Ireland’s Wars: Breaking The Hindenburg Line

By the end of September 1918, the Allies’ success in the first two thirds of the Hundred Days meant that they were knocking on the door of the Hindenburg Line, that series of defensive trenches that the Germans had constructed over the winter of 1916/1917, as their main bastion of strength should they be forced back to its structures. From here, the British, French, American and Belgian armies would be launching their last co-ordinated attacks, the final push to bring the war to a close, all along the line. The Hindenburg Line was, one the face of it, a very formidable obstacle, but the Germans had never counted on defending it in the current circumstances: with disillusioned soldiers, a serious lack of supply, and the home front about to erupt in revolution.

The most significant area of fighting for the Irish was a well-worn one. On the 28th September, the Fifth Battle of Ypres began, as a huge Allied assault on numerous parts of that sector commenced. By then, the actual town of Ypres was little more than a few free standing walls amid piles of rubble. The Ypres fighting this time involved the 36th Division and other Irish regiments across several other units. Just as with the Passchendaele fighting the previous year, rain poured down and the advance became difficult through the clinging mud. The going was hard in places, as the better parts of the German infantry and machine gunners fought desperately in long-prepared positions, like Hill 41 and Ploegsteert. Bit by bit, yard by yard, the Allies retook the territory they had held only a few months before, and then kept going.

Hill 41, actually a series of rises in the landscape, was a particularly nasty position that took the 36th and its battalions spent several days to deal with, as they were forced to clear or isolate numerous farmhouses the Germans had turned into deadly machine-gun nests, and all without adequate artillery support, the bigger guns lagging behind. The 2nd Leinsters and 1st Dublins, in the 29th Division by now, also fought in this sector at this time, with the Dublins outracing their own creeping barrage and suffering from friendly fire (though they still captured their objectives). The Menin Road was a prized target, and numerous Irish regiments were involved in the push to capture it. It would not be until mid October that the Ulster Division would be adequately supported by advancing artillery, with which they were able to press the advance a bit better.

Pushing on into the latter part of the month, the Germans had been driven back nearly 10 kms or more, but the Allies were again cruelly delayed from pressing their advantage by going beyond their artillery support and supply lines. Like the Germans before them, they were now marching through what was essentially wasteland, grounded down to strategic uselessness after over four years of war. Transport was difficult when the roads had been practically destroyed (hence why the Menin Road, relatively intact, was so valuable), and the fields were a sea of impassable mud. But, despite all this, the Allies did make it to the left bank of the Lys River.

On the 19th October, the 36th was among the units chosen for the crossing of the Lys, in the hope that German positions elsewhere on the waterway could be outflanked. That night, in combination of small boats and rapidly assembled pontoon bridges, the 36th stormed across, part of an effort that sent the Germans packing. The 36th rapidly helped to capture a number of villages on the right bank in the following few days, having the most trouble with the heights around Dries before, again, finding their advance checked by the lack of adequate transport, most especially in terms of horses, which were being killed at a frightful rate (the tanks, now more advanced and better driven, were seriously proving their worth).

The 36th remained in the frontline for another few torturous days of slow advance and grim German determination from some of the last of the “stormtrooper” units that had survived the Spring Offensive, until some battalions could barely field 250 men. They were all utterly exhausted from the last few weeks of effort and loss. On the 27th October, just as German resistance in the area began its final collapse – the last major objective the 36th would ever take, the Kleinberg Ridge, was captured without taking any casualties –  they were relived, and sent back into reserve areas. They would not see combat again.

The experience of the Irish was not restricted to the Ypres sector in the last month of fighting though. In the Beaurevoir sector, one of the strongest parts of the Hindenburg Line, numerous Irish regiments were engaged, from the Royal Irish Regiment, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and some Munster and Dublin battalions. The disjointed nature of the advances in this section of the offensive, sometimes better known as the Battle of the St Quentin Canal, were evident at times, such as when the 2nd Dublins unexpectedly found themselves defending against a German counter-attack of five battalions when they attacked themselves towards the village of Le Catelet. It would be the 2nd Munsters, once of the 10th Division, now part of the 50th, who finally broke into the village, though they suffered cruelly from machine-gun fire in doing so, while Inniskillings took casualties in hand-to-hand fighting at nearby Prospect Hill. Beaurevoir fell on the 8th October, Le Catelet a week later. Briefly taken out of the line due to losses sustained, the 2nd Munsters would be thrown back into the grinder for the successful attacks at Epehy later in October and Hayte Noyelles in early November, some of the last engagements of any great consequence for British units.

Further south, Irish units were also involved in the Second Battle of Cambrai, when British and colonial troops went up against the Hindenburg Line directly. The first battle had been a pitifully botched offensive, where spectacular early gains were thrown away by a lack of follow through, but now, the Allies would not be subject to the same reverses. The 2nd Royal Irish Regiment was in the vanguard of the offensive, helping to capture Havrincourt while the moved around 1st Munsters engaged the enemy as part of a series of smaller battles around the canal systems and the town of Proville. Despite the push, and the growing sense of inevitability about the final result, the Germans held doggedly on for a time, before Cambrai was entered by British troops, including the 1st Munsters, on the 8th October. From there, the Munsters were moved to the recently recaptured city of Lille.

All across the line, the Allies advanced, with Irish units involved in a host of small engagements, at places like Courtrai, the Selle and the Sambre. These clashes were characterised by overwhelming Allies force in men, artillery, armour and air power, quickly swamping the ill-prepared and rapidly retreating Germans, who were now abandoning what was left of the Hindenburg line. Beyond its barbed wire, bunkers and trench lines, lay the Holy Grail of Allied dreams: open country, the thing that British and French commanders had been trying to reach since the trenches were first dug. Now, infantry, cavalry and armour eagerly poured through the crumbling static defences, and kept going.

By the 11th November, the Allies had liberated Ghent to the north, Mons in central Belgium, most of the previously occupied French territory, and were only a short distance away from Germany’s pre-war borders. As that day began, there was still plenty of fighting going on, and plenty of Irish still involved, though it seemed as if the enemy will to resist had evaporated. The beginning of the Spring Offensive must have seemed like a distant nightmare, because now it looked as if the Allies were about to march into Germany, the fulfilment of what so many had signed up for in 1914. But, that day, finally, the conflict was going to be brought to an end. Our next entry will look at Armistice Day, and what the Irish units were doing at the death.

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

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