Book review: Fighting Irish – The Irish Regiments in the First World War

Fighting-Irish-Cover-300x450By Gavin Hughes,

Published by Merrion Press

Reviewer: Kieran Glennon

 

This is a book of ambitious scale. Most studies of Ireland’s involvement in the Great War have focussed either on particular campaigns such as Gallipoli or the Somme, or on particular military formations, especially the three best-known – the 10th (Irish), 16th (Irish) and 36th (Ulster) Divisions. However, in this work, Hughes has set out to trace the wartime experiences of all fifteen of the Irish infantry and cavalry regiments which made up a significant proportion of the British army before the war.

These regiments were involved in the war literally from start to finish. The very first shots fired by British soldiers came on 22nd August 1914 when troops of the 4th (Royal Irish) Dragoon Guards encountered a German cavalry patrol in south-west Belgium. Over four years later, the very last British soldier to be killed in action was Private George Ellison of the 5th Royal Irish Lancers, who died at Mons, also in Belgium, only minutes before the Armistice came into effect on 11th November 1918.

Pre-War situation in Ireland

Hughes begins the book with an overview of the pre-war situation in Ireland, in particular the formation and development of the rival Ulster and Irish Volunteers in response to the unfolding Home Rule crisis. This approach makes eminent sense as when war was declared, thousands of members of these bodies soon became recruits to the three “New Army” divisions noted above and many others were called up as reservists to “regular” battalions.

There are serious errors in the account of the Howth gun running

However, this first chapter contains some glaring factual errors. Firstly, Hughes refers to the nationalist formation as the “Irish National Volunteers”, although that organisation did not come into existence until after the war began, when the Irish Volunteers split in the wake of John Redmond’s speech at Woodenbridge, in which he encouraged enlistment into the British army. Worse is to follow: in describing the Howth gun-running of July 1914, Hughes writes:

“In an attempt to halt the proceedings, a detachment of King’s Own Scottish Borderers had been ordered to secure Bachelor’s Walk, at Howth Quay [sic] where the illegal shipment was expected. However, the police and Scottish Borderers were forced to wait on the quayside for most of the day, only to discover that, whilst they stood waiting at Howth, rifles were unloaded at Killcoole [sic] further up the coast.”

In fact the rifles were successfully imported at both Howth and a week later, at Kilcoole. The Scottish Borderers were not at the quay at Howth, but attempted to confront the Volunteers on their way back into Dublin city and ended up shooting four civilians at Bachelor’s Walk in the city centre. The Kilcoole arms landings took place a week later in County Wicklow in secrecy.

Such errors would be – at the very least – intensely irritating were this book written by someone unfamiliar with Dublin or with Irish history. But coming from a historian attached to Trinity College, in a book published by an Irish publisher, they are travesties. The unfortunate effect is that the reader is left wondering what similar errors may lie ahead in the remainder of the book, which may not be so easily spotted.

Early fighting

Setting such reservations aside, Hughes’ task is made more difficult by its own breadth. At the outset of the war, each infantry regiment of the British army had two battalions. This peacetime complement was soon swollen by wartime recruitment, so the Royal Dublin Fusiliers eventually had ten battalions and the Royal Irish Rifles even more, with sixteen.

However, with the notable exception of the battalions constituting the 36th (Ulster) Division, different battalions of the same regiment did not always fight alongside each other. This means that Hughes has to juggle a multiplicity of battalions in action across various theatres of the war and the book becomes less about the Irish regiments and more about the individual component battalions of those regiments.

It was the “regular”, or peacetime, battalions who bore the brunt of the early fighting and stopped the German advance at a terrible cost.

It was the “regular”, or peacetime, battalions who bore the brunt of the early fighting as part of the British Expeditionary Force sent to repel the German invasion of Belgium. Men from the Royal Irish Rifles, the Connaught Rangers and the Irish Guards were involved in the battle at Mons which stopped the German advance, but at a terrible cost – of its normal peacetime strength of roughly 1000 men, the 2nd Royal Irish Rifles alone suffered 300 casualties.In the retreat from Mons that followed, the 2nd Connaught Rangers suffered to a very similar degree, with 284 men killed or captured.

While casualties in later battles would later dominate the history of the war, the losses suffered by the British army in the early months of the war are also staggering: of its pre-war fighting strength of 125,000, roughly 90,000 or three-quarters had become casualties by the end of 1914. Hughes estimates that 10,000 of these were members of Irish regiments, either killed or wounded.

This attrition was to continue on into 1915, with many failed attempts to break the deadlock of trench warfare. Several Irish units were involved in the vicious battle around Ypres, including the 2nd Royal Munster Fusiliers, subject of a famous painting showing them being blessed by their chaplain before an attack; within a few hours, 390 of them had become casualties.

At times, following the progress of these less-familiar battles in Hughes’ narrative can be difficult for the uninitiated – this is the result of two weaknesses of the book.

Firstly, it is terribly under-served in terms of maps – only three are included, one of (part of) the Gallipoli campaign, one showing the entire Western Front and one showing the Palestine theatre of the war. The reader is then left with a series of accounts of this battalion attacking here and suffering X number of casualties, another battalion being attacked there and suffering Y number of casualties and so on, without any real understanding of where these actions took place or how – if at all – they were related to each other.

War Diaries

Irish soldiers on O'Connell (Sackville) Street Dublin, marching to war.
Irish soldiers on O’Connell (Sackville) Street Dublin, marching to war.

Secondly, Hughes’ main source material is the battalions’ war diaries. While this is unsurprising in a work of military history, it means the book often simply reflects the main concerns of those writing the diaries at the time – where the battalion was stationed, when it went into action and how it fared. It is very much an account of military formations, with relatively little mention of the soldiers who made up those formations.

Hughes’ main source material is the battalions’ war diaries.

When Hughes does attempt to introduce a human dimension by highlighting the actions of particular officers or men, it is mainly with reference to obituaries in the press or to soldiers awarded medals for particular acts of bravery – again, as reported by the war diarists or by official publications such as the London Gazette. As the book unconsciously echoes the language of those original writers, it veers very close to becoming a litany of gallant soldiers gallantly performing acts of great gallantry. At times, this becomes tedious, a very stuffy and old-fashioned way of describing history.

By comparison, the voices of those soldiers themselves are generally conspicuous by their absence. There are very few references to their letters or diaries, so we are left with little sense of how they reacted to what must have been terrifying and impossible circumstances. It is not as if such resources do not exist so one must wonder at the reason for ignoring them.

Equally, the thoughts of the generals, and what they were hoping to achieve, are also absent so it sometimes feels as if the various battalions were simply shuffled around anonymously before being fed to the slaughter. However, one – perhaps unintended – consequence of these omissions is that the reader is left with the sense of the war as a voracious beast with a life of its own, ferociously consuming hundreds and thousands of men in futile battles that made little difference to the stalemate.

One of the most notorious such battles was that at Gallipoli, where the British and French attempted to launch a strategic attack at the end of April 1915, aimed at knocking Germany’s ally Turkey out of the war.

Irish regiments were heavily involved from the outset of this campaign, with the 1st Royal Dublin Fusiliers and 1st Royal Munster Fusiliers suffering such heavy casualties during the initial morning of the attack that they could only continue in action by merging the depleted remnants of the two battalions into one composite unit known as the “Dubsters”. As this campaign sank into the same impasse of trench warfare that characterised the Western Front, the British attempted to break the deadlock with a second set of landings at Suvla Bay in early August.

While the fighting around Suvla Bay is probably most closely identified with the slaughter of the Australian and New Zealand troops of the Anzac Corps, it also involved the first of the three Irish “volunteer” divisions to be sent into action – the 10th (Irish) Division. For them, it was not the casualties that were counted in the hundreds, but the survivors – the 7th Royal Dublin Fusiliers were reduced to 385 officers and men, although the 5th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers suffered even worse, being left with only 234.

In relation to Gallipoli, Hughes’ account probably suffers somewhat from the fact that this campaign was extensively covered last year as part of the “Decade of Centenaries”, in newspaper supplements and websites such as http://www.rte.ie/centuryireland/ so most potential readers are probably already familiar with the battles involved.

1916

This is even more the case in relation to his next two chapters, covering the two seminal events of 1916, the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme.

When the Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army launched the rebellion, all of the British troops facing them in Dublin were in Irish regiments – the 3rd Royal Irish Rifles, 3rd Royal Irish Regiment, 10th Royal Dublin Fusiliers and 5th Royal Irish Lancers. Indeed, as Neil Richardson has observed in According to their Lights Stories of Irishmen in the British Army, Easter 1916, the Volunteers and Citizen Army were outnumbered throughout Easter week by Irish men in British uniforms and it was the Irish regiments who first undertook the attempt to suppress the rising.

The book’s relatively short length does not give it space to go into either the Easter Rising or the Battle of the Somme in adequate depth.

While Richardson has the luxury of an entire book to go into the details, which Hughes obviously does not, it is still a surprise to find that in the latter account, the rising starts, is fought and comes to a finish all in just six pages, two of which deal with reactions to the rebellion among Irish troops stationed on the Western Front, both nationalist and unionist.

The treatment of the Battle of the Somme is equally perfunctory. The notable success of the 36th (Ulster) Division, who were one of the few British units to capture their initial objective, the heavily fortified Schwaben Redoubt, is outlined in a mere four pages. They did so in spite of appalling casualties – 5,500 in a single day – and fierce German counterattacks, but when the divisions on either side of them failed to make progress, the Ulstermen were left exposed and had to withdraw to their initial starting point. Having been forced to give up all the ground they had gained and being so mauled in the process, they were withdrawn from the front line the next day.

This was not the end of the battle nor of the Irish regiments’ involvement in it. While the first day of the battle is almost seen as being synonymous with the 36th (Ulster) Division, other Irish units also took part in the initial attacks at other points along the front. Later in the autumn, the 16th (Irish) Division was thrown into the attack and succeeded in breaking through the German lines, but with similar losses – they sustained 4,230 casualties in ten days’ fighting; as Hughes notes, “The 16th (Irish) Division, just like the 36th (Ulster), was wrecked by its experience of the Somme battle.”

The deadlock on the Western Front dragged on into 1917 with neither side able to achieve a telling victory. Towards the end of the year, in the single most ridiculous act of military folly that this reader has encountered, the 6th Inniskilling Dragoons were ordered to undertake a mounted cavalry charge uphill against entrenched German machine-gun nests. As Hughes observes, “The resultant charge was tragically predictable.”

In fairness to Hughes, while he may be overly close at times to his war diary sources, he is not afraid to be critical of the generals. So far example, when Lieutenant-General Bryan Mahon of the 10th (Irish) Division was overlooked for promotion, he refused to serve under the new corps commander at Gallipoli, resigned and went off to Greece to sulk. Hughes quite rightly characterises this petty-minded strop, committed while his men were being killed in their thousands, as “effective desertion.”

‘Stunned and weary silence’

It is towards the end of the book that it comes closest to achieving its objectives, when providing an introductory overview of the less familiar battles in Macedonia and Palestine. After being withdrawn from Gallipoli, the 10th (Irish) Division was sent to the mountains of northern Greece to fight against Bulgarian troops. Hughes again notes the ineptitude of British military organisation, pointing out that the troops were sent up into the mountains still wearing their thin tropical uniforms and without greatcoats. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the battles against the Bulgarians involved a series of retreats and withdrawals by the 10th (Irish); however, the word “defeat” is not used here, instead we are told of “an act of distinctly raw Spartan courage.”

The Armistice of 11th November 1918, was greeted by Irish troops, “by stunned, weary silence.”

By 1918, the Irish divisions and regiments were largely Irish in name only. Four years of fighting had taken a huge toll in terms of casualties so in the absence of conscription at home in Ireland, the gaps in the ranks were filled by replacements drawn from England, Scotland and Wales. Under the impact of the Germans’ spring offensive of that year, many of the Irish formations simply ceased to exist as effective fighting units: the 36th (Ulster) Division’s 108th Brigade, normally 3,000 strong, was reduced to just 14 officers and 321 men.

The 1st Royal Dublin Fusiliers had just 45 men of any rank left fit to fight. It is perhaps not surprising that when the Armistice finally came on 11th November, the news was not greeted by cheering or exuberance on the part of the troops, but “by stunned, weary silence.”

For a military historian, Hughes is quite sympathetic to the soldiers when he finishes by reviewing the cost and legacy they bore, in terms of shell-shock and their sense of dislocation when they returned home to Ireland. He is especially forgiving of those shot at dawn for alleged cowardice or indiscipline and points out that the British army was far more intolerant and ruthless in this respect than its German or French counterparts.

Ultimately, the book falls victim to a combination of its own ambition and brevity. Its 219 pages of text are simply inadequate to do the subject justice.

The German army executed 43 men during the war, the French 133, even after serious mutinies in 1917. However, the British executed 306, of whom 22 were from Irish regiments. But Hughes unfortunately undermines his own account by completely omitting the 1920 mutiny of the 1st Connaught Rangers in India, in protest at the actions of the British army during the War of Independence; one of the leaders was shot although another thirteen had their death sentences commuted.

Ultimately, the book falls victim to a combination of its own ambition and brevity. Hughes has an interesting and novel idea, in trying to trace the paths of all the Irish regiments throughout the war, but 219 pages of text are simply inadequate to do the subject justice. As a result, several important events and battles are skimmed over; this works to an extent in relation to the less well-known battles in Macedonia and the Middle East, but it relegates more major campaigns on the Western Front, such as the Somme, to the same level as relatively insignificant battles that happened during 1915.

Similarly, too many military formations and units are crammed into too small a space, so the book suffers in comparison to much more focussed works of similar length which concentrate on particular aspects of Ireland’s military contribution to the war. Two outstanding examples of this other approach are Richard Grayson’s Belfast Boys – How Unionists and Nationalists Fought and Died Together in the First World War and Philip Orr’s magnificent The Road to the Somme.

In his introduction, Hughes acknowledges that the book is not intended to be an exhaustive history of the Irish regiments, but a more general introduction to their “exploits and achievements”. A longer book would have allowed him to introduce more of the common soldiers who made up those regiments and reduce his reliance on distilling the official accounts in the war diaries.

In a sense, Hughes starts by creating an opportunity to tell the story of Ireland in the First World War in a different way. But the book he has written fails to take that opportunity.

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