforts to do so would be impossible in the waterlogged soil, but bit by bit, British tunnellers, some of them specialised units employed from mining companies in the colonies, were making progress.
The first large-scale fighting of the year to involve Irish troops was the Battle of Arras, around 40 km’s south of Ypres, in April and May. The attack formed part of the larger Allied offensives named after French general Robert Nivelle, with the French aiming to force a decisive battle with the Germans closer to the Aisne sector.
Despite the conditions – the offensive launched during a snowstorm, the icy weather clinging on almost to the beginning of summer – the British attack was initially quite successful, with Canadian soldiers famously capturing the fearsome Vimy Ridge utilising unique infantry tactics developed specifically for trench capture. But soon enough, the extent of the German defence-in-depth put an end to easy forward movement, and then they began counter-attacks. The Leinster regiments was part of the effort, attacking a wooded area named the Bois-en-Hache on the 12th. They were thrown back by determined German resistance, with a Corporal John Cunningham famously winning a posthumous Victoria Cross for holding off a German attack single-handed, fighting with machine gun, then grenades and then nothing at all. Resistance of this kind at least turned the fighting into a stalemate and not a retreat.
Elsewhere, the 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers, as part pf the 4th Division, went against the village of Fampoux, making three and a half miles of gains before running into a figurate brick wall of German defences. Taking over 300 casualties, the battalion, and the Division, would eventually have to withdraw without taking its final objectives. On the 15th the 10th Royal Dublin Fusiliers attacked the village of Gavrelle, but without needed artillery support the movement went nowhere, leaving 85 of them casualties. Later, other battalions of the Dublins were involved in the nearby Battle of Arleux, a supporting action for French offensives, though mostly in a reserve role. One of the Dublins killed during this time was a Sergeant William “Bill” Kent, brother of IRB member and executed signatory Eamonn Ceannt.
Arras was a tactical victory for the British, who made relatively substantial gains, but a strategic failure in line with the general failure of the Nivelle offensive. Hundreds of thousands of casualties were taken without forcing a breakthrough, and French soldiers would famously mutiny in the aftermath. The mutiny would, for the most part, not spread to the British lines, with the exception of some isolated cases of Australian and New Zealand units: for all the fear of nationalist sentiment and the Easter Rising effecting Irish units, there is no indication that they ever seriously came near a point of disobeying orders en masse.
The time was now coming closer for the launching of the Messines offensive, as the tunnels under the Ridge continued to be dug and explosives continued to be stockpiled. On hand to take advantage, going into battle side by side for the first time, would be the 16th and 36th Divisions. And when the mine under Messines was blown up, it would be thousands of Irishmen, nationalist and unionist, doing the fighting.
And despite the probable despair at the recent casualties for, again, relatively little gain, there was reason for the Allies to be cheerful in the late Spring of 1917. Germany’s resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare on shipping going to Britain in combination with their botched attempt to make a military alliance with Mexico (the infamous Zimmerman telegram, that attempted to convince the Mexican government to invade the United States, an idea Mexico had neither the means nor the inclination to pursue), resulted in American entry to the conflict on the side of the Allies on April 6th 1917. The American military was in no fit state then to properly engage in the war effort, but they were coming. And despite Irish-Americans mostly calling for neutrality in the face of perceived British imperialism and the Easter Rising (their influence on American politics would have been a partial cause for Woodrow Wilson’s war aims being separate to that of the other Allies), there would be Irish among the “Doughboys” when they arrived.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.