Writing this article just before the 100th anniversary of the start of The Great War it is impossible to comprehend the effects that Total War had on the lives of Kilkenny people a hundred years ago. The origins of the war are well understood and documented, however the effects that were experienced by men and women joining their local regiment or red cross establishment are less well established.
It has been articulated that the First World War has become Irelands no man’s land. There is much to be taken from this assertion. It is on the public record that the first public acknowledgment of the sacrifices of hundreds of thousands of Irish men and women who took part in the war did not occur until 1966 when on the eve of the Rising Commemoration the then Taoiseach Sean Lemass paid tribute to the Irish men who gave their lives in the cause of liberty on the battle fields of Flanders and Gallipoli . It took almost half a Century for the Irish Nation to recognise these brave men and women. It is very important that they now be acknowledged. That at least 2831 Royal Irish Regiment soldiers died is on the public record but how many more were disfigured had their lungs damaged by gas or suffered shell shock? We will never know, but one thing is certain when they returned home there was no hero’s welcome, only suspicion, poverty, poorly paid jobs and in many cases mental institutions from which they would never emerge were their rewards.
The Royal Irish Regiment (R I Regt) became associated with the South East of Ireland in 1881 as a result of the Cardwell/Childers reforms. The Militia Regiments of the Counties involved became militia battalions of the regiment (Wexford 3Bn, Tipperary 4Bn, and Kilkenny 5Bn). Further changes in 1908 called the Haldane reforms made additional modifications (Tipperary 3 Bn, Kilkenny 4 Bn Special reserve Bns) These reservists’ would become embodied and deployed with the 1st and 2nd Battalions in 1914 as part of the British Expeditionary Force.
The R I Regt would suffer many casualties throughout the war. However on a number of occasions the regiment was practically wiped out. The first instance was at a small village called le Pilly on 19/20 October 1914 when the 2nd Battalion numbered close to full strength, was left in a very exposed position as a result of flanking units being unable to take their objectives. The roll call following the battle accounts for less than 30 survivors and 722 members of the regiment dead, wounded, missing or prisoners of war. At least Thirty Kilkenny men were involved in this battle.
During the Battle of the Somme the regiment suffered very heavy casualties firstly on the 14th of July at Bazentin le Petit when the 2nd Bn suffered over 330 Officers and Men killed wounded or taken prisoner in one day. Towards the end of the Somme offensive the R I Regt was again involved in an operation to take the villages of Guillimont and Ginchy. Many hundreds of R I Regt soldiers died or were wounded over the four days from the 3rd- 6th September, the 2nd and 6th Battalions being the units most affected. On the 3rd of September alone fifteen Kilkenny men died on the Guillimont attack. There would be many more R I Regt casualties throughout the War. The the events surrounding the 21st of March 1918 when the massive German offensive would commence would add many Kilkenny people to the casualties being reported in the news papers through out the County.
The Germans fittingly called the spring offensive of 1918 Kaiserschlacht (Imperial battle) because that was what it was, in effect their last roll of the dice. The Russians had surrendered to the Germans during the Spring thereby allowing the Germans to accumulate considerable numerical superiority on the Western Front This would allow the Germans to launch a massive attack (sixty four divisions) with extensive strength in depth and massive artillery advantage with the objective of splitting the British and French lines . The date was set as the 21th of March.
Facing them in their recently taken over (from the French) poorly prepared and constructed trenches were men of the 16th Irish division. The Division has recently been reorganized and reduced in strength by one battalion (over 600 men). It is also noted that the Division had recently spent 58 straight days in the front line trenches . These men could barely stand, were poorly equipped, malnourished and thinly spread out along the line and included in their number were men of the 2nd and 7th battalions R I Regt. The 6th service battalion having been disbanded the previous winter were posted into the 7th Bn where they joined members of the South Irish Horse who had been re designated as infantry in September 1917. The 7th Battalions strength on the morning of the 21th is not known however it is a fair assumption that they were similar to that of the 2nd Bn which was of 540 all ranks. The unit war dairies outline the events of the morning of the 21st.
4.30am. The enemy opened a heavy bombardment mostly with gas shells lasting about 4 hours. The morning was very foggy.
8.30am. The enemy attacked and broke through A&C Coys and reached RONSOY VILLAGE before S&B Coys were aware that the attack had commenced. No one of A&B Coys got back to the rest of the Battn, either being killed or taken prisoners. The enemy had practically surrounded the village before HQ and S&B Coys were aware of it, as he had broken through the Division on the right. At this time all the Officers, with the exception of Capt Bridge had become casualties, also the majority of other ranks. The remainder were ordered to withdraw and fought their way back to ST EMILIE where they arrived about 7pm. The Battn was relieved by a Battn of the 39th Division, and moved back to VILLERS FAUCON.
The Unit had suffered 77 Officers Ncos and Men killed on the 21st. According to the war dairies of the 49 Inf Bde on the 30 March the strength of the Unit was 1 officer and 34 ncos and men. This indicates the total devastation of the unit which had over 540 officers and men at the start of the offensive. 90 are recorded as being KIA this indicates that over 450 were unaccounted for and considered missing in action or prisoners of war.
The effects on the 2nd Bn were similar. The Battalion started the day with a total strength of 19 Officers and 520 Ncos and men. The Unit was stretched along a shared frontage of 3000 yardswhich was made up of trench systems with strong points, redoubts and defended areas placed along the line. The German assault again started at 0430. While all of the Royal Irish positions were defended with the greatest gallantry for many hours and caused massive casualties to the attackers, ultimately the Germans poured through gaps in the line by-passing and cutting off defenders to experience their fate later. (The prolonged defence of these locally defended areas with little hope of any relief must surely go down as one of the greatest acts of collective bravery in the history of the British Army). By lunch time the attackers had broken through the Royal Irish second line and they made most progress on the right advancing to the Crozat Canal at Quessy. As dark fell the order was given to withdraw the Battalion behind the Crozat Canal where it reorganized and occupied positions along the 3rd line of defence. The next morning aided again by thick fog the Germans advanced and by 1300hrs had forced the withdrawal of the British line, this withdrawal would continue until the 28th when the battalion halted on a line from Moreuil, Mezieres, Sailly-le-Sec, Albert, Boyelles. The enemy had failed to break through or to reach the Paris-Amiens railway there by securing a tactical victory but suffered a heavy strategical defeat.
The casualties on the 21st included LT Col J, D. Scott and 3 men killed, LT C. H. Smith and 12 soldiers wounded with 499 men missing presumed killed, wounded or taken prisoner of war. Many of these men would never be found some would make their way back to the unit over the next few days while others would spend the rest of the war in POW camps. On the 23rd of April the battalion was transferred to the 188th Brigade, 63rd Royal Naval Division, 5th Corps, Third Army.
As you reflect on the numbers of casualties it is easy to lose sight of the consequences of the sacrifice of manpower experienced by the R I Regt throughout the war. In fact the other Irish regiments suffered similar fates the Dublin Fusiliers, Munster Fusiliers, Leinster Regiment, Connaught Rangers, Royal Irish Fusiliers, Inniskilling Fusiliers, North Irish horse, 4th Dragoon Guards and many more units suffered similar fates.
It is impossible to be certain of individual reasons for enlistment into the forces. It may have been the result of a sense of adventure, there may have been political reasons or it may have been for purely financial reward. The outcome of their service would be the same for soldiers from the southern part of Ireland. Having been cheered off by Home Rule supporters in 1914 their reward was to be a lonely grave in France or Flanders or some other battle field of the war, a name engraved on a solemn monument, a long forgotten medal at the bottom of a drawer in a parents house or maybe no record at all. The prevailing opinion that all returning soldiers should be treated with suspicion and often with contempt had many negative effects on returning soldiers.
These heroes’ gave their todays so we could have our tomorrows. It is now our turn to give our tomorrows to insure their memories stays with us into the future.
Over the comming months and years it is the intention of phpstack-138006-445556.cloudwaysapps.com to describe in detail the personal stories of Kilkenny men and women in World War One.
Boraston J. H, Sir Douglas Haigs Despatches, Dent and Sons, London, 1920.
Edmonds J.E. Brig Gen, Military Operations France & Belgium, 1914, Macmillan and Co London, 1925 P 85
Geoghegan S Royal Irish Regiment 1900-1922, The Naval and Military Press Ltd, Sussex UK 2007
Harris H. E. D. the Irish Regiments in the First World War, the Mercier Press 1968
Harris R G The Irish Regiments 1683-1999, Sarpedon Rockville New York 1989
Johnson Kevin, Home or Away The Great War and The Irish Revolution, Gill & Macmillion Ltd, 2010
Richardson Neil, A Coward If I Return A Hero If I Die, the O Brien Press Dublin 2010
South Irish Horse a history http://southirishhorse.com/documents/history.htm
War Dairies Royal Irish Regiment 2nd Bn Aug-Dec 1914
Westlake Ray, Tracing British battalions on the Somme, Pen and Sword military, Barnsley 2011