Ireland’s Wars: The Last Fight Of The 16th Division

Operation Michael had stunned the Allies on the western front. A huge gap had been opened in the Somme sector by the ferocious German assault, and now enemy troops were pouring in, the likes of Ludendorff and Hindenburg more concerned with making any kind of headway from the breakthrough then with a strict strategic plan. The Irish divisions had been among those caught in the onrushing tide and now, battered, demoralised and bereft of effective leadership, they were swept up in the confusion of the days that followed.

There was to be no let up for what was left of the 16th (Irish) and 36th (Ulster). On the morning of the 22nd, elements of the Connaught Rangers, Royal Munster Fusiliers and South Irish Horse from the 47th Brigade of the 16th manned defences near St Emille, in what was left of the “battle” zone. Initially tapped for a counter-attack, this idea was scrapped as local commanders witnessed battalions on both flanks pulling back under sustained assault. These units covered the retreat of other 16th Division battalions into the “rear” zone instead, before pulling back themselves. They would face a gruelling fighting retreat, nearly always in range of enemy machine-guns, forced to fall back, form a line, fight and fall back again. There were moments of suicidal courage in this section of the fighting, with one bayonet charge, targeting an enemy held barn and a machine gun, leaving just one of the attackers alive to take the objective.

Much of the fighting now focused on the canal crossings to the west, a natural barrier that carried some hope of being a method of stemming the German advance. All along here, Irish units were engaged in the desperate delaying struggle. The 5th Irish Lancers held one of the bridges till the early hours of the 23rd of March, when German stormtroopers crossed the canal elsewhere and laid down flanking fire. Several battalions of the Royal Irish Rifles were ordered to hold ground near the village of Cugny, where they were nearly cut off, doing so for most of the day. The 9th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers of the 36th attempted to hold the village of Ham near one crossing in a day of bitter attack and counter-attack, but hadn’t the numbers to do so. When the 47th reached their crossing point, at Peronne, they found Royal Engineers already preparing to blow it to pieces rather than leave it for the enemy to use. The Royal Irish Hussars were ordered across the canals to deal with a potential attack of enemy cavalry, but sustained artillery fire spooked the horses so much it was all they could do to lead their animals back across the water, with many of them left behind.

As the days crawled on with a seemingly never-ending fight, the losses began to get truly frightening, with the effective fighting strength of many battalions now being little more than a companies worth of men. One of these, the 2nd Royal Irish Rifles, missed a retreat order on the 25th, as the 36th Division headed for Villeselve, were surrounded, and made a last bayonet charge on the enemy. A few lucky Rilflemen avoided death or capture and joined up with the 1st battalion, but the 2nd had largely ceased to exist. For the 16th, the 6th Connaught Rangers was so hard up for men that it’s total fighting strength was judged to be less than 190 men. The once proud South Irish Horse was so shorn of men that it was placed into the blackly named “47th Brigade Battalion”. The foggy conditions reduced visibility, the roads were crammed with retreating soldiers and fleeing civilians, and there was no clear sense of a larger direction for what was happening.

On the 26th, Allied leadership held a conference, appointing French general Ferdinand Foch as commander-in-chief of all military forces, while the French committed more divisions to assisting the British. On the same day, Ludendorff altered his own vague plan a bit, pivoting his troops to take advantage of a growing gap between the British and French, and setting the city of Amiens as a key target.

At Roye, the Germans poured through the gap, and the 36th was one of the units ordered to try and plug it as best they could. At Andechy, a few ragtag battalions of the division fought a desperate day-long battle, trying to hold some rudimentary trenches long enough for French support to be sent up. At one point, they mistook enemy advancing to their front as the French, so confused was the situation. Badly under-strength and with their right flank almost non-existent, the 36th did well to hold until the following morning, when they had to fall back in some confusion, just as the French were arriving.

That day, the 27th of March, was one of more heartbreak for the 36th elsewhere. The 1st Inniskilling Fusiliers were cut-off in the retreat as the rest of the division headed west across the River Avre. 20 of them made it back to British lines, the rest were killed or captured by midday. Elsewhere, at Erches, three battalions of the Royal Irish Rifles marched out of a vicious firefight with a total of 63 men still standing between them all. It was to be the 36th’s last fight. The division, battered beyond recognition, was sent into reserve. For some of them, it was the first rest they had gotten in six straight days.

The 16th was in little better position. They were marked to defend the northern part of the battlefield, and one of those divisions tasked with holding Amiens as part of the Battle of Rosieres. Eleven German divisions smashed into them on the morning of the 27th, with the division splintering into smaller groups. Some where surrounded, spending a brutal day and night fending off assault from all directions, and then using the cover of darkness to stumble back to friendly lines. At one point, elements of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, Royal Munster Fusiliers, Connaught Rangers, Royal Irish Regiment and Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers all fought together while elsewhere an American engineer unit temporarily became part of the 16th. It was typical of the confusion of the day, where the only aim was to hold the line, and officers were often cobbling together fighting units from several different sources.

The 16th and other British divisions were forced ever backwards, losing the village of Albert that had been the central node of the first day of the Somme offensive in 1916. Constant fighting continued for the next few days until the 30th March. That day, the Germans would begin their last effort to affect a final breakthrough and take Amiens, assaulting the area near the Bois des Tailloux. The 16th, what was left of it anyway, was used primarily as a counter-attacking force, to hit at German footholds past the rapidly constructed British lines. Just as in Gallipoli, Munster and Dublin battalions became “Dubsters”. The fighting was especially brutal, with the enemy repelled with bombs and bayonet. On the 2nd of April, the 16th’s Connaught Rangers, Leinsters and Munsters, succesfully defended Hamelet from a German assault.

It was the last act of Operation Michael. The exhausted Germans had advanced nearly 65 km’s, captured 75’000 men, and destroyed a large amount of Allied supplies and war material. In return, they had lost nearly 240’000 men themselves. Despite the spectacular gain in ground, the offensive had petered out before they could attack Amiens or Arras, and much  of the ground that had been captured, that of the Somme battlefield, was little more than a churned mess of mud, wrecked roads and nothing of genuine worth.

On the other side, the Allies lost over 255’000 men, most of them British. Hundreds of artillery pieces and thousands of machine guns were lost or destroyed. Gough, his handling of the Fifth Army during the offensive a source of bitter controversy ever since, was sacked during the fighting, and the Fifth Army was actually dissovled. But they had held on. A larger breakthrough was prevented in the Somme sector, Amiens was held, and a huge portion of what was left of Germany’s best troops were removed from the equation.

The casualties were stunning, and it was a testament to the scale of the fighting endured by the two Irish divisions that they are considered to have taken the most of any British division involved in Operation Michael. The 36th is recorded as taking 7’310 casualties, and the 16th 7’149. Some of the individual battalion casualties defy belief: the 6th Connaught Rangers lost nearly 650 men in five days. The 9th Inniskkilng Fusiliers lost nearly 500. The 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers too over 750. And they were just a few.

Sent into reserve, neither division was capable of presenting even a third of their nominal manpower as capable of fighting. For all intents and purposes, the Michael fighting destroyed the 16th.. The division was dismembered wholesale, what was left then officially assigned to helping train those men of the newly arrived American Expeditionary Force, while the 36th was sent as far as the coast of France to re-group for a time. The 16th would not get the chance to re-equip and be swelled with reinforcements before the war came to an end later that year, but some of their battalions, those in slightly better condition than others, would yet have the opportunity to fight once more, as part of other divisions. The battered 36th would still have a few battles to fight.

In some respects, it was ignominious end. The 16th especially was criticised in some quarters for a perceived lack of morale and fighting spirit, with some of its units accused of cowardice and an over eagerness to retreat. This was an unfair accusation from a British leadership shell-shocked by the manner of the retreat from the front: a division can’t take over 7’000 casualties and be realistically considered cowardly. Poorly led perhaps, and in poor defences, but they fought as hard as any. The 36th, a bit more politically favourable for those back home, largely escaped such criticism.

It was the end of one of the three Irish divisions, but it was not the end of the war, or of the Spring Offensive. The Germans had stalled in the Somme sector, but Allied frailty elsewhere would now be exploited. Before the German tide was stemmed for good, the British and the French would have more fighting and dying to do. But before we cover that, it’s the third Irish division, the 10th, that we must go back to. The last of its fighting in the Holy Land had to be done, before they were sent to the western front.

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

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