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Irish regiments lauded for victory at Guillemont and Ginchy
Lorries carrying men of the 16th Irish Division returning to recuperate after taking Guillemont. Photo: © IWM (Q 4200)

Irish regiments lauded for victory at Guillemont and Ginchy

Somme, 11 September 1916 - The extraordinary achievement of Irish troops in seizing the French villages of Guillemont and Ginchy has drawn plaudits from military and press observers who have been amazed at the speed and thoroughness of their success.

The villages of Guillemont and Ginchy lie at the southern end of the Somme battlefield which has been the setting for fierce and costly fighting since the beginning of July. The attack on Guillemont began on 3 September and the Irish, according to one account, ‘swept clean through and over a quarter of a mile beyond the village’. The Irish troops, aided by English riflemen, eventually reached a resting place, a sunken road running north and south some 500 yards to the east of Guillemont. This was a position that was ‘almost beyond our dreams a few days ago’, according to a correspondent for London-based The Times. He added that:

‘So completely, indeed, did the Irishmen, attacking to the music of their pipes, go through the German positions, that they hardly stayed long enough to clear them out thoroughly and take all the prisoners that were to be taken’.

In mounting a headlong attack, the soldiers were vulnerable to machine gunfire. However, the Germans, who moved quickly to retrieve their weapons from their holes and hiding places on the flanks and to the rear of the Irish attack, were foiled in their response by support troops.

Left: Royal Army Medical Corps ambulances treat the wounded, with Guillemont in the background. Two lorries bear the shamrock of the 16th (Irish) Division; Right: German priosners of war taken after Ginchy, which was captured by the 16th (Irish) Division on 9 September. (Images: © IWM Q 4206, Q 4246)

After the heroics and sacrifice of the Ulster Division during the opening days of the Somme offensive, little had been heard of those Irish troops from Connaught, Leinster and Munster - until now.

The exploits of the Irishmen from these provinces in recent days has elicited favourable comment across the English press. Guillemont involved the sort of fighting the Irish liked best, Percival Phillips commented in the Daily Express: ‘bayonet bursts, close-range bombing, and plenty of hand-to-hand struggles in narrow trenches, followed by breathless rushes after panic-stricken fugitives.’ Phillips wrote that Guillemont had been cleared and secured with such unity and skill that the operation ‘might have been the smooth performance of a long rehearsed manoeuvre. The attacking battalions simply swarmed over the rubbish heap – once a brick and plaster village built around a cross-roads in a dip between two wooded ridges – driving the Boche east in dire confusion.

Mr W. Beach Thomas, writing in the Daily Mail, used sporting metaphor to describe the Irish charge at Guillemont; their passage through the village was a ‘triumphant rush’ that was akin to the character of Irish football.

‘Their “forwards” – who managed to get at the back of the chief German defences – charged with such impetus that everything but the zest of the rush was forgotten. This charge was notable even in respect of the distance covered. It was an athlete's – an Olympic – charge as well as a great feat of arms and before the end a triumph of endurance.'

Lieutenant-Colonel John Staples Lenox-Conyngham of the Connaught Rangers who fell during the storming of Guillemont on 3 September. (Irish Life, 22 September 1916. Full Collection available at the National Library of Ireland.)

It appears that it was from the sunken position occupied beyond Guillemont that the attack on Ginchy, already a shattered imitation of its original self, was mounted on 9 September. Despite its depletion as a result of the Guillemont attack, the capture of Ginchy was led by the 16th (Irish) Division who engaged in a ‘wild and irresistible assault’ on enemy positions. The battle at Ginchy was bloody and protracted and was focussed on the crest of a ridge which the Germans had tenaciously held and from which it was very difficult to dislodge them. In keeping with the tenor of the commentary on the performance of the Irish soldiers at Guillemont, Mr. Philip Gibbs of the Daily Telegraph believes that the capture of Ginchy by the Irish brigades should be told ‘not in journalist’s prose but in heroic verse’. 

Finally, it is not only in the dispatches of journalists that the valour of Ireland’s front-line troops are being acknowledged. In the latest of the Victoria Cross awards, Irishmen account for three of the 20 recipients. This brings the number of awards secured by Irishmen to 27 since the beginning of this war.

[Editor's note: This is an article from Century Ireland, a fortnightly online newspaper, written from the perspective of a journalist 100 years ago, based on news reports of the time.]

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.