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Death on the Western Front during Easter Week, 1916
Titled 'The real Ireland: The heroism of the Irish soldiers fighting at the front', the cartoon shows Irish soldiers leaving their trench on the Western front, with Hulluch being used as an example of their bravery. Photo: Illustrated London News [London, England], 13 May 1916.

Death on the Western Front during Easter Week, 1916

While Dublin was thrown into turmoil during Easter Week 1916, the fighting in World War One rumbled on. While Irish soldiers and Irish regiments could be found across the front at the time, there was a disaster for the Irish between 27 and 29 April 1916 near the village of Hulluch in France. The area formed part of the wider area where the Battle of Loos was being fought, and by April 1916 the network of trenches in the areas was vast and the two sides separated by a few hundred yards. On one side were the Royal Bavarian Corps of the German army, and on the other I Corps of the British Army which included men from the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and the Royal Irish Fusiliers. It has been claimed that the German trenches were fronted by placards at the end of April informing the Irish battalions of the Easter Rising. One read “Irishmen! Heavy uproar in Ireland. English guns are firing on your wives and children.”

Trench layout and conditions: an aerial photograph showing a trench system between Loos and Hulluch. (Image: Imperial War Museum, Q 45786)

On 27 April 1916, at 5 am, German forces emptied 3,800 cylinders containing a mixture of chlorine and phosgene gas and a favourable wind blew the cloud into the British trenches. The gas attack was accompanied by a heavy artillery barrage and, later in the morning, and infantry attack on the British lines. The gas was so thick that it reduced visibility to less than three yards, and so extensive that gas masks had to be worn at over 3 miles behind the trenches. Two days later, on 29 April (the day the Rising ended in Dublin), the Germans against released gas in the Hulluch area. The wind was less favourable for the Germans on the 29th, but the gas still inflicted great damage along British lines. By the end of the 29 April all the gains that had been made by the Germans had been recaptured by allied forces.  It is estimated that on the two days that gas was used at Hulluch in April 1916 over 1,260 allied troops were poisoned and 338 died. Irish regiments were particularly badly hit by the effects of the gas with the 7th Royal Irish Fusiliers having 80 casualties, the 7th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers 263, the 8th Royal Innisklling Fusiliers 366 and the 8th Royal Dublin Fusiliers 385. Irish casualties amounted 900 out of the 1,260 allied total.

Gas attacks had become a frequent part of battle since 1915, here a Australian Chaplain wears a gas mask in a trench in France in 1915. (Image: Imperial War Museum, Q 670)

The gas masks provided by the army at the time didn’t work properly, and in the dense cloud of gas it seems that many men could not find or fit their masks. The death from chlorine was recorded by Arthur Hurst in his Medical Diseases of War book in 1917:

'The first effect of inhalation of chlorine is a burning pain in the throat and eyes, accompanied by a sensation of suffocation; pain, which may be severe, is felt in the chest, especially behind the sternum. Respiration becomes painful, rapid, and difficult; coughing occurs, and the irritation of the eyes results in profuse lachrymation. Retching is common and may be followed by vomiting, which gives temporary relief. The lips and mouth are parched and the tongue is covered with a thick dry fur. Severe headache rapidly follows with a feeling of great weakness in the legs; if the patient gives way to this and lies down, he is likely to inhale still more chlorine, as the heavy gas is most concentrated near the ground. In severe poisoning unconsciousness follows; nothing more is known about the cases which prove fatal on the field within the first few hours of the "gassing", except that the face assumes a pale greenish yellow colour.'

At the end of the attack, in 1917 a Lieutenant Lyon (7th Leinster Regiment) who was sent out to collect the dead recalled: 'the Dublin Fusiliers had been caught unawares and their casualties were very heavy. When it was over, I had the sad job of collecting and burying the dead. They were in all sorts of tragic attitudes, some of them holding hands like children in the dark. They were nearly all gassed and I buried about 60 of them in an enormous shell hole'.

Willie Redmond, brother of Irish Parliamentary Leader John Redmond leads Irish troops to battle at Hulluch. (Image: Illustrated London News, [London, England] 6 May 1916)

As people in Ireland came to terms with the Easter Rising and the gas, deaths and subsequent fighting at Hulluch, John Redmond told the House of Commons: 'Is it not an additional horror that on the very day when we hear that the men of the Dublin Fusiliers have been killed by Irishmen on the streets of Dublin, we receive the news of how the men of the 16th Division - our own Irish Brigade, and of the same Dublin Fusiliers - had dashed forward and by their unconquerable bravery retaken the trenches that the Germans had won at Hulluch?'

The Irish soldiers who died at Hulluch are remembered at the Loos Memorial in France. (Image: Commonwealth War Graves Commission)

AUDIO

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RTÉ History Show: Gas Attacks at Hulluch

Joe Harbison of TCD joins Myles Dungan to discuss the gas attacks Hulluch during Easter week 1916.

RTÉ

Century Ireland

The Century Ireland project is an online historical newspaper that tells the story of the events of Irish life a century ago.