As this year marks the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, it is fitting that we remember the Irish soldiers who have, and continue to serve, across the world today.
The Irish have a longstanding history of martial service abroad and the Great War would see this tradition continued. During the war many Irish units were raised, some, like the Royal Irish Regiment, the Inniskilling Fusiliers and the famous Connaught Rangers were pre-existing formations within the professional British Army others, like the South African Irish Regiment or the Irish Regiment of Canada were newly formed from Irish emigrant communities across the empire. Three completely new divisions were also raised in Ireland, the 10th Irish Division, the 16th Irish Division and the 36th (Ulster) Division. In places where no distinctive Irish units could be raised thousands of Irish men enlisted in other international regiments from Australia and New Zealand to the United States and France.
Great Britain itself served as a microcosm of this diasporic mobilisation. Established military units such as the Irish Guards and the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars were joined at the frontlines by new units raised by Lord Kitchener’s recruitment drive, many of whom would have their first experience of modern warfare during the Allies summer offensive of 1916.
And so when at 7.30 a.m. on the 1st of July, 1916 the Somme Offensive the largest and bloodiest battle on the Western Front began thousands of Irishmen recruited from across the world stood ready to ‘go over the top’. Among the 19 Divisions assembled on the Allied side stood the 103rd (Tyneside Irish) Brigade, 5,560 men mainly from the Newcastle area, the majority of whom were members of the Irish diaspora living in Great Britain. The brigade was made up of 4 ‘Pals Battalions’ groups of friends, colleagues and family members who enlisted during 1914 on the condition that they would be placed in the same unit. They were the 24th, 25th, 26th and 27th battalions and became collectively known as the 103rd (Tyneside Irish) Brigade, part of the Northumberland Fusiliers. A reserve battalion, the 30th, would also be formed soon after. The Irish National Club in Newcastle would serve as their principal enlistment office.
After two years of training they finally reached the Western Front in January 1916 and experienced their first taste of trench warfare. The Brigade’s first battlefield objective of the Somme campaign was the capture of the heavily defended village of La Boisselle and to advance on a line from Pozières to Contalmaison, to the other side of the Tara-Usna hills. Having already endured a week of artillery bombardment by the Allies the German positions were expected to be devastated and to only offer token resistance. However the soft chalk bedrock of the area had allowed the German Army to dig deep defensive dugouts which shielded them from all but the heaviest Allied shells.
At the beginning of the battle the brigade began advancing across the Avoca valley toward the British frontlines and started coming under German artillery fire. As it pushed forward toward its objectives its casualties began to mount, particularly once it entered no-man’s land and came within range of German machine gun emplacements. The soldiers had been ordered to advance at a walking pace with rifles pointed downward while under fire, a tactical decision taken by the British generals which meant almost certain death for many of the combatants. Despite the heavy fire some notable acts of bravery were committed. A sergeant Patrick Butler, a 39 year old emigrant from Clonmel, was killed by a German sniper during the battle while rescuing the brigades wounded commander, Colonel Howard who himself had disobeyed an order not to go into combat.
Its total losses were horrific. Over 2,675 soldiers of the brigade were killed that day with 1,773 more injured.
Besides the Tyneside Brigade other Irish units had also suffered severe causalities, particularly the 36th (Ulster) Division, the 1st Royal Inniskilling (Enniskillen) Fusiliers, the County Down Volunteers and the Donegal and Fermanagh Volunteers.
By nightfall the Allied Forces had gained roughly one mile of territory along the Foucaucourt/Serre line at the cost of nearly 27,000 dead and 40,000 wounded. The Battle of the Somme would drag on for a further 5 months before the winter weather would bring the offensive to a halt.
The impact of the battle upon the soldier’s home communities was devastating. No family, neighbourhood or factory was left untouched with four in every five combatants either wounded or killed in action. Often their bodies could not be recovered till the end of the Somme offensive in November, and lay in the mud for months as silent witnesses to the failure. The high casualty rate was poignantly evoked by Chaplain Fr. McBrearty in June 1919 when the 25th battalion’s colour was laid up at St. Mary’s Cathedral:
“Four and a half years ago they had their first parade in St. Mary’s…..None of them dreamt for a moment that only a mere handful would return to their native Tyneside.”
Today the descendants of the soldiers of the 103rd Brigade commemorate the sacrifice of their ancestors through the activities of the Tyneside Cultural Society and the Tyneside Irish Brigade Association, both based in Newcastle.
The 103rd (Tyneside Irish) Brigade, alongside numerous other Irish units, in Foreign Service is featured in our Conflict gallery.