Thursday, March 12, 2015

FOLLOWING the 1916 Easter Rising and the subsequent executions, Ireland was devoid of purpose, with many of her sons serving in the British Army.

Britain felt the Irish position was volatile, and after prolonged discussions prime minister Herbert Asquith announced on 25 May 1916 that he would hold negotiations with a view to permanent Home Rule. David Lloyd George was sent to Ireland to present the plan to John Redmond and John Dillon of the Irish Parliamentary Party. The scheme evolved around partition, which Redmond took to be temporary, but Asquith had given Northern Ireland unionist leader Edward Carson a written guarantee that part of the north would still be ruled by Britain.

When the headings were changed, with amendments from the unionists dictating permanent exclusion and a reduction of Irish MPs in the British House of Commons, Redmond informed Lloyd George on 22 July that this was an act of treachery. On 27 July, talks collapsed.

In 1917, German U-boats sank seven US merchant ships. American president Woodrow Wilson went to congress on 6 April and received permission to declare war on Germany. This was a daunting time for America because its armed forces were under-strength and were totally ill-equipped for war. However, it did send a battleship group to join with the British Navy at Scapa Flow. It also sent destroyers to Queenstown (Cobh) and submarines to protect convoys. Several regiments of marines also arrived in France.

A Franco-British commitment to the River Somme offensive had been given during allied discussions at Chantilly from 6-8 December 1915. The Allies agreed to combine their forces against the Central Powers during 1916, with offensives on the eastern front by the Russian Army, by the Italians on the Italian front, and the French and BEF, with Canadians and ANZACS and other nations also supporting on the western front. The purpose of these offensives was to ensure that Germany could not move troops from one front to another.

The offensive on the Somme was to have taken place in February, but the German assault on Verdun on the 21st day of that month scuppered the plan. This battle would be the longest of the war and would last until 20 December 1916 – almost ten months. Territory changed hands at least 17 times. The Germans had a slight advantage until July, when they had to move troops from this front to strengthen defences on the Somme, which became a continuous drain. This meant that the French were able to win back all the territory they had lost, as German opposition was weakened. Verdun claimed an average of 70,000 casualties each month, with 156,000 Allied soldiers and 143,000 Germans killed.

The Battle of the Somme began on 1 July with a French army, which was meant to lead the offensive. However, it was weakened by the transfer of troops to Verdun. This meant that the British, under Sir Douglas Haig, took the lead. This would also be the worst day in the history of the British Army, which suffered 60,000 casualties – principally on the front – between the Albert-Bapaume Road and the tiny commune of Gommecourt. Meanwhile, Major General William Hickie (born in Nenagh, Co Tipperary on 21 May 1865), commander of the 16th division, had to listen to comments on the lack of fitness and training of his men. He was diplomatic and let the battles in which his men took part tell their own story. They incurred heavy losses at Hulluch, but stood firm.

Their capture of Guillemont and the absolutely strategic village of Ginchy, where many other units had failed, would be a turning point of the battle and the war. The Irish then defended the village against numerous counter-attacks, depriving the Germans of their main observation point, from where they could direct operations against the attacking British and French. The taking of Ginchy saw 224 officers and 4,090 Irishmen killed. But by now, the Irish had gained everyone’s respect as a fighting unit.

As a result of the Irish success, the German 2nd Army was routed from its positions by the French 6th Army from Foucaucourt-en-Santerre, south of the Somme, to Maricourt on the north bank, and by the British 4th Army from there almost to the Albert-Bapaume Road. At the end of the battle, the Germans had been driven back over six miles. Because of bad weather, they were able to hold their positions into the winter. They were now weakened, with no reserves available, but would continue in defensive mode and launch three offensives from this position in the final year of the war. This battle was notable for the first use of tanks and the importance of air power.

British troops (Irish included) launched further attacks in January 1917, forcing the Germans back to their reserve lines in February, before a scheduled withdrawal in March to the Hindenburg Line, a purpose-built defensive position that was constructed during the winter.

Following its withdrawal from Gallipoli to Salonika in Greece, the 10th Division took part in some minor battles before the division moved to Egypt, where it fought in the third battle of Gaza on the night of 1 November 1917. This ended the next morning in a British victory, thus ending the Ottoman resistance in southern Palestine.

Operation Michael was launched by the Germans from the Hindenburg Line on 21 March 1918 with a view to splitting the French and British armies, driving the latter into the sea. Their advance was halted at Villers-Bretonneux, close to Amiens, which was now the allied command. Both sides had again taken heavy casualties. The German losses amounted to 239,800, while the British lost 177,739; France, 77,000; and the US, 77. All of these casualties occurred in a series of battles, which concluded on 5 April 1918. Both the 16th Irish division, with 7,149 dead, and the 36th Ulster Division, with 7,310, sustained the heaviest losses. This led to ten battalions, numbering 60,000 men of the 10th Division, being sent from Palestine to reinforce the 16th.

While the German offensive came to a standstill because of a lack of replacement troops and supplies, the Allied position was quickly augmented with the landing of a larger force of United States troops as well as British replacements. The Germans would again go on the offensive on two fronts: one attacking the weak side of the British, Belgian and Portuguese armies with some success, while the other was to take on the French in the Aisne sector, which they crossed at the end of May. They reached the Marne on 30 May, 80 miles from Paris.

The US 3rd Division stopped the advance. Further actions by the US, French and Australian divisions kept the Germans on the back foot.

Their final offensive was another attempt to cross the Marne, but a counter-attack on 18 July by US, British, French and Italian troops drove the Germans back. This marked the gradual retreat of the German Army over the following 11 months. Allied offensives gave the Germans no room to breathe, with the US, French, British, Canadian and ANZAC forces now in control. On 12 August, the first phase drew to a close with the capture of Montdidier.

The second phase began on 21 August, and by 4 September the Germans were back at the Hindenburg line. The advance continued. By now, the 16th had been repatriated to Britain and was amalgamated into other units. The German retreat continued, and on 11 November 1918 at 11am the armistice was signed to end the war. However, movement would continue into late December.

So let us look at the Irish statistics in more detail, and there is very little written in stone so we will go with what is available.

It is pretty certain that 206,000 Irishmen from North and South – possibly more – served in the British Army. How many served with US forces, Canada, the ANZACS, the French and others has not been confirmed.

The memorial wall in Islandbridge has 49,400 names of those who died. The official British register of those killed is 27,405 or 14% of those who served, which is in line with the rest of the British forces. Again, there is no certainty as to native counties. The breakdown, as known, is 11,300 from the North, 18,946 from the South, with 741 just from Ireland. Some 11,255 were born in Britain, the USA and around the world, while the remaining 7,158 have no recorded birth place.

It’s unknown if this includes those wounded or those who were repatriated because of injury and those who died but were not claimed by their families and are buried in Grangegorman Military Cemetery, as all those from WWI were. If families claimed their wounded soldiers, how many of these are recorded? How many served with other countries?

On the disciplinary front, records show that between August 1914 and 11 November 1918, 5,645 soldiers from the Irish divisions were court-martialed. A significant number would have been executed for crimes such as desertion, but we don’t know if they are included in the British records. As the Irish volunteers dried up, other countries filled the gaps. At the end of the war, only 71% of those who served in the Irish divisions were Irish-born.

Many historians, who have taken it on themselves to get the true figures from their own counties, maintain that the figures for those who were killed are too low.

If we look at those killed or who died from wounds received in the war from the counties of Leinster, this is the count: Carlow, 324; Dublin, 4,918; Kildare, 580; Kilkenny, 469; Louth, 449; Longford, 210; Offaly, 435; Meath, 341; Laois, 368; Westmeath, 416; Wexford, 529; and Wicklow, 444. Only Antrim, with 5,221, surpassed Dublin, while Longford’s 210 had the fewest casualties.

It is clear that without US intervention in April 1917, Germany would probably have extended a war it was never going to win. The rest of Europe had been flattened but Germany escaped structural damage.

Just over ten million military and seven million civilians died in WWI, while more than 20 million were wounded in the deadliest conflict in history.

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By Frank White
Contact Newsdesk: +353 59 9170100

More Times Past

Ireland home and away in WWI (part 3)

Ireland home and away in World War I (part 2)