Battle of the Somme...
The Green Fields of France
& Music: Eric Bogle.
how do you do young Willie McBride,
Do you mind if I sit here down by your graveside,
And rest for a while, neath the warm summer sun ?
I've been working all day, and I'm nearly done.
I see by your gravestone you were only nineteen
When you joined the great fallen in 1916.
I hope you died well, and I hope you died clean,
Or, young Willie McBride, was it slow and obscene ?
they beat the drum slowly, did they play the fife lowly ?
Did they sound the Dead March as they lowered you
And did the band play The Last Post and chorus ?
the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest ?
did you leave a wife or sweetheart behind,
some faithful heart is your memory enshrined ?
you died back in 1916,
that faithful heart are you forever nineteen ?
are you a stranger without even a name,
and forever behind the glass frame
an old photograph, torn and battered and stained,
faded to yellow in an old leather frame ?
Did they beat the drum
slowly, did they play the fife lowly ?
they sound the Dead March as they lowered you down ?
did the band play The Last Post and chorus ?
the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest ?
sun now it shines on the green fields of France,
a warm summer breeze, it makes the red poppies dance.
look now the sun shines from under the clouds,
no gas, no barbed-wire, there's no guns firing now.
here in this graveyard it's still no-man's-land,
countless white crosses stand mute in the sand,
man's blind indifference to his fellow man,
a whole generation that were butchered and damned.
Did they beat the drum
slowly, did they play the fife lowly ?
they sound the Dead March as they lowered you down ?
did the band play The Last Post and chorus ?
the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest ?
Now young Willie McBride, I can't help but
Do all those who lie here, know why they
And did they believe when they answered
Did they really believe that this war
would end wars ?
Well the sorrows, the suffering, the
glory, the pain,
The killing and dying, was all done in
For Willie McBride, it all happened again,
And again, and again, and again, and
Did they beat the drum
slowly, did they play the fife lowly ?
Did they sound the Dead March as they lowered you
And did the band play The Last Post and chorus ?
Did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest ?
George Brew, 9th Bn Royal Irish Fusiliers 1914 -18
Only weeks after the outbreak of
World War 1, the founding of the 36th Ulster Division was announced in
Belfast, to be made up of 3 infantry brigades of each 4 battalions, a
pioneer battalion, three companies of Royal Engineers, a signal
company, and a Royal Army Medical Corps, placed under the command of
Major General C. Herbert Powell who had seen service as an officer in
the Indian Army.
Recruiting began in earnest and
men rushed forward to sign up. By 7 September the first recruits had
already departed for the training camp at Ballykinler. Originally
called 1, 2, and 3 Brigades, the Division was officially authorised on
28 October, and the brigades renumbered to 107, 108, and 109 on 2
November. The 107th was formed by volunteers from Belfast, the 108th by
men from the Counties of Antrim, Armagh, Cavan, Down, and Monoghan, and
the 109th from Donegal, Fermanagh, Londonderry, Tyrone, and a battalion
from Belfast. The pioneers were taken mostly from the Lurgan area of
County Down, while the 121st and 122nd Engineers and the Signal Company
were recruited mainly from Belfast's shipyards.
Ulster's southern province, the Armagh Volunteers were organised under
their commanding officer, Colonel Stewart W. Blacker, a well respected
figure in the community, and became the 9th Battalion Royal Irish
Fusiliers. They were soon nicknamed "Blacker's Boys". The 9th Battalion
was made up partially of farmers from rural Armagh, where, owing to
responsibilities on the farm, recruiting volunteers was harder and took
much longer. On
Tuesday, 15 September 1914, less than two weeks after the announcement
of the formation of the 36th Ulster Division, John George Brew jnr.
answered the call for volunteers and enlisted in Portadown, County
Armagh, for the duration of the First World War.
His enlistment papers
show a 35 year old protestant "Ship Master" of 5ft. 8in., 133lbs, of
"sallow" complexion, with brown eyes and dark hair, and a chest
measurement of 37 inches. His distinctive marks are described as
"Tattoo 2 Hearts Right Fore Arm Anchor Left Hand".
Recruited as a
Private, No. 13975, he was posted to his local battalion, the 9th
Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers, in the Ulster Division's 108th
Brigade, but was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant 77 days later on 1
December 1914. Many
of the existing barracks in Ireland were in the south and already
occupied by the previously formed Irish 10th and 16th Divisions. This
lead to a general shortage of army accommodation, so new barracks
needed to be found or built for the 36th Division.
Camps were quickly
prepared at Ballykinler for the 107th, and at Finner for the 109th,
while new recruits in the 108th Brigade were taken to the Town Hall in
Belfast to complete formalities and were sent off to their training
camp at Clandeboye.
Soon after their arrival at
Clandeboye, the weather took a turn for the worse and the wet and cold
autumn weather soon made living in the hastily erected and inadequate
tents extremely uncomfortable. Under the feet of so many men, the
ground quickly became a muddy bog, which, unbeknown to them at the
time, was a foretaste of what they would experience in France. There
was much illness as a result of the poor conditions, in some cases
resulting in meningitis. Despite the troops' relatively good spirits,
it was recognised that the accommodations were completely
unsatisfactory and most men were promptly billeted in and around
Belfast, Hollywood and Lisburn. Eventually huts were built, and, though
they proved to be cold inside, they were dry and the men were able to
return to the camp.
Major General Powell, having done
service with the Ghurkhas and been a mountain climber in the Himalayas,
stressed the importance of physical fitness and route marches soon
became an integral part of their training. Lack of full equipment was
the major problem facing the Division during this time, and, not having
yet received their full equipment, the men carried rucksacks on their
backs full of stones. Attacks and advances were practised in the hills
and forests against an imaginary enemy. Some training consisted of
mundane tasks such as marching, drill, and PT, though there were more
'fun' things such as fighting with bayonets, charging sand-filled
figures, and tossing hand grenades. They had only drill rifles, so
limited shooting practice was done on old Mauser rifles borrowed from
the UVF on UVF ranges.
A programme had been introduced
soon after the outbreak of war which detailed the training requirements
and expectations of the newly raised armies. The six month syllabus
covered everything from basic recruit training, through drill,
discipline, hygiene, to battalion, brigade and divisional exercises.
Every aspect of a soldier's training was covered, but the 36th Division
was never able to complete it.
As recruiting continued and numbers grew, Clandeboye soon became too
the entire 108th Brigade so in early December the 9th Irish Fusiliers
were moved to neighbouring Newtownards with the 12th Battalion Royal
Irish Rifles, where they occupied new huts at the Ards Recreation
Society grounds, where they continued their training.
By the Spring of
1915, the 12 Battalions of the Ulster Division were finally prepared
for service in France. The 9th, 'Blacker's Boys', was described as
"being the best battalion in the division" and the Division as the
"best equipped, best drilled and most professional unit in the United
Kingdom". As the 36th readied for departure, local women in 'Comfort
Committees' organised sock, mitten and warm clothing collections.
Concerned for the men's' spiritual needs, 'mission services' were held
for the two battalions at Newtownards over the period of a week at the
end of May, which around 70 men attended each evening.
The culmination of
the preparations for departure was a Divisional parade through the
streets of Belfast on 8 May 1915, a day after the Lusitania was sunk.
Relatives and families of the men travelled extra to Belfast from
outlying regions of north Ireland to see their boys off, and gave them
a rousing farewell. The march through Belfast was preceded by an
inspection of the Division's 17,000 troops by Major General Sir Hugh
McCalmont in Malone, from where they marched for the centre of Belfast
and on past the Mayor and Mayoress at City Hall. It took over
one-and-a-half hours for the entire Division to pass by! Newspapers
were filled with stories of the parade during the following week,
proudly praising their young men, and retelling the story of the
emotions of the celebrated farewell.
In June the Division was sent to
Seaford, Sussex, to complete training before their embarkation to
France. The troops travelled by train to Dublin where they boarded a
ship bound for Holyhead in Wales. Here they entrained for Seaford, and
took a leisurely route through Wales and southern England. The war was
getting closer, but the mood of the troops remained good. Seaford was
for most troops a pleasant place to be in; the weather was good, and
when off duty many took the opportunity to visit Brighton and bathe in
the English Channel. Some even travelled to London to see the great
city and ride the underground. But there were constant reminders in
this part of England of the war they had come to fight; it is said that
on a calm evening, when the breeze was just right, one could hear the
distant guns in France. Some airships hung in the air, tethered to the
ground, and aeroplanes often passed overhead while the men continued
their training over the rolling South Downs.
On 27 July, Lord
Kitchener came to inspect the troops. Unfortunately for the men, he
didn't stay long, and many were disappointed for all the preparation
they had made for his visit. Despite the shortness of his visit, he was
apparently nonetheless impressed as he is on record as having said that
it was the finest division of his army which he yet seen. The one
main outcome of the Kitchener visit was, however, the realisation that
due to a lack of weapons and ammunition, there had been alarmingly
little training either on rifles or machine guns. The Division was
moved from Seaford to Bordon and Bramshott, outside Aldershot, at the
beginning of September, where they were given the opportunity to learn.
Despite efforts, it seemed the training was too little too late. On 23
September, during the final days before their departure for the
Continent, General Powell was replaced by the more experienced Major
General Oliver Nugent, who had already seen service in South Africa and
France. It was felt that only general officers with experience in
France should command divisions deployed there. To appease him, General
Powell was given the K.C.B. with the official reason that it was in
recognition of his services in the training of the Division. Just a
week later King George V came to review and inspect the Division with
Lord Kitchener. He congratulated General Nugent, remarking what a fine
division the 36th was.
A few days later, the Ulstermen
marched out of Aldershot and crossed the Channel to France. An advance
party of 1000 of the Division's Engineers went over first followed by
the infantry, the first of which were the 15th Battalion Royal Irish
Rifles, who embarked on 3 October trailed closely by the rest of the
troops on consecutive days. The ships seemed crammed with equipment and
overflowing with men. Smoking was forbidden and the crossings were made
in complete darkness.
The 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers were landed in Le Havre at 06:30 on 4
October 1915 and marched to a rest camp in the vicinity for the day.
Battalion strength stood at 30 officers and 995 other ranks. It is
impossible to know what was going on in the men's minds on this, their
first day in France; some were surely thrilled by the notion of
adventure, but the reality which lay before them was in stark contrast
to the previous year's training, and as this became obvious, it is
certain that the hearts of many were filled with fear.
On their second day in
France, the 9th Irish Fusiliers entrained at 17:30 with other
battalions of the Division for Longueau, south-east of Amiens, in the
Somme area of France's Picardy region. It was a long and slow trip, and
although the Officers travelled in a first class wagon, the rest of the
troops were astonished to realise they were travelling in wagons made
for the carriage of horses. Their arrival at 05:30 the next morning was
followed by a 15km march via Amiens to the village of Rainneville where
they were billeted. As they neared the front, they soon came into
contact with the realities of war, shocked to see the steady flow of
casualties being conveyed to hospitals in the rear.
Irish Fusiliers were billeted with 13th Royal Irish Rifles in the same
village, but soon found it much too small to accommodate two entire
Battalions. The 9th Battalion's War Diary noted,
down in billets. Accommodation scanty. Village too small to hold 2
battalions for more than one day. Majority of barns out of repair.
Water supply very limited." Accompanied by the unfamiliar sound of
thundering artillery in the distance, they found places to sleep on hay
and out of the weather in the village's barns. A few days later, the
13th Rifles were moved to the village of St. Gratien, making
Rainneville much more comfortable both for the inhabitants and the 9th
Irish Fusiliers, who were redistributed throughout the village.
Further training was the main
priority and the battalion's War Diary over the ensuing ten days, for
example, show the men involved in drill, parades and inspections, field
exercises and route marches, demonstrations and lectures, and shooting
and bombing practice. Here, they also made their first experiences with
gas. On the afternoon of 12 October there was a
"Gas demonstration and
lecture by an officer from G.H.Q. All ranks passed through a room
filled with chlorine gas." Soon after midday on 17 October, the Irish
Fusiliers were marched to new billets for the night in the village of
Puchevillers, 8km to the north-east, where they rejoined the 13th Irish
Rifles. The following morning, the march was continued a further 15km
in the same direction to Couin, where they camped in tents in the park
surrounding a castle.
Part of their training consisted
of being attached to experienced units on the front for first-hand
training in trench warfare and survival. Each of the Division's
brigades was attached to either the 4th Irish or 48th South Midland
Divisions for a five day period. The Irish Fusiliers, for their part,
were attached to the 144th Brigade of the 48th Division and marched
from Couin and via Sailly-au-Bois to Hébuterne on 19 October
to join them. Each of the battalion's four companies was further
attached to one of the Brigade's battalions : 'A' Company was attached
to the 1/4 Gloucester's, 'B' Company to the 1/6 Gloucester's, 'C'
Company to the 1/8 Worcesters, and 'D' Company to the 1/7 Worcester's.
Over the next five days, the 9th
Fusiliers got their first real taste of life in the trenches. They were
fired upon and shelled, and had their first direct contact with the
enemy. On the evening of 21 October, a patrol of Fusiliers from 'B'
Company, under instruction from, and accompanied by men of the 1/6
Gloucester's, came face to face with a German patrol approximately 200
yards in front of British wire. Bombs were thrown at each other, but
those of the Gloucester's and Fusiliers failed to explode. They then
opened up with machine gun fire and were able to retire without
suffering a casualty, while claiming several enemy killed. The patrol
arrived back in British lines carrying a dead German who was later
identified as being from the 169th Bavarian Regiment. Then, on 23
October, the Battalion suffered it's first casualty of the war when
Private Wilson of 'C' Company was wounded in the arm.
The following evening the last of
the Battalion's troops retired from their first assignment in the
trenches at 17:00 and spent the night behind lines in
Hébuterne. Up early next morning, the Fusiliers left for
Couin again at 06:30, marching via Sailly-au-Bois where they took a
break to take much welcome hot baths, and marched on to billets in
Beaval the following day. But
the relative comfort of billets in village barns would all too soon be
left behind as the time came for the Division to finally move up to
take their allotted place in the front line trenches, next to more
experienced units. Only a few days later, the 9th Irish Fusiliers took
over their new positions near the village of Hamel, north of the
nearest large town, Albert, and on the western side of the Ancre River.
This would be their 'home territory' for many months to come.
The trenches were in reality not
a pleasant place to be. They afforded little shelter from the elements,
except for small dugouts and holes burrowed out of trench walls. They
were cold, muddy and infested by rats, fleas and lice. The walls were
lined with wicker, the ground with duck-boards, and the rim
strengthened with sandbags and barbed wire. Rains filled communication
trenches with water and became impassable. In some trenches, some men
sunk so deep in mud, they had to be dug out. Then, between German and
British lines there was what was known as 'No Man's Land', a barren and
deadly zone sometimes only yards wide. Besides the daily artillery
duels, sniping was an additional and lethal reality to reckon with;
there was a high price to pay for a head protruding over the rim of a
trench, but it would still be 1916 before helmets were issued. On 22
November, the Division's first death in action was reported, that of
soldier from the 12th Royal Irish Rifles, soon followed by others, some
of whom fell victim to German snipers, and others to the daily
artillery bombardments. But, compared to other sectors, theirs was a
relatively quiet one, and casualties remained comparatively low.
As Winter settled in and Christmas
approached, life in the trenches grew more uncomfortable. But there was
no lack of action, and a stint in the front line trenches would last
around 7-10 days and include daily artillery bombardment and nightly
patrolling in No Man's Land. Some of the more sinister weapons the
Division was to come in contact with were 'mining' and gas. Mining
consisted of burrowing tunnels forward to enemy lines, and detonating
explosives under the Germans' feet, which the Ulstermen practiced
around Beaumont-Hamel. Gas was a completely different matter. First
used by the Germans at Ypres in April 1915, it was certainly no new
weapon, but it struck fear into the hearts of all. Although training
had been conducted, gas masks were still very primitive; indeed the
first gas masks afforded little protection at all. Gas could cause a
painful and choking death, but to the survivor it meant irreparable
damage to the respiratory system. The first sign of gas was to be
reported by the loud and clear shout "Gas!", followed by the wild
chiming of gongs made of empty shell cases which would be the sign to
don gas-masks. Chlorine gas was in use throughout 1915, but in December
that year a new, more deadly gas was introduced : phosgene - much more
powerful and completely invisible. Understandably, the extremely
painful retching and ensuing death brought by this new form of gas
wrought horror in the ranks.
Living conditions were to become
even harsher with the arrival of snow and ice. A heavy snow would
sometimes prevent supplies getting to the front, and the men lacked hot
food just when they needed it most. Drinking water became scarce so
many sucked on ice, but that only gave them stomach cramps. The weather
meant damp and cold clothing, and mud stuck to everything and froze.
Illnesses took there toll on the Division too, during Winter, and many
men spent time in field hospitals recovering from bouts of fever and
flu; 'trench foot', known as 'foot rot' by the Ulstermen, was rampant,
brought on by constantly damp feet.
small luxuries arrived from home. Once, the 9th Irish Fusiliers
received 1000 handkerchiefs from the Queen Alexandra Field Force Fund,
much to their amusement.
When Christmas arrived, however,
nights on the front took on a more placid air. Sometimes the men would
sing carols and their counterparts in the German trenches opposite them
would recite them too. One story is told of a German soldier who the
men would hear playing 'Silent Night' on his cornet each night.
Christmas dinner consisted of turkeys, geese and hams which were
supplied by the officers and supplemented by packages sent from home,
while some of the more cunning soldiers managed to arrange other
treats, such as candy or a bottle of French brandy. Many had seriously
believed they would be home by Christmas, but the day's arrival brought
with it the realisation that they were still a long way from home, both
in distance and in time. Their families back in Ireland would be
celebrating Christmas without them and although the very essence of the
Pals Battalions meant the men were in France with friends and
relatives, they all missed home and loved ones. Despite the loneliness,
they had no choice but to make the best of it.
The centre of activity of the war
had been on the Western Front throughout 1914, but had swung to the
Eastern Front in 1915, while a solid deadlock remained between the
Allied and German the trenches of the Western Front. Towards the end of
1915 plans began to take form for a united Allied effort to break the
stalemate, when the commanders of the Belgian, British, French and
Italian armies met at a conference at French General Joffe's
headquarters, with representatives of the Japanese and Russian armies
in attendance. Although a plan of simultaneous British, French, Italian
and Russian attack was adopted, it was realised that much preparation
would be necessary and the commencement of any such offensive not
realisable before the summer of 1916. Russia would need time to
re-build her military machine, having been battered on the Eastern
Front, and Britain required time to train new troops.
Although the British
forces in France had reached an impressive 38 Divisions purely through
voluntary enlistment, Britain had deemed it necessary to introduce a
system of conscription, which was instituted in January 1916. She was
in a position to bring extra strength to the battlefield, but needed
the time to prepare it.
Meanwhile the German commanders
were making their own plans. The German Chief of General Staff, General
von Falkenhayn, was vigorously pushing for a German offensive on the
Western Front, but intended to do it in such a way that a mass
breakthrough would be unnecessary. Instead, he planned to bleed France
through simple attrition, by using up her entire manpower at one
position of attack, "for the retention of which the French command
would be compelled to throw in every man they have". Two possible
locations were selected for the attack: Belfort and Verdun. Verdun was
chosen as it was the site more likely to most adversely affect French
morale if it were to fall.
The commencement of the German
offensive was marked by the opening of a bombardment on French
positions at Verdun across a 15 mile front at 07:15 on 21 February
1916. Within days, France's allies on the Western Front came to her
aide by taking over the Arras Front, enabling the French Tenth Army to
withdraw from there and move to Verdun to strengthen their besieged
colleagues. British and Commonwealth troops now held the entire front
between the Yser and Somme Rivers.
In effect, von
Falkenhayn's assault did succeed in that it drained French forces from
other fronts and concentrated them at Verdun, thus diluting the density
of British troop strength on the rest of the Somme front. But despite
inflicting great damage on the French, some 90,000 casualties in the
first six weeks, German gains were relatively small and the true goal
was never fully realised.
Then, in March, in an attempt to
entice German troops off the Verdun offensive, the Russians launched an
offensive on the Eastern Front at Lake Narocz. This had the desired
effect, though at great cost to the Russians. Furthermore, it set back
Russian preparations for the planned united Allied summer offensive,
but at the same time eliminated any German chance of either achieving a
decisive victory at Verdun or effecting any adequate counter-attack to
the already obvious Allied preparations for their summer offensive on
the Western Front.
During a further conference of the Allied commanders which was held on
14 February, the date of the offensive's commencement was set for the
end of June, and would involve some 14 British Army Divisions of each
about 130,000 men along a 21 mile front, north of the Somme River
between Gommécourt and Maricourt, plus an additional 5
French Divisions along an 8 mile front, south of the Somme River. The
offensive would become known in history as "The First Battle of the
This was the scene and developing
situation facing John George Brew and the 9th Battalion in the months
following their arrival on the Western Front in October 1915. Busy with
preparations for the looming summer offensive, they began to settle
into life in the trenches, though most of these remained knee-deep in
water. During this time, the front around Hamel was a relatively quiet
place, and it has been suggested the weather was for a time a larger
problem than the enemy. Back at home, the women maintaining the 'Home
Front' were busy knitting and sewing warm clothing such as mittens and
socks, and concerned themselves with trying to make their boys' lives
as comfortable as possible.
In early February 1916, the
Division's 107th and 108th Brigades moved into the front line again
between the Ancre River and the Mailley-Maillet to Serre road, while
the 109th remained in reserve. Later, when the troops were relieved and
went back into reserve, Division shooting competitions were held
involving teams from all three Brigades. During one competition, the
9th Irish Fusiliers' team was considered the best and it was a proud
Colonel Blacker who stepped forward to accept a silver trophy from
Brigadier General Hatchett-Pain on their behalf. Other forms of
relaxation behind the lines included football games, sports days, card
playing, reading, and even fishing in the Ancre River. Maybe there was
the opportunity to visit a nearby village or a town, such as Albert,
with it's damaged statue of the Virgin Mary high on the steeple of the
église. Not much further away was the ancient town of
Amiens, with it's restaurants and cinemas.
It wasn't until March that the
weather started to improve again, but it was accompanied by new, more
intensive artillery bombardments by the Germans. A particularly heavy
barrage in the early hours of 10 March was followed by an attack and
breakthrough by German soldiers in the 10th Royal Inniskilling
Fusiliers trenches around Thiepval Wood, resulting in 30 dead and a
number of prisoners being taken.
At the end of March,
the Ulster Division front line was shortened slightly, and positioned
astride the Ancre River. The river formed a natural border between two
sub-sectors which became known as 'Hamel' and 'Thiepval Wood'. This was
their territory and the Ulstermen began to name their trenches after
Belfast streets, such as 'Great Victoria Street', and 'Royal Avenue'.
In April 1916, John George Brew
was promoted to Captain and became 2nd in command of the 9th Royal
Irish Fusiliers' 'D' Company. A Captain at the time would usually be
responsible for a company of 5 officers and 240 men, on a daily pay
rate of 12s 6d. This almost quadrupled the amount of men for which John
George was previously responsible, and increased his pay by 5s per day,
around 70% more. In particular cases, an officer's daily pay was
additionally supplemented by 2s 6d field allowance. By comparison, a
private received a mere 1s per day.
April and May brought fields of
flowers to the Ancre Valley and alongside the business of war, many
still managed to find time to bathe or fish in the river during
pleasant weather. However, despite the appearance of calm, soldiers of
all ranks were becoming aware of the magnitude of the coming offensive.
The quiet time between the opposing foes had actually given both sides
the opportunity to make extensive preparations and vastly improve
fortifications along the entire front. The Germans knew the offensive
was coming; they could see the preparations under way. They just didn't
know when it would come.
The month of June saw scaled-up
preparations for the offensive, which had become known among the men as
'The Big Push'. It soon became apparent that the Ulster Division was to
play a major roll in General Sir Douglas Haig's plan and the 9th Irish
Fusiliers, in the Hamel Sector, was energetically preparing itself for
the imminent assault, one of their first major attacks. Training ran at
a feverish pace; mock attacks on dummy trenches were practiced behind
the lines during the day, and 'live' practise raids were made on German
trenches at night. Other work involved the building of light railways,
improving roads, digging new trenches and dugouts, and building two
causeways over the Ancre. Many obstructions in the river were also
removed which reduced the level of flooding.
The Ulster Division was lined up
on a broad line below Thiepval Ridge, believed to be held in depth by
troops of the German 10th Bavarian and 26th Reserve Divisions. The
ridge was fortified by what were considered some of the strongest
German defences on the Somme front, and included 'Schwaben Redoubt', a
triangular system of trenches and deep bomb-proof underground bunkers,
purported to be able to withstand anything but a direct hit. German
troops also had the additional advantage that they had dominant views
over a wide section of the Ulster front.
The German and British lines were
approximately 400 yards apart with a ravine of some 70 yards width
about half way in between, the banks of which were steep and in part
15-20 feet high. It was a particularly well defended area with heavy
machine gun pillboxes and makeshift fortifications in old ruins. One of
the more formidable was 'St. Pierre Divion', 1500m north-west of
Thiepval, which was so positioned that it could provide both frontal
and flank fire on an Allied attack on the Schwaben Redoubt defences, on
Beaucourt, and in the direction of Beaumont Hamel and the Ancre River.
By this time, Thiepval itself was already in ruins, but most of the
houses had cellars which the German 180th Wurtemburger Regiment had
turned into strong defensive positions, making them extremely difficult
to destroy. To the north-east of Thiepval there were also additional
defences at 'Stuff Redoubt' and 'Goat Redoubt'.
The Division's Commanding
Officer, Major-General Nugent, was acutely aware of how difficult it
would be for his men to overrun these strongholds. The Germans were
well dug in and well prepared; they knew the offensive was coming and
there was no effect of surprise. Moreover, the Division would be
attacking them uphill and in a general easterly direction, which would
mean into the rising sun.
By the end of June, John George
Brew was commanding the 9th Irish Fusiliers' 'D' Company and realised
he would have an important part to play in the offensive's execution.
The Battalion was positioned to the north of the Ancre River, on a line
approximately 1000 yards long. They were given the objective of
capturing the German 1st, 2nd and 3rd line trenches, the mill on the
river, and thereafter Beaucourt Railway Station and the two houses
behind it, with the support of two platoons of the 12th Battalion Royal
Irish Rifles on their left flank, three companies on their right, and a
further two platoons in support. The left boundary of their operation
was the Divisional line of responsibility with the 29th Division, which
ran at an angle to the Ancre, their right boundary, which made the
shape of a triangle. On each side of the Ancre, the ground rose
sharply; on the north side a gorge ran at a 90° angle to the
river and continued through to the village of Beaumont Hamel.
To the south of the Ancre, on a
front of around 2000 yards width, the 11th and 13th Royal Irish Rifles
were to attack the northern side of Schwaben Redoubt with the support
of the 15th Royal Irish Rifles, while the entire 109th Brigade - the
9th, 10th and 11th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and the 14th Royal
Irish Rifles - were to attack it's southern side.
Grim reminders of the coming
battle were to be seen in the preparations by the Medical Corps. First
Aid stations were prepared in dugouts along the front, stocked with
supplies, and each battalion was assigned 32 stretcher bearers. It was
planned that the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers and 12th Royal Irish Rifles,
north of the Ancre River, would evacuate their casualties through a
specially prepared trench running from Hamel to the road to Albert,
where they could be transferred to other means of transport for a
quicker evacuation to better equipped field hospitals either at
Clairfaye Farm for the less serious wounded or Forceville for the
stretcher cases. They were manned by the 110th Field Ambulance and the
108th Field Ambulance respectively.
As the day grew near, a sombre,
serious air began to take over the men, as they realised the enormity
of what was coming. Many wrote final letters home, some wrote wills,
and many sought out their Division's Chaplain, looking for solace and
fearing the worst. It has been told that on the evening of 29 June,
somewhere in the Ulster trenches, someone began to sing "Abide With
Me", and it moved up and down the trench lines until everyone had
solemnly joined in. The singing continued some 15 minutes in the quiet
between artillery bombardments.
On the morning of 1 July, the 9th
Irish Fusiliers left Mesnil, in the rear, at 00:05 to take up their
positions in the assembly trenches near the front, to the west of
Hamel, where they occupied old trenches around 03:00. Advance
bombardment of the German positions along the front by over 1,500 guns
of the Allied Artillery was in progress, to cut wire and keep German
troops in their trenches. The men of the 9th spent the rest of the
night cowering sleeplessly in their muddy trenches, with their nerves
taut in anxious excitement of the imminent fight.
Anyone who did manage to fall
asleep was awakened at 06:00 when the Germans, who had anticipated
their attack, began concentrated shelling on the Division's positions.
The barrage caused some 50 casualties alone in the Royal Irish
Fusiliers' ranks. As if in retaliation, the British artillery opened up
at 06:25 for a final hour's intensive bombardment, and continued until
07:30 when the early morning mist began to clear and reveal a warm,
According to the 9th Irish
Fusiliers' War Diary, the Battalion was deployed on a four company
front; 'A' Company, on the right, under the command of Captain C.
Ensor, 'B' Company, at right centre, under Major T. J. Atkinson, 'C'
Company, at left centre, under Captain C. M. Johnston, and 'D' Company,
on the left, under Captain J. G. Brew. Each company was to send it's
platoons in 4 waves, the leading wave with Lewis guns, the second with
2 Stokes mortars and the third with 5 Vickers guns.
"On the right of our
division was the 32nd division making an attack on THIEPVAL village -
on our left the 29th division attacking BEAUMONT HAMEL and BEAUCOURT
villages. The general direction of the attack was up the right bank of
the river ANCRE (a tributary of the river SOMME) from HAMEL Village to
BEAUCOURT station. The Ulster division attacked astride the river ANCRE
working up the left bank." At 07:00, 30 minutes before the attack was
to begin, Allied trench mortars opened fire on the German front line
and, under cover of the barrage, smoke and gas, the troops moved
forward through the pre-cut British wire to position themselves for the
07:30 start time.
All of a sudden, the long wait
was over; it was time to go. To reach their start trenches, the
Fusiliers' first wave crossed the parapet at 07:10 having relatively no
difficulty getting through Allied wire, in which lanes had already been
cut, although casualties increased during the advance to the ravine.
The second wave, which crossed the parapet at 07:15, "suffered more
severely crossing our wire, and also came under the M. G. fire from the
flanks". The third wave went over the parapet at 07:20 and the fourth
at 07:30 as the British artillery barrage lifted and whistles in the
trenches marked the beginning of the offensive.
"Men were falling before they
reached their own wire and in front of them lay 600 metres of No Man's
Land. The waves vanished under the withering fire from St. Pierre
Divion and the Beaucourt Redoubt. "The Germans survived the bombing in
their shelters, and, as the British barrage lifted, they had manned
their guns and awaited the British offensive.
...numbed and dazed from the long barrage, left their dugouts and
angrily mounted their machine guns. They could not believe the site
before them, wave after wave of heavily laden infantry advancing as
though on parade to the wire where they desperately tried to cut a way
through. They were a perfect target for the German gunners...." The
Allied bombardment of the German lines had not at all been as effective
as was thought.
"The majority of the Officers of
the 2 left Companies [where Captain John George Brew was positioned]
were casualties before reaching the Ravine, where the two leading waves
were reorganised in one line and continued. The 3rd and 4th waves were
caught by a severe M. G. fire both frontal and flanking, and also by an
artillery barrage which the Germans had now placed between our wire and
the Ravine, and were practically annihilated. Some 150 yards from the
German line the assaulting line again came under heavy M. G. fire and
suffered severely: notwithstanding this, small bodies of men of the
Right and the two left Companies reached the German wire and charged
the trenches, in places the Germans held up their hands to surrender,
but realising there were no supporting troops resumed the contest till
there were only a handful of our men left".
Despite high casualties, the
troops tried to continue advance, and became involved in much bloody
hand-to-hand fighting. Then, as no gains were made by the 29th Division
at Beaumont-Hamel, German troops there were able to be concentrate
flanking fire upon the Fusiliers and 12th Irish Rifles assault, below
and to the left of them. With German machine gun fire raining in on
them from three sides, the air was thick with German bullets and men
were falling everywhere, while attempting to scramble for cover behind
anything which would afford it. One writer recollected that they could
see bullets flying through the air like a shower of fine a hail, while
another described it as being like a great spray of water from a hose
with a perforated nozzle. Many were killed and many others were trapped
by Germans who had infiltrated the rear of their advance. This in turn
hindered Allied artillery firing on No Man's Land as the risk was too
large of hitting British troops, but German artillery bombarded the
British front line and prevented the advance of reserves and the
re-supply of ammunition.
"The men went forward in small groups and sometimes individually. Some
men reached the enemy front line and here those who survived continued
towards Beaucourt Station where nearly all became casualties."
"Owing to the intensity of fire
only 1 Runner got through, he came from the Left Centre Company
Commander [Capt. Johnston], from a spot about 30 yards short of the
Ravine, with the message "Cannot advance without support". The
Supporting platoon of 12th Royal Irish Regiment was sent out but was
Those around Beaucourt Station
were now trapped behind German lines, and had to decide whether to
surrender or fight their way back. Many had run out of ammunition and
had to rely on covering fire from those behind them to scramble back to
safety. During the remainder of the morning survivors, amongst them
many wounded, limped back individually or in small groups, but it is
said that only a quarter of them made it back alive. Many of those
stranded behind the lines, often wounded, soon became Prisoners of War
and were destined to spend the rest of the war in captivity.
Elsewhere on the Division's front
the battle was still raging. Owing to the additional failure of the
32nd Division's attack on Thiepval, the German guns in Thiepval turned
their fire onto Thiepval Wood, where the 8th, 9th, and 10th Battalions
of the Royal Irish Rifles were awaiting the order to advance. This
caused many casualties and forced them to leave the wood soon after
09:00. Their objective, the Grand court Line, was only 600 metres away
but many fell already in No Man's Land. Notwithstanding this, they were
also hit by friendly fire when the British barrage caught up with them,
causing heavy casualties. They were forced to lie in the grass without
cover until the barrage moved on, which enabled the Germans time to man
the lines at Beaucourt Redoubt and Grand court and open fire on them,
causing even more casualties.
the seeming failure of the 9th Irish Fusiliers' advance, the Battalions
south of the Ancre had, in fact, at great cost, formed a deep wedge
into the German lines in their section of the front, between the 29th
and 32nd Division, but it left them dangerously exposed to German
attacks on their flanks. The Ulster Division would be the only division
on the entire front to reach beyond the German 4th trench line, but by
mid-morning the Germans had reorganised and began to counterattack in
strength. The Ulstermen were driven back but had additional trouble
retreating as the German artillery had again laid down a barrage in No
Man's Land; before midday the Ulster advance was all over. When the
extent of the casualties was realised, every available man was sent to
hold the front line, while extra medical orderlies were sent up to try
to deal with the wounded.
"The Ulstermen had made a spectacular advance under terrible fire
against the German positions. Surrounded by the enemy, almost out of
ammunition and bombs, they clung desperately to their gains. It was all
too clear that unless they could be supported to combat the inevitable
German counter attacks, they could not hold."
By 15:00, the Ulster Division was
in a desperate position. Battalions of men had been fighting around
eight hours and were becoming exhausted. Their numbers were dwindling
under fire from three sides, and ammunition and water were running low.
German troops were seen gathering behind their lines in preparation for
a counter-attack and an urgent request for reinforcements was sent to
Brigade Headquarters. German troops soon attacked and succeeded in
driving the Ulstermen back from positions they had won earlier in the
day. They was much delay in sending up reinforcements and it was not
until around 19:30 that evening that companies of the 1/4 and 1/5
York's and Lancs. from the 148th Brigade of the 49th West Riding
Division were sent forward to assist.
It became obvious that the attack
had become a complete disaster and at the end of the day, still under
heavy attack by both infantry and artillery, the Ulstermen were ordered
to retire to the German first line trenches, which the eight companies
of the 1/4 and 1/5 York's and Lancs. had since occupied. Early on 2
July, the Ulster Division received orders to retire. Around 12:00, the
9th Irish Fusiliers handed their trenches over to the 29th Division's
87th Brigade and gladly withdrew to Martinsart, a few kilometres to the
south west, reporting a 'ration strength' of just 281 men, including
officers. The following day, at 14:00, they withdrew further to
Forceville. The Division's remaining troops were shattered as their
losses became apparent. "Our
C.Q.M.S. had promised champagne to those who came back; sure enough
when I got back the champagne was there. Every now and then another
straggler came in and we got talking about those who had been hit. Many
of us broke down and started howling, but some were ready to go back
next day and look for the wounded." (L/Cpl. J.A. Henderson, 14th Irish
15 Officers and 615 men of the
9th Irish Fusiliers had been sent into battle and "of these all the
Officers are killed, wounded or "missing believed killed", and of the
other ranks 520 are killed, wounded, missing believed killed, or
missing believed wounded." Of the A, B, C, and D Company commanders,
Captain Johnston was killed in action, Major Atkinson was missing
believed killed, and Captains Ensor and John George Brew were wounded.
The entire 36th Ulster Division
suffered losses of 5104 men on 1 July. The heaviest losses within the
Division were the 13th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles which reported 595
casualties, followed by the 11th Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers
reporting 589, and then the 9th Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers with
532. Total British losses for that day amounted to a horrific 19,240
dead, 35,493 wounded, 2152 missing, and 585 prisoners. It is purported
to be the greatest ever British loss for any one single day during the
Several details were sent out
into No Man's Land to search for casualties on the nights of 2-3, 3-4
and 4-5 July. During a daylight search Captain Geoffrey St. George
Cather, the 9th Irish Fusiliers Adjutant, brought in a wounded man who
had been lying about 150 yards from German wire, but was killed when he
returned to retrieve another. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria
Cross, one of four earned by the Ulster Division during the offensive.
As news of the slaughter reached
home, the newspapers became filled with lists of casualties and the
scale of the disaster became obvious. Small envelopes holding news of
hope or horror began to be delivered to Ulster homes, and scarcely a
family was left untouched. At the arrival of news, friends and
neighbours gathered around to offer solace and the vicar became a
On 5 July, John George's wife, Annie, also received an envelope which
contained the following telegram,
"To: Mrs. Brew,
Rathlin Portadown Ireland. Regret to inform you that Capt. J. G. Brew
Irish Fusiliers was wounded July 1st. Details sent when received. "And
indeed, a week later, on 12 July, came a second telegram, "To Mrs.
Brew Rathlin Portadown. Capt JG Brew Irish Fusiliers admitted 8 General
Hospital Rouen 5 July with gunshot wound head slight." Flags were flown
at half mast, and memorial services were held in the local churches.
Annie's local paper reported, "Captain Brew, 9th Bn. R.I.F., is also
wounded, but, we are glad to say, not seriously".
Unfortunately, many people were
too poor to afford to buy a newspaper so local newsagents began to hang
casualty lists in their shop windows; onlookers would read the names
out loud for those who could not.
On 5 July, the
Division retired to Rubempré and surrounding villages,
followed by a further withdrawal to the Bernaville area five days
later. On 14 July, the 9th Irish Fusiliers commander, Colonel Blacker,
wrote to the 10th Irish Fusiliers commander, Colonel Fitzgerald,
describing the recent events. His invaluable narration of the episode
and depth of feeling warrants its full reproduction:
It is with a heavy
heart I take up my pen to tell of the doings and losses of the
Battalion on July 1. After
being five days in the trenches during the preliminary bombardment, we
came out for two days rest, then went on at midnight on June 30, and
took up our positions ready for the assault which was for 7.30 am, July
The Battalion was on a four
company front, each company being in a platoon front, thus being in
four waves: two leading waves in [the] front trench line, 3rd wave in
[the] communication trench, 4th wave in [the] 2nd line trenches. Order
of companies from right to left: A, B, C, D. These dispositions were
completed about 3 am. We suffered 50 casualties while waiting. The
opposing lines were about 400 yards apart, with a ravine some 70 yards
wide with steep banks about 20 feet high, about half way. The order
was for the leading wave to get within 150 yards from German lines by
7.30am to be ready to assault the instant our barrage lifted at 7.30
am. To do this the leading waves went over the parapet at 7.10 am, 2nd
waves at 7.15 am, 3rd at 7.20 am and the last waves at 7.30 am. Ansor,
Atkinson, Johnston C, and Brew were in command respectively and 11
other platoon officers, that was all that were allowed in the actual
assault: and about 600 men. Of these Johnston was killed. Atkinson,
Townsend, Hollywood, Montgomery, Seggie, Stewart are missing, believed
killed. Brew, Gibson, Jackson, Shillington, Andrews, Smith, Barcroft,
Capt Ensor are wounded and 516 other ranks are casualties.
The 1st wave got away without
suffering badly, the 2nd wave had many casualties, and the 3rd and 4th
waves were mown down by machine gun fire, frontal and enfilade, before
they reached the ravine.
After the machine gun fire the Germans put a barrage between us and the
ravine and few of C and D companies got to the German front line, but a
number of A and B companies got through the German line and reached
their objective at Beaucourt Station, past the German 3rd line. Of
these none have returned. Owing to the failures of Battalions on our
left, they were cut off.
The gallant and splendid leading of the officers and the steady advance
of the men even after their officers were down, was magnificent, and
makes me proud indeed to have been associated with such heroes. For four
nights after, parties went out and searched for the wounded and brought
in several (Ensor and three others on the 4th night), and then we were
moved back 12 miles and the Border Regiment continued the search and
rescued many of which we owe them deep gratitude. Cather was killed
bringing in wounded in daylight, and Menaul slightly wounded. Alas,
many of our best have gone and we only marched back 281 strong,
The Battalion in the hour of trial was splendid as I knew it would be,
but I am heartbroken. The gallant friends and comrades we shall see no
more. So few have come back unwounded it is hard to get any information
as to individuals. Of the 48 Lewis Gunners, only 7 are left.
In 'A' Company, Sgts More,
Whitsitt, Hegan, Kirkwood, McCourt are wounded and Sgt Wilson is
missing believed killed. In 'B' Company, Sgt Porter is killed and Sgts
Caulfield, Keith, Barr, Courtney, Johnston wounded. In 'C' Company,
Sgts Hobbs and Bryans are killed and Sgts Brown, Love missing. In 'D'
Company, Sgts Mullen, Gordon, Thornberry killed, Sgts Hare, Balmer,
Sewell, Hughes wounded and Sgt Bunting missing.
Primate's chauffeur wounded. We want Lewis gunners badly, the
Signallers escaped well, we still have over 30 available. Your draft of
53 came last night and I saw them today, very well turned out and a
What can you do further? I fear
little - nearly all our bombing teams are gone. We are right back now,
not more than 30 miles from Boulogne and are hoping to get drafts and
trying to refit and sort things out. Fortunately the four Company Sgt
Majors and four Company Quarter Master Sgts were not allowed over the
parapet so the Company Staff is intact.
Cather's loss is a
severe one, he was quite wonderful as an Adjutant, but his was a
glorious death and his name has gone in for a posthumous Victoria
Cross. He brought in one wounded man from about 150 yards from German
wire in daylight! and was killed going out to a wounded man who feebly
waved to him on his calling out to see if there were any more near.
There has [sic] been a lot of
extravagant words written and published in the Press, which is a great
pity. The Division behaved magnificently and the point does not want
labouring. Please be careful that this epistle does not get into the
I am still dazed at the blow and the prospect in front of us all, but
we must not be downcast; and must remember the glorious example of the
gallant band who so nobly upheld the honour of the Battalion, and who
have died so gloriously, leaving their example to live after them, and
to inspire those who are left. " By the time Colonel Blacker wrote this
letter, the Division was already on the move again. On 11 July, the
demoralised remnants of the Division were removed from the Somme and
Picardy region altogether and had entrained for Flanders in Belgium.
The route took the Division through Auxi-le-Château,
Frévent, Conteville, Berguette, Thiennes, and Steenbecque to
an area north-west of St. Omer for training. Divisional Headquarters
was set up in Tilques, and the 108th Brigade was positioned in
On 20 July, the 108th was moved
forward by motorised transport to camps south of Neuve Eglise and on
the southern side of Hill 63, just west of Bois de Ploegsteert, which
had been nicknamed 'Plug Street Wood', while Divisional Headquarters
was moved to Mont Noir, a few miles north-northwest of Bailleul. During
the evening, the 108th relieved battalions of the 20th Division in the
front line trenches and were the first of the Ulstermen to go back into
line since the Division's extraction from Hamel.
Meanwhile, back on the Somme, the
Allied offensive had continued on until 12 July, but, except for a few
exceptions, was successfully contained by the German Army. It soon
became a battle of attrition, which continued until March 1917. The
Germans continued to hold Beaumont-Hamel and Thiepval and it wasn't
until 27 September 1916 that Thiepval was surrounded and captured. It
is interesting to note that during September British tanks were used
here on the front for the first time, but with less than desirable
St. Pierre Divion and
Beaumont-Hamel weren't conquered until 13 November, with the aide of
seven divisions under cover of a thick fog, and was followed by
Beaumont village next day. The 32nd Division objective, the Thiepval
Plateau, even then still resisted capture but finally fell with a
bounty of 7000 German prisoners on 19 November, some 4 1/2 months after
the initial attack. Despite
the fact the German forces had held on so long, it is estimated they
suffered a massive 700,000 casualties across the entire front between 1
July and 1 December, while it is thought the British lost some 400,000. Although
John Brew had survived the terrible slaughter of 1 July, and recovered
from his wounds, it would be over 5 months before he was at last able
to return to the command of 'D' Company.
New drafts were added to the
Ulster Division to replace the losses incurred on the Somme, and by
late July the Division was positioned in Messines in Belgium. Here, the
high water table meant the possibility of digging only shallow trenches
which then had to be fortified by sandbags. The trenches were always
flooded and dirty and were under the additional threat of German
tunnelling and bombing. A story is told of a very good 20 foot deep
trench dug by the Royal Engineers in August. By September there was a
foot of water in the bottom of it, in October it rose to two feet, and
by November the water had risen to the top of the stairs. Someone with
a sense of humour added a sarcastic sign, "The R. E. Swimming Bath".
Life in the Allied trenches
carried on much as it had before and settled back into a form of
routine monotony, though the Autumn of 1916 was seen as a welcome quiet
time for the Ulstermen while the Germans were still concentrated on the
Somme, far to their south.
In an effort to alleviate the monotony often experienced in the
trenches, several amateur newspapers of different levels of quality
sprung up in the British Army. One of them, the "B.E.F. Times",
originating in the 12th Sherwood Foresters, amused the troops by
summing up trench life with it's tongue-in-cheek attitude to Winter mud
and the hardships of the average soldier on the Western Front.
"To the P.B.I.
(Poor bloody infantry)
Gone is the summer, and gone are the flies,
Gone the green hedges that gladdened our eyes;
Around us the landscape is reeking with rain,
Gone is the comfort - 'tis Winter again.
So here's to the lads of the P.B.I.,
Who live in a ditch that never is dry;
Who grin through discomfort and danger alike,
Go 'over the top' when a chance comes to strike;
Though they're living in Hell they're cheery and gay,
And draw as their stipend just one bob per day.
Back once more to the boots, gum, thigh,
In a pulverised trench where the mud's knee-high;
To the duck-board slide on a cold wet night,
When you pray for a star shell to give you light;
When you clothes are wet, and the rum jar's dry,
Then you want all your cheeriness P.B.I. ...."
Back at the business of war, much
time was spent improving and strengthening defences. General Plumer was
encouraging the use of mining as an offensive weapon and Tunnelling
Companies were busy driving long shafts under No Man's Land in the
direction of the German lines at their strongest defences.
However, the German Army, holding
the high ground, as it always seemed to be to the average British
soldier, also occupied it's time the same way, using all it's available
expertise and technology. Four lines of trenches ran parallel to and
west of the Wytschaete-Messines road, defended by a wide area of wire
and pillboxes. Thick concrete dugouts were erected, hidden behind farm
houses, bridges, and natural contours in the landscape which afforded
ample protection from Allied machine gun and artillery fire. German
miners were also hard at work, tunnelling their way towards British
lines. It was a race against time, an attempt to discover the efforts
of the opposition - and destroy them, and hope that their own tunnels
would not be discovered. It was not seldom that shafts would collapse
or be bombed, trapping men below ground and burying them alive. It was
a dangerous job, but Tunnelling teams on both sides were known as
courageous men, who were highly respected and admired by others
After recuperation from his wound and a break at home, John George Brew
was sent back to the front where he rejoined the 9th Irish Fusiliers at
Messines on 10 December 1916. Christmas passed quietly and then, at the
end of January, John George was given the opportunity to take temporary
command of the Battalion for a few days while the Commanding Officer
In early 1917, the strength of
British forces in France had grown to some 1,200,000 men, the strength
of French forces to around 2,600,000, and that of the Belgians to about
100,000, totalling altogether around 3,900,000 Allied men opposite an
estimated circa 2,500,000 Germans, but the war had nonetheless begun to
stagnate. The casualty figures continued to increase while movement on
the front remained meagre. At home, the civilian population was
becoming unsettled. It was realised that the war needed fresh ideas and
strategies and this was made felt by the replacement of the Asquith
Government, on 11 December 1916, by Prime Minister David Lloyd George
who won on the promise of more vigorous and effective leadership.
In France, a French plan to avoid
offensives on the Somme, but instead to attack at each side of it,
meant that British forces must occupy the entire French-held Somme
front, from his current positions as far south as Roye. This strategy
was met with great scepticism by General Haig who objected to an
extension of the front and a thinning-out of the density of his troops
on that line. Additionally he wanted to keep British troops available
for an attack at Flanders, which he had been long planning. In the
least, he felt, the French strategy should be postponed until May when
simultaneous Russian and Italian attacks were planned, but he was
over-ruled. To appease him, he was promised two additional divisions to
complete the task. Not satisfied with this, he argued further until he
received eight. Disagreement over strategies and leadership ensued and
Franco-British relations began to decay.
However, before any plans could
be set in motion, the Germans would unwittingly disable them.
Anticipating a new Allied offensive on the Somme front, the German
Commander, General Erich Ludendorff, decided to consolidate his
manpower and supplies by voluntarily withdrawing to his rear line
defences, effectively buying himself time to strengthen his forces.
Following a transformation of their rear line to a new front line,
which they named 'Siegfried' (the British called it 'Hindenburg'), the
German forces fell back in stages from 23 February to 16 March, when
the main withdrawal took place. But in preparation for their retreat,
they adopted what we would call today a 'burnt earth policy' and
systematically destroyed everything between their old and new front
In mid-March, soon after the German retreat on the Somme, the width of
the Messines Front held by the Ulster Division was reduced to just one
brigade giving the remaining two the opportunity to relax and train
behind lines. One brigade was kept near Flêtre, while the
other trained in Lumbres, west of St. Omer. During this time, John
George Brew was promoted to the rank of Major.
The German withdrawal on the
Somme Front had come unexpectedly and had caught both the British and
French unawares. In an attempt to exploit the situation, belated,
ill-prepared and costly attacks ensued by the British in their Spring
Offensive at Vimy Ridge on 9 April, and by the French east and west of
Riems on 16 April. But nothing was to be seen of the expected
breakthrough; all chance of surprise was thrown away by fundamental
Allied mistakes, and flawed by a well prepared enemy.
Hence, the main
Allied concentration was moved to Belgium's Ypres sector in May and
June and preparations were soon underway in the Ulster Division lines
for the Allies' second offensive on the Messines-Wytschaete Ridge.
Despite all that was going on, there was an air of calm among the men: "Morning
spent in cleaning up camp. Afternoon in training. Major Brew, the
Quarter- master and five other ranks attend a demonstration in cooking
at the Divisional School, Metéren."
Divisional Headquarters moved
forward to the area west of Dranouter on 27 May, where they came under
a fatal attack by German artillery. The following day, Headquarters was
moved again, to a prepared command post and signal station on the
western slopes of Kemmel Hill. Three days later, the commencement of
the Battle of Messines was heralded, as always, by preliminary
bombardment which lasted an entire week.
The 36th Division objective would
be a line from Lumm Farm to a rail cutting on the
Wytschaete-Oosttaverne road, involving the complete 107th and 109th
Brigades with the 11th and 12th Royal Irish Rifles from the 108th in
support. The two remaining battalions of the 108th, the 9th Irish
Fusiliers and 13th Irish Rifles were planned for a reserve roll and
would not go over the top until the evening of 7th, until which time
they would be positioned at Fort Victoria. However, during the week
long preliminary bombardment, it was they who would have to hold the
Careful preparation had been done
in order to avoid previous mistakes. A model of the ridge was made
behind the lines and aerial photographs were studied following
artillery barrages to gauge their effectiveness. If it was deemed that
a particular structure or trench had not been sufficiently shelled, it
was noted and given special attention during the following day's
barrage. Officers of flanking battalions and divisions attended each
other's briefings in the days preceding the infantry assault to ensure
that even the most trivial detail would be shared.
Supplies of rations and
ammunition were better organised, as were preparations for the
evacuation of wounded. The light railway, or 'trench tramway' as it was
called, would play an integral part in the speedy removal of casualties
to waiting ambulances on a turning circle especially prepared for the
purpose. The Ambulances would then bring wounded to the 108th Field
Ambulance Dressing Station just east of Dranouter, from where they
could be quickly and easily conveyed to Casualty Clearing Stations at
The days leading up to the
infantry attack were given letters of the alphabet as a code. The day
of attack was called 'Z' day, and the five days previous 'U', 'V', 'W',
'X', and 'Y'. From 'U' day, Allied artillery intensified it's
bombardment of German dugouts and bunkers, and billets further behind
their lines. Barrages concentrated on their lines of communication day
and night, sporadically mixed with gas shells. Whirlwind 30-minute
barrages were also conducted on Messines and Wytschaete during which
time every available weapon, from the largest to the smallest, was
trained on German lines.
Diversionary attacks and raids on
enemy trenches were made by the Division to take prisoners and gain
intelligence information. On 5 June, for example, under cover of
artillery, the 9th Irish Fusiliers made a raid on the Spanbroek
salient, taking one officer and 30 other ranks prisoner, at the cost of
two killed and six wounded.
Rain fell all day and all evening
on 6 June, 'Y' day, but the plan proceeded on schedule, and Allied
artillery laid down their barrage on the German lines. At 22:00 107 and
109 Brigades, having been camped beyond the range of German shelling to
the south of Locre and south-west of Dranouter respectively, moved up
to their start positions. Each man had been issued chewing gum, lime
juice, oranges and Oxo cubes. Upon arrival, they were issued hot drinks
and settled in to await zero hour. That night, some 80,000 Allied
troops were lined up across the entire front, all forbidden to smoke or
make any noise.
At 03:10, zero hour was marked by
the simultaneous detonation of nineteen massive mines under German
lines, four of which were in front of the Ulster Division. So great
were they, that dirt and debris rained down on both German and Allied
trenches for several minutes afterwards. Although Allied soldiers knew
of the plan in advance, the effect was far greater than expected; the
absolute power of the explosions awed those who witnessed it and the
thunderous roar was even heard in England. Men of the 8th Irish Rifles,
who were standing at the time, were blown to the ground and the body of
a German officer was found later having fallen from the sky some 200
yards behind the Division's lines. This was the signal for the
artillery to open up and the infantry to advance. The Ulstermen moved
forward under cover of almost every available form of weapon - mining,
artillery, trench mortars, tanks, smoke and gas. The front was a mere 9
miles long, but there were some 2,340 pieces of artillery deployed
along it; the Ulster front alone held 192 field guns and howitzers, and
all were firing at once.
The effect on the Germans was
immeasurable; the tactical advantage resulted in excellent gains along
the entire front, and troops were able to make their initial advance
with little or no resistance whatsoever. Stunned by the quick
succession of detonation, barrage and infantry assault, hundreds of
dazed German prisoners were taken. Many others were found dead in their
dugouts with no obvious sign of a cause of death - they had been killed
by concussion from the mines' blasts.
The protestant Ulstermen fought
alongside the 16th Irish Division, who were Catholics taken mostly part
from the ranks of the National Volunteers, the Ulster Volunteers' old
arch enemy; to their right was the 25th Division of the 2nd ANZAC. Only
two machine guns opened up on the 36th, more precisely on the 109th
Brigade, but they were promptly put out of action. Though more
repelling German troops were met the further the advance moved, by
04:50 all goals had nonetheless been reached according to schedule.
A second wave of fresh troops
from the 11th and 12th Irish Rifles, the two supporting battalions from
the 108th Brigade, advanced at 06:50 under the cover of a raised
barrage, and moved forward to extend the gains of the first wave. A few
stubborn positions resisted, mainly pillboxes, but they were soon taken
care of and the Division's objectives were successfully attained,
despite the continuing nuisance of counter-barrages from German
artillery positioned further east.
Following nightfall, the two
remaining battalions of the 108th, there under the 9th Irish Fusiliers,
moved forward and joined the rest of their Brigade on the front, under
the command of General Griffith. This enabled the relief of the 107th
and 109th Brigades, who retired to the old British lines. The day had
been warm and bright, according to the 9th Irish Fusiliers' War Diary,
but heavy rain fell in the evening, accompanied by thunder and
lightening. At 01:30, the Battalion relieved the 10th and 15th Irish
Rifles on what was known as the 'Black Line', between Lumm and Ochre
Farms. It was a long and sleepless night for them but the expected
German counter-attack never came, despite several alarms.
The darkness gave the Royal
Engineers the chance to lay wire along the new front line, and by dawn
it was clear the ridge was firmly in Allied hands. No casualties were
reported by the 9th Fusiliers for the 24 hours up to 12:00, in spite of
continued heavy shelling from German positions during the day. The new
front had been established and the warm day was welcomed by the men
while they busied themselves fortifying it. The 9th remained on the
'Black Line' until 15:30 in the afternoon when they were moved forward
to relieve the 11th Irish Rifles on the 'Mauve Line'. German troops
kept up fire on the Fusiliers until around midnight, but they were kept
busy throughout the entire night strengthening the line. "Wiring and
consolidation were proceeded with briskly during the darkness as
present line is under enemy observation, he kept up continual shelling
during the day". After
dark that evening, the 9th was relieved by the 8th Duke of Wellington's
Regiment and moved back with other battalions of the 108th to join the
107th and 109th already bivouacking in the rear on Kemmel Hill.
Upon retirement, the 9th
Fusiliers reported 3 O.R.s killed and 16 wounded. For the same period,
the Division as a whole reported casualties of 61 officers and 1,058
other ranks killed and wounded, accounting for the strength of around
one entire battalion. Different estimates consider losses in the
original assault alone to have been around 700 men, tallying over 60%
of the total figure for the four days on the front line. Other
divisions, such as the Australians of 2 ANZAC, suffered much more
severely, but it was universally considered that Allied troops had
inflicted three times as many losses on their German counterparts as
they had themselves suffered. For their part, the Ulster Division was
proud to report having taken some 30 officers and 1200 other ranks
prisoner, though they were unable to capture any guns in their sector
before their withdrawal. The
Germans retreated from the Oosttaverne Line on 11 June and fell back on
their new line of defence, the Warneton Line, which effectively ended
the battle. As a result of the German failure, their commander, General
von Laffert, was relieved from his post by General Sixt von Armin for
the alleged tactical error of placing his two reserve divisions too far
to the rear to be of any immediate use when the British attacked.