War in the Mud: the Irish soldier in Belgium in the summer of 1917
By Lar Joye
In 1917, two Irish Divisions fought side-by-side, in victory and then in defeat. In June 1917, the 36th (Ulster) and 16th (Irish) Divisions benefited from careful preparation and good luck to eject well-entrenched German forces from the important Messines Ridge. The preliminary artillery bombardment was unprecedented in its intensity – three shells exploded on the German lines every second for 12 days. This was followed by the exploding of 19 mines under the German lines killing 10,000 German soldiers.
Two months later, the same two divisions suffered terrible casualties in assaulting concrete fortifications amid the mud of an unusually wet autumn at the Battle of Langemarck. Despite warnings from his officers, the army commander, Irishman Hubert Gough, insisted the attacks go ahead. An observer later wrote: ‘The two Irish divisions were broken to bits, and their brigadiers called it murder’. Gough later tried to blame the 16th Division for the failure of the attack.
Through most of its brief existence the 16th (Irish) Division was commanded by William Hickie of Co. Tipperary. He had served in India and Egypt and fought in South Africa in 1899 and later France before being appointed commander of the 16th Division in December 1915.The 16th Division was seen as an Irish nationalist division and Hickie, a Catholic and a supporter of Home Rule, was a popular commander. He tried to encourage his troops by awarding a special certificate to deserving soldiers. In the summer of 1917 two officers that Hickie particularly admired Major William Redmond and Fr William Doyle, were killed and this followed on from the death of the popular Captain Tom Kettle in 1916. Major Redmond was brother of John Redmond and a MP. At 54 years of age, he was too old for front line but he wanted to be with his battalion in the attack on Messines and was wounded and later died. As one historian has noted, by 1917 ‘the carnage of war and the political developments in Ireland affected him deeply’.
Dublin-born Fr William Doyle volunteered in 1915 and proved very popular with the Irish soldiers while experiencing the horrors of the Battle of the Somme, and later at Messines and Passchendaele where he died on 16th August. His body was never recovered. General Hickie recommended Fr Doyle for the Victoria Cross to be added to the Military Medal that he had already won. However it was argued after his death that he was denied a Victoria Cross due to the ‘triple disqualification of being an Irishman, a Catholic and a Jesuit’. By late 1917, after the loss of so many soldiers, there were fewer Irish replacements in the 16th Division and the gaps were filled with English conscripts, while Hickie himself was replaced in February 1918 due to ill health.
For the Irish soldier on the western front the large number of deaths meant many soldiers were rapidly promoted to officers of which there are many Irish examples. Samuel Morgan was a professional soldier from Belfast, a sergeant in the Royal Irish Rifles. When the First World War broke out, his military experience saw him promoted to the rank of second lieutenant and kept in Ireland until 1917, when he joined his regiment on the Western Front. On 19 July 1917 Samuel sent a souvenir French bank note to his son Leo, back in Ireland. Three weeks later he was shot through the head and killed, leaving Leo Morgan without a father. John Patrick Hunt was born in Ringsend, Dublin, fought as a young man in the South African War (1899-1901) and retired in 1913, finishing his career with the Officer Training Corp in Trinity College, Dublin. However he re-joined the army with the outbreak of war in the summer of 1914 and was quickly commissioned as an officer. By the time of the Battle of Messines he was a Major serving in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and was lucky to survive the war joining the Irish Army in 1920s.
The Battle of Messines and Langemarck were one of 10 smaller battles that make up the Flanders Offensive of 1917 otherwise known to history as Third Battle of Ypres, or simply: Passchendaele. By end of this offensive the Canadians, Belgium, Australian and New Zealand, British, South African and French Armies had lost 320,000 casualties, estimates on German casualties vary from 200,000 to 300,000 but were probably lower as most of the histories of the war are based on French and British archives. Overall the battle failed and is remembered for the first use of mustard gas, the ever present trench foot, the appalling conditions, the mud, the constant rain and for being the last attritional battle of the Western Front.
2017 is also the centenary of the Russia Revolution which meant a peace agreement with Germany, and also the arrival of the United States into the war when they declared war on Germany on 6 April. As both sides entered 1918 they struggled to hang on, and on 21 Marcht that year, the German Army attacked on the Western front in a last attempt to win the war before American divisions arrived. The attack was fast and fluid, using specially-equipped soldiers called storm-troopers. The allies held on, eventually counter-attacking all along the line and were to win the war in November 1918. As for the two Irish Divisions, they were destroyed in the initial German attack.
Lar Joye is Curator of Irish Military History at the National Museum of Ireland
1. Terence Denman, Ireland’s unknown soldiers – the 16th (Irish) Division in the Great War (Dublin, 1992)
2. Ronan McGreevy, Wherever the Firing Line extends – Ireland and the Western Front (Dublin, 1916)
3. Keith Jeffery, Ireland and the Great War (Cambridge, 2000)