Music Title

The Green Fields of France





The Battle of the Somme...

Page One...



The Green Fields of France
Words & Music: Eric Bogle.

Well 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 ?
Did they beat the drum slowly, did they play the fife lowly ?
Did they sound the Dead March as they lowered you down ?
And did the band play The Last Post and chorus ?
Did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest ?

And did you leave a wife or sweetheart behind,
In some faithful heart is your memory enshrined ?
Although you died back in 1916,
In that faithful heart are you forever nineteen ?
Or are you a stranger without even a name,
Enclosed and forever behind the glass frame
In an old photograph, torn and battered and stained,
And faded to yellow in an old leather frame ?
Did they beat the drum slowly, did they play the fife lowly ?
Did they sound the Dead March as they lowered you down ?
And did the band play The Last Post and chorus ?
Did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest ?

The sun now it shines on the green fields of France,
There's a warm summer breeze, it makes the red poppies dance.
And look now the sun shines from under the clouds,
There's no gas, no barbed-wire, there's no guns firing now.
But here in this graveyard it's still no-man's-land,
The countless white crosses stand mute in the sand,
To man's blind indifference to his fellow man,
To a whole generation that were butchered and damned.
Did they beat the drum slowly, did they play the fife lowly ?
Did they sound the Dead March as they lowered you down ?
And did the band play The Last Post and chorus ?
Did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest ?

Now young Willie McBride, I can't help but wonder why.
Do all those who lie here, know why they died ?
And did they believe when they answered the cause,
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 vain.
For Willie McBride, it all happened again,
And again, and again, and again, and again.
Did they beat the drum slowly, did they play the fife lowly ?
Did they sound the Dead March as they lowered you down ?
And did the band play The Last Post and chorus ?
Did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest ?




Major John 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.

In 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 small for 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.

The 9th 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, "Battalion settled 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. Sometimes, however, 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 Somme".

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, sunny morning.

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. "The Germans, ...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."




Another account gives.......

"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 wiped out".

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.

Despite 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 Rifles)

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 war.

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 regular visitor. 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:

"Dear Fitzgerald 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 1.

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.

57 killed

158 missing

303 wounded

Total 518

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, including transport. 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. McClurg, the 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 good lot.

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 Press. 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 Eperlecques.

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 results.

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)
An Appreciation.

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 soldiers. 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 was absent.

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 lines. 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 front line.

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 Bailleul.

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.





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