United in battle: Irish at war a century ago

A World War I battle that began 100 years ago tomorrow was significant in terms of Irish involvement, reveals military historian GERRY WHITE
United in battle: Irish at war a century ago

VICTORY ON THE FRONTLINE: British and Irish soldiers celebrating military success in June, 1917, with captured German prisoners from the Battle of Messines Ridge

A HUNDRED years ago tomorrow, on June 7, 1917, the conflict known at the time as the ‘Great War’ was in its fourth year and there was no end in sight.known at the time as the ‘Great War’ was in its fourth year and there was no end in sight.

In the first hours of that Thursday, thousands of soldiers belonging to the British Second Army were positioned in the frontline trenches near the village of Messine in Belgium.frontline trenches near the village of Messine in Belgium.

Those men were there to take part in an offensive operation aimed at capturing the strategic Messines-Wytschaete Ridge, high ground that dominated the battlefield on the southern part of the Ypres Salient.

The Second Army was commanded by General Sir Herbert Plumer and consisted of 12 infantry divisions. Two of those units had been raised in Ireland.

The 16th (Irish) Division was commanded by Major General William Hickie of Tipperary and had been formed in September 1914. For the most part it was comprised of Catholic nationalists and former members of the National Volunteers who had joined British regiments based in the south of Ireland after John Redmond called upon Irishmen to take their place “wherever the firing line extends”.

Large numbers of Corkmen were serving in the division that June. Among them were Bartholomew Meehan from Buttevant and James McCarthy from 13, Grattan Street in Cork. Meehan, a private in the 2nd Battalion, the Leinster Regiment, was one of five brothers who served in the war and McCarthy was a private in the Royal Munster Fusiliers.

The other Irish unit in the Second Army, the 36th (Ulster) Division, was commanded by Major General Oliver Nugent. It had been established in October 1914 and contained thousands of Protestant unionists who had also been members of the Ulster Volunteer Force. A number of Corkmen, however, also served in this division, including Corporal Charles Robinson, a native of Kinsale who was a member of the 9th Battalion, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers.

Both Irish Divisions were part of the British Ninth Corps which was commanded by Lieutenant-General Alexander Hamilton-Gordon.

VICTORY ON THE FRONTLINE: British and Irish soldiers celebrating military success in June, 1917, with captured German prisoners from the Battle of Messines Ridge
VICTORY ON THE FRONTLINE: British and Irish soldiers celebrating military success in June, 1917, with captured German prisoners from the Battle of Messines Ridge

Their objective in the battle that June day a century ago was to capture the part of the ridge near the village of Wytschaete.

For the first time in the conflict, the soldiers of the 16th (Irish) Division and 36th (Ulster) Division were deployed alongside each other, with the road to Wytschaete forming the boundary between them.

Thus it came to be that on June 7, 1917, nationalists and unionists from all over Ireland, though divided by politics at home, would find themselves united on the field of battle and facing a common foe.

The divisional units deployed on opposite sides of the Wytschaete road that day were the 6th Battalion, Royal Irish Regiment and the 11th Battalion, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers.

One of the officers in the Royal Irish Regiment was Major Willie Redmond, the brother of John Redmond and an Irish Party MP for East Clare. A radical nationalist who had been imprisoned a number of times for his activities with the Land League, Willie was also well known in Cork.

On the night of November 21, 1914, he arrived in the city to attend a parade of the Cork City Regiment of National Volunteers being held the following day. That night, in the course of addressing a large public meeting held outside the Victoria Hotel, he declared: “When it comes to the question, as it may come, of asking young Irishmen to go abroad and fight this battle, when I am personally convinced that the battle of Ireland is to be fought where many Irishmen now are, in Flanders and France, old as I am, as grey as are my hairs, I will say, ‘don’t go, but come with me’.”

Willie Redmond proved true to his word. Despite being 53 years old and a serving politician, he joined the British Army in February 1915 and was commissioned into the 6th Battalion, Royal Irish Regiment. He went on to serve on the Western Front and took part in the Somme offensive in 1916.

In addition to the two Irish divisions, large numbers of Irishmen also served in the New Zealand Division. Commanded by Major General A. H. Russell, this was another unit in the British Second Army. Its objective was to clear the Germans from the area around the village of Messines.

Among its members standing in the trenches in the early hours of June 7 was Private William Dempsey, a native of Bandon who was serving in the 2nd Battalion, Otago Regiment. Like the other soldiers taking part in the battle, he too was waiting for the signal that would send him ‘over the top’.

On June 1, 2,266 British artillery pieces had commenced the preliminary bombardment. Over the next six days more than three and a half million shells would be fired at the Germans occupying the ridge in an effort to kill and demoralise as many as possible.

To add to this hell for their opponents, members of the Royal Engineers had tunnelled under ‘No Man’s Land’ and placed 24 mines packed with mors than 396,500 kilograms of high explosives under a number of strongpoints on the German lines. The detonation of these mines would signal the start of the ground offensive.

SYMBOL OF PEACE: The Island of Ireland Peace Park at Messines in Belgium, opened in 1998
SYMBOL OF PEACE: The Island of Ireland Peace Park at Messines in Belgium, opened in 1998

The day before the battle, General Tim Harrington, Plumer’s Chief of Staff, referred to the mines and told members of the press corps: “Gentlemen, I do not know if we shall change history tomorrow, but we shall certainly alter the geography.” Harrington was correct. ‘Zero Hour’ was set for 3.10am on June 7 and at precisely that moment the mines were detonated. Though only 19 exploded they ripped much of the top off the Messines-Wytschaete Ridge, sending acres of earth and hundreds of German soldiers high into the sky.

The sounds of the explosions were reportedly heard in London and Dublin and people living miles from the frontlines thought an earthquake had hit the area.

Many British soldiers were knocked down by the shockwaves or were struck by falling debris. Notwithstanding this, thousands climbed out of their trenches and charged towards what remained of the German lines.

Though shocked by the week-long artillery bombardment and the mine explosions, many Germans still managed to put up a spirited defence. Seven days of heavy fighting ensued and when the battle ended on June 14, the British Army had secured its objectives.

The Battle of Messines was judged to be a triumph of the carefully co-ordinated strategy employed by the British Army and was the prelude to the larger Third Battle of Ypres that would take place the following month.

Victory, however, came at a cost and Plumer’s Second Army sustained more than 17,000 casualties during the battle. Among those who died on its first day were Privates Bartholomew Meehan from Buttevant, James McCarthy from Cork, Charles Robinson from Kinsale and William Dempsey from Bandon.

Another soldier who lost his life that day was Major Willie Redmond. He went over the top at the head of his men with the third wave of the initial attack but within a short time was hit in the wrist and legs. Wounded and in great pain, he was taken from the field of battle by Ulsterman Private John Meeks, a stretcher bearer with the 11th Battalion, Inniskilling Fusiliers. Though brought to safety, Redmond subsequently died of his wounds. Meeks was also wounded while rescuing Redmond. However, he survived and was later awarded the Military Medal for his actions.

Redmond’s death was a tragic loss for Ireland. Throughout his life he always acted in what he believed was the best interest of his country. It was this that led him to join the British Army.

While serving in the trenches, the fate of Ireland and the deaths many Irishmen remained foremost in Redmond’s mind. In a letter he wrote to the author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in December, 1916, he said: “There are a great many Irishmen today who feel that out of this war we should try to build up a new Ireland” and “it would be a fine memorial to the men who have died so splendidly, if we could, over their graves, build a bridge between north and south.”

The Island of Ireland Peace Park situated in the old battlefield of Messines is such a memorial. Initiated by the Journey of Reconciliation Trust, a broad-based cross-border Irish organisation, which planned to bring together people of diverse beliefs, the park was opened by President Mary McAleese of Ireland, Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom and King Albert II of Belgium on November 11, 1998. At the ceremony, President McAleese said: “Those whom we commemorate here were doubly tragic. They fell victim to a war against oppression in Europe. Their memory too fell victim to a war for independence at home in Ireland.”

Today, that is no longer the case. In recent years much has been done to restore the memory of those Irishmen. A hundred years ago soldiers from the north and south of Ireland fought shoulder to shoulder and died alongside each other at the Battle of Messines. The Island of Ireland Peace Park remembers these men and all the Irishmen who fell in what was supposed to be ‘the war to end all wars’.

It is fitting, therefore, that on the centenary of the start of battle, an all Ireland commemoration, jointly led by the Governments of Ireland and the United Kingdom, in partnership with the Mayor of Messines, will take place at the Island of Ireland Peace Park. On that day, Irishmen from all over Ireland, though divided by politics, will once again stand united on the old battlefield of Messines. But this time they will stand united by the common cause of peace, remembrance and reconciliation.

“Thus it came to be that on June 7, 1917, nationalists and unionists from all over Ireland, though divided by politics at home, would find themselves united on the field of battle, facing a common foe.”

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