Hello again and I’ll bet you were not expecting to hear from me again so soon with my contemporaneous pages having been so shamefully neglected for so long for various personal reasons and in favour of trying to get my numerous previous trips up to date. This is a task I realise is probably never going to happen but I’ll keep plodding on at it regardless. The Malta 2013 trip is nearing a conclusion and I am already considering what to do next. I’ll keep you posted.
I have to start this entry with a slight confession of a little skullduggery on my part regarding the last entry which was dated 13th July and when it was written. I had gone to my favoured pub, the wonderful Montagu Arms as I have no internet at home. I did work diligently but in a bar full of mates it can be difficult to get your head down to concentrate and it was full after the parade in town which I mentioned. I did say that the “Sham Fight” attracted large crowds and estimates of the crowd were that it was in excess of 100K which is some gathering.
The truth about the entry is that by the time I had proof read the text for the umpteenth time, added and captioned images, created hyperlinks, researched various entities and all the other tasks that attach themselves to running your own website it was actually 0040 the next morning (14th) when I pressed the “publish” button. Honestly, I genuinely did not realise how much work was involved when I took this site on but it does give me something to do and boredom is potentially my greatest enemy in retirement. Anyway, the staff were putting the chairs on the tables, I was the last man left in the bar (no surprise there) and so rather than leave it to rewrite I did a bit of a naughty and just backdated it 40 minutes, I do hope you don’t mind!
Having thus unburdened my soul I want to tell you about yet another of the unbelievably odd coincidences that seem to follow me about. If you look back to the last entry you will find that I mention a village called Caledon in passing where I lived briefly in the early 80’s. I also mentioned Boom Hall whilst speaking of the Siege of Derry, all in the space of a few sentences. Admittedly, I had briefly spoken about Caledon to my brother in a totally unrelated conversation a few days ago but I had not even thought about Boom Hall for literally decades. I like a bit of a read before I go to sleep and I started a new book last night entitled “Irish Generals” by Richard Doherty and which was a tie-in with a BBC radio series. As the name implies the book deals with the disproportionate amount of British Army senior officers in the Second World War who have Irish connections. If you do not believe what I tell you next the book is ISBN 0 86281 395 6 in the paperback, published in 1993 by Appletree Press. Chapter two deals with General Harold Alexander and I shall reproduce a few sentences verbatim here which detail the history of the Alexander family. I promise you I had no idea of any of these facts when I wrote my recent piece. “Originally of Scottish planter stock, the Alexanders settled in Donegal and then moved to Londonderry where they were prominent in the business life of the city. Alexanders were aldermen and the family owned a large house called Boom Hall on the banks of the River Foyle, North of the city. In the late eighteenth century an ancestor made a fortune in India and built Caledon Castle in County Tyrone, which became the fmily seat”. If that isn’t spooky I do not know what is and to think that at various points in my life I used to pass the entrance gates to both establishments on a daily basis just compounded the weirdness of the situation.
Another small piece of tidying up to do from the last entry and that is to do with the War Memorial in Tandragee. Again, my piece from Virtual Tourist will suffice here, slightly edited to include more recent census figures.
“I have mentioned in other tips that I am quite interested in military history and Northern Ireland has certainly produced it’s fair share of service personnel over the years. The exploits of the 36th Ulster Division at the Battle of the Somme in the First World War are legendary, and the numbers of casualties appalling.
Like so many small towns and villages in the Province, Tandragee has a memorial to the fallen of both world wars. It is of itself not remarkable save that it employs the older spelling of the village as TandEragee, the first E having fallen into disuse now, but it is very typical of the style you will see. I often stop and have a look as I go about my business, and reflect on the generations of (mostly) young men who perished.
I have included all four faces of the memorial to illustrate a point. Although expanding rapidly, Tandragee is not a large place and it is the kind of village where it can take you an hour to walk down the main street just because you meet people you know. The last census in 2011 shows a population of 3,486 compared to just over 3,000 in 2001, a small rise of less than 2% over the period. Obviously, this figure was much less in the 1930’s and considerably less at the time of the First War. Count the number of men commemorated here and try to imagine the impact then on what is still a close knit community now. As that wonderful singer / songwriter Eric Bogle put it in his wonderful song “The band played Waltzing Matilda”, “a whole generation that was butchered and damned”
If you are interested in War Memorials in the United Kingdom, I would recommend the National Inventory of War Memorials website. This is run under the auspices of the Imperial War Museum in London, along with several other bodies, and it’s aim is to record the details of every war memorial in the United Kingdom including images. Perhaps you might want to get involved yourself. I certainly intend to as I think it is a worthwhile thing to do”. (Update: since I originally wrote this piece I have submitted numerous images to the organisation).
On the theme of the Great War, I had seen some guys earlier in the week retouching one of the murals for which Northern Ireland is rightly famous. This particular example is just beside the roundabout right at the top of the town where the Armagh and Portadown roads meet. The quality of some of these very public works of art is quite honestly amazing and the example in the town commemorates the fallen of that bloody conflict of local men.
Many of the local Protestant community had been members of a paramilitary force called the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) prior to the hostilities. This was an organisation determined to resist Home Rule i.e. Irish independence by any means but with the outbreak of war most of them joined the regular British Army and tended to be posted to units together in much the same way as the famous “Pals Battalions” mainly recruited in Northern England. In the case of Tandragee most of the local men were posted to the Royal Irish Fusiliers, specifically the 9th (Service) Battalion which, oddly perhaps, was raised in Belfast in 1914 although it recruited from volunteers from the counties of Armagh, Cavan and Monaghan (the latter two being now in the Irish Republic although geographically in the Province of Ulster – I told you it was complicated!). After training they were shipped to France, arriving in Le Havre or Boulogne (depending on which website you read) in October 1915 and thence to the front.
It is interesting to note that there was never conscription in any part of Ireland in either World War although there was in the rest of the UK. Given the political sensitivities of the island in WWI and the portion of it ruled by Britain in WWII it was deemed to be politically fraught. This did not stop hundreds of thousands of Irishmen volunteering for service in the British Army, even in WWII when men from the Irish Republic volunteered for the War. To this day, there are still plenty such men serving with distinction in the British forces.
Those that know anything about me, either personally or through my online meanderings will know that I have an inquisitive nature which honestly verges on mental disorder somewhere in the obsessive / compulsive spectrum. If I discover something that interests me I will not be content until I have ferreted out every single piece of information I can about it and so it has been these last days with 9 RIF to use a bit of military jargon. Fortunately, there are many excellent sources online now whereas in my youth I would have been physically trawling public Record Offices, Regimental Museums, the local library and who knows where else? It is so much easier now.
If you have no interest in WWI military history I suggest you skip to the bottom of this entry now or even to the next one when it appears but I just have it in my head that I needed to research this obviously very limited topic in the history of British arms and as this is my website to share it here. I just have this feeling that having looked at the photographic image in the mural of a group of young men, most of whom never returned here, and having visited the War Memorial on so many occasions that I owe it to them. When I lived in Northern Ireland I moved around a lot but I do not feel like Armagh or Belfast or Lurgan or anywhere else is home for me now as they once were. Tandragee is my “home” when I come back these days and I do feel a great affinity for it even if I was not born nor raised here. 70 odd years earlier, if I had lived here then it could have been me in that Unit and in that carnage, a sobering thought.
Let’s start with the RIF, a very famous regiment with a long and proud history. Like so many British, and specifically Irish, Regiments it is actually an amalgamation in 1881 of two previous units although decades of defence cuts since have now rendered it part of the Royal Irish Rangers along with just about every other outfit with any sort of Irish heritage. Whilst I understand the rationale behind moving forward into the 21st century with all the challenges of modern warfare and the need to streamline, I cannot help but feel that much has been lost in terms of unit pride and when the sole reason for wholesale cuts and amalgamations is financial rather that operational, it becomes abhorrent to me. Don’t get me wrong, the Rangers are excellent and well-regarded but it is just not the same.
The two regiments I alluded to above were the 87th (Prince of Wales’s Irish) Regiment of Foot and the 89th (The Princess Victoria’s) Regiment of Foot. The 87th was raised in 1793 by Dubliner John Doyle and distinguished itself in the Peninsular / Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century. It was the first regiment to capture a French eagle (equivalent to a British standard) at the Battle of Barossa and went on to fight in the Capture of Mauritius in 1810. With Napoleon eventually defeated they were posted to Asia to spend 12 years fighting in Nepal and Burma during the Gurkha War (1814–1816) before some unusually far-sighted senior officer decided we were better with the Gurkhas on our side instead of fighting them. Since then, they have served the British with incredible distinction to this very day. For a relatively small Brigade, Gurkhas and their British officers have won an amazing 26 Victoria Crosses. When the 87th weren’t doing this they fought a Burmese War and the Indian Mutiny. Busy boys.
The 89th was raised the same year as the 87th by Lieutenant General Andrew Thomas Blayney, 11th Baron Blayney, and was known as “‘Blayney’s Bloodhounds” for it’s efficacy in hounding down Irish Republicans during the Rebellion of 1798. When they were not busy quelling rebellious countrymen they found time to distinguish themselves in the Peninsular War (1808-1815), specifically the Battle of Fuengirola, distinguished themselves again at the Battle of Crysler’s Farm during the Anglo-American War of 1812 and also served during the Crimean War (1854) and the Indian Mutiny (1857). Another bunch of busy boys.
When these two battle-proven entities got together the new regiment was likely to be greater than the sum of the parts and so it was to prove. A stint in the Boer War (1899-1902) soon proved this and showed that they were a force to be reckoned with.
The British Army is awash with nicknames, some more easily understood than others and one of the several that attached to the Fusiliers was the “Old Foggies”. This does not refer to an engagement fought in climatic conditions of poor visibility but rather to their motto / battlecry of “Faugh a Ballagh” which is Gaelic for “Clear the Way” and with faugh in this case being pronounced like “fog” rather than “laugh”. Laughs were certainly to be in short supply in their next major engagement, the First World War.
The 9th RIF, including most of the Tandragee lads, were posted to the 108th Brigade which I must admit I had never heard of as a unit designation until I started researching this and only reinforces yet again my belief that I learn so much whilst doing this vaguely travel related writing. The 108th comprised five battalions of Royal Irish Rifles (RIR), two of RIF, a mortar company and a machine gun battery. They in turn were part of the 36th (Ulster) Division which will be well known to anyone with the slightest interest in this particular war and is almost part of the collective consciousness, if not the DNA, of people from Northern Ireland to this day. The fighting spirit of the Irish is the stuff of legend, often in a slightly joking way, but with a firm foundation in truth. The almost incredible bravery of these often ill-educated farm boys and manual labourers from the towns and cities stands to this day and having digressed so far I might as well go the whole hog and provide a few quotes relating to this legendary Division, and I do not use the word legend lightly as I feel it is much overused nowadays.
After the war H.M. King George V had this to say, “I recall the deeds of the 36th (Ulster) Division, which have more than fulfilled the high opinion formed by me on inspecting that force on the eve of its departure for the front. Throughout the long years of struggle, which now so gloriously ended, the men of Ulster have proved how nobly they fight and die”.
Winston Churchill, who was to become the iconic figure of the war which proved that WWI was not “the war to end all wars” said, “The record of the Thirty-Sixth Division will ever be the pride of Ulster. At Theipval in the battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916; at Wytschaete on 17 June 1917, in the storming of the Messines Ridge; on the Canal du Nord, in the attack on the Hindenburg Line of 20 November the same year; on 21 March 1918, near Fontaine-les-Clercs, defending their positions long after they were isolated and surrounded by the enemy; and later in the month at Andechy in the days of ‘backs to the wall’, they acquired a reputation for conduct and devotion deathless in military history of the United Kingdom, and repeatedly signalised in the despatches of the Commander-in-Chief”.
Finally, Richard Doherty, the author and broadcaster whose book on the Irish Generals I am currently reading and have mentioned here before, said, “Whether town dweller or country lad, volunteer or regular, officer or other rank, Catholic or Protestant, the Sons of Ulster knew a comradeship and a trust in adversity that should be a lesson to us all”. I told you that things tend to go round in circles for me and I only discovered this quote whilst researching this piece and never having heard of Mr. Doherty until about three days ago. Very strange but in the divided, violent and bloody history of the island where I was born I think it is perhaps the most fitting quote of them all.
That the Division won nine Victoria Crosses (the highest UK military honour for exceptional bravery in the face of the enemy and very rarely awarded) perhaps speaks even louder than the words of monarchy, politicians or academics. Yes, without any embarrassment, I am bloody proud to be an Ulsterman.
That then is the general setup of the massive groupings that formed a Division in WWI but what of my “mates” in the tiny cog of that huge machine sending men to be butchered in the mincer of the Western Front? Obviously there is much less information available about them but this is what I have managed to cobble together.
The 9th moved to Newtownards in February 1915 and thence to Seaford in November of that year. If you are unaware, and I know I have readers all over the world, both these places are in what is now Northern Ireland and then they were sent, literally, into Hell with 652 men sailing to France in October 1915. A look at the excellent website here gives very comprehensive details but for those of you who do not wish to read through it I shall try to give a brief (as brief as I can ever be when on a roll) overview.
After a week of heavy enemy bombardment with associated casualties the 1st of July rolled around. This was to be a day that will forever be written into the annals of British military history as it was the “Big Push” in the Somme region when military tactics on both sides seemed to consist of pointlessly ordering countless thousands of men to their death in a conflict where the technology (machine guns, gas and murderously heavy artillery) had far outstripped tactical or strategic thinking. That alleged thinking from both sets of general staff seemed to be that if you could afford to sacrifice more men than the enemy then you would win. What exactly you might win was never really considered properly as little thought seems to have been given to strategic objectives but rather it was a matter of “we are going to advance”. Back again to the Eric Bogle line quoted earlier, “a whole generation that was butchered and damned”.
This was the first day of what was to become called the Battle of the Somme and which is still commemorated with a large Orange Order parade in Belfast on that date. There are numerous reports of men going “over the top” to almost certain death to the accompaniment of fifes (a small piccolo like flute) and drums as they would have done in an Orange parade at home. Many of them died. Even if you do not read the entire war diary which I have attached above, I would encourage you to look at this one page. During that awful day and the early hours of the following day two officers were killed with another five missing believed killed. Eight were injured and one was evacuated with shell shock. Of the other ranks 56 were killed, 303 were wounded and 159 were missing, most never to return. Mere numbers can often blur the reality of historical events so think of it like this. The numbers above add up to a total of 541 dead, missing or wounded, many with horrendous and life changing injuries. Imagine if you will, six full double decker buses and a few more standing at the bus stop all killed or injured and that is the scale of what you are looking at. Makes you think, doesn’t it? Early on the 2nd July, the Battalion handed over the line to the 87th Brigade and withdrew to Martinsart although they were not done with the action as they spent the next three nights searching no man’s land for casualties during which the Adjutant, Lt. Cather, was killed.
So what happened to the 9th and it’s Tandragee men after that bloody and awful day? With approximately one third of the strength either killed or wounded even the 10th (Reserve) Battalion could not make up the numbers and so men of The Sherwood Foresters (Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiment) were drafted in in August followed by 103 men, mostly of The London Regiment, on 26 November. Whilst still nominally an Ulster Battalion this identity was being rapidly eroded by circumstance and it was not over yet.
Obviously there were the usual casualties of war in the period up to 16th August 1917 but they pale completely into insignificance compared to the events of that day and the Battle of Langemarck, which is situated in Belgian Flanders and constituted part of the third Battle of Ypres (or Wipers as it was known to the definitely non-polyglot average British soldier). It was an engagement that was yet again to virtually wipe out the Battalion.
Conditions were appalling for the British / French attacking force as they were attacking uphill and a mixture of heavy unseasonal rain and a devastatingly heavy artillery bombardment prior to the advance had reduced the entire battlefield to a quagmire where it was virtually impossible to move forward. Back again now to my earlier comments about the military strategy, or rather woeful and criminal lack thereof, and it was a case of “Right, lads over the top and get killed” and get killed they did in vast numbers.
When considering this action and many others I cannot help but think of the classic Pink Floyd line, “Forward he cried from the rear and the front rank died” and this line of thought also gives rise to the title of this entry which is a fairly famous quote describing the undoubtedly brave other ranks being led by stupid and incompetent officers. The exact origin of the phrase is disputed but my well have been uttered by a Russian officer during the Crimean War (1850’s) and reported home in a letter by a British soldier.
Once again the 9th including what was left of the Tandragee lads I started out researching here were in the thick of the action and suffered for it. I wonder how many of the original men, many of them little more than boys, were still left in the Battalion by this point and I know that by the end of the day there would have been less as the casualties on that terrible day in the mud and the blood of the oft-quoted “Flanders fields” were only marginally less than the decimation of the Somme debacle. No less than 456 all ranks were killed, wounded or captured – think of the double decker buses again as that is possibly the only way you can get your head round the sheer scale of the waste of human life involved in this whole obscenity, for such it was.
What was achieved for this repugnant loss of young men’s lives? Frankly, very little. The French on one flank had made a bit of progress but the British General Staff eventually, and far too late, realised they were going nowhere fast and put the offensive on hold until the weather turned in September, the ground dried out and they started again, eventually taking the Gheluvelt Plateau by October when the rains returned.
With the 9th so badly mauled you might think they would have been stood down and amalgamated into another Battalion but perhaps the senior officers in a rare example of intelligence knew what these men were worth and so rather than move them elsewhere, they reinforced them in a move that was to restore the Ulster identity somewhat although at what a cost was that identity recovered. The Second North Irish Horse, a cavalry unit, had been disbanded and compulsorily dismounted i.e. turned into infantry. There was no place for horses in what had effectively become mechanised slaughter. This was in the days when cavalry had become redundant and the modern role of them being light, mobile armoured was but a distant dream. In WW1 tanks had just been invented, were unreliable, difficult to steer and in terribly short supply.
It is interesting to note that the North Irish Horse were not a regular unit and were designated yeomanry i.e. part timers / Territorials / militia or whatever designation your country uses. They were the first non-regular unit to be deployed in WWI. They were drawn from what had been B and C Squadrons of the original unit. I shall return to the North Irish Horse in a future blog as yet another very odd thing has just happened whilst researching this.
I know little about British Army Cavalry armaments prior to WWI but I am guessing they may have used saddle holstered carbines although not the .303 Enfield which was the weapon of choice for the infantry so how useful they were as infantrymen, a completely different discipline, is open to debate. Whatever their efficacy, 570 men were transferred to the 9th in September. It still wasn’t over for whatever was left of the contingent from my home place as in November 1917 thy lost 89 men in an action at Moeuvres during the Battle of Cambrai. This is nothing compared to the earlier massacres but go back to your double decker bus mindset and that is another full one wiped out.
Surely the gallant 9th must have done enough by now. Wrong. In early 1918, the 7th/8th Royal Irish Fusiliers was disbanded and the 213 men remaining were transferred to the 9th. What the proportion of Ulstermen was in that draft is now lost in the mists of time but I cannot think that there were many Tandragee men involved in that or regular enlistment except those that had become old enough (or lied about being old enough, a common practice) as they had all volunteered at the outset. It appears the 9th had not done enough as all but destroyed in the retreat from St Quentin to Ypres.
Yet again they were reinforced by what we in the Forces would have called “odds and sods”. Another 122 men from the London Regiment, 14 from the RIR, 105 from the Service Corps and, perhaps most bizarrely, 68 men from the Army Veterinary Corps. I suppose if they had dismounted most of the cavalry then there was less need for veterinary trained troops but it still looks odd to me. Were there any Tandragee men even left by this point? There was to be one final draft in 1918 of 137 RIR men so I am guessing the Ulster identity was reasonably restored and they were needed as the Battalion fought almost constantly from August to 26th October, a mere two weeks before the Armistice.
Just to complete this piece, I shall include here the names of those who did not make it back to my home village after both World Wars and I cannot help wondering how many of those who did return after the First were even fit enough to attend the unveiling of the Memorial in 1925.
There you have it, I am done in more than one sense of the word. I have now spent almost three full days of my waking hours when not visiting my Father, feeding myself or late night reading of some interesting books in bed researching the 9th of the RIF. Yes, others have done it better, I have relied heavily on them for my source material and I would never set myself up as any authority on the subjects touched on here. I am actually posting this on the evening of the 16th although I will backdate it so it makes sense in the scheme of the website. I have been working here on finishing this for over five hours now. Sure, I have had the benefit of a couple of pints of cider (no, I am not drunk before you ask) and a bit of chat with my mates but basically working. Frankly, having not slept too long last night I am feeling a bit done, hence the opening sentence in this paragraph.
As always, I should like your comments on this piece. I realise it has become something of a dissertation of a very tiny proportion of the British Army in WWI and as such may be of very limited interest to many of you but I would refer you back to an earlier comment here. I looked at the mural, looked at the faces of the youngsters (for the most part) looking at me from a monochrome print, thought of the complete biological accident of the year of my birth and the potential repercussions had I been born another time and I knew I had to research it and share it.
Do you think it is of any interest or is it something you can find out for yourself if you have an inclination so to do. I do not merely cut and paste chunks from other websites but I attempt to add personal anecdotes and so on which I believe “adds value” to use an awful marketing phrase. I shall certainly welcome and consider any and all constructive comments although I am fully aware that I am very much a “one trick pony” and can only write the way I do. Free now of the constraints of commercial sites who were sometimes hyper-sensitive, I can say what I think although I shall never be offensive to anyone and will be quite prepared to back up anything I write. I spend long enough researching it to be able to back it up!
Would you prefer me just to regale you with stories of the sometimes quite bizarre things that attach themselves to me like iron filings to a magnet. I really am finding my way here and any sort of feedback is greatly appreciated.
I shall attempt to post this now which may take some time with the various processes that have to be gone through but I shall do my best and just to round it out a bit I should point out that I did not even go to the pub, which is unusual for me. What I did instead, as I worked on this was to sit at home and watch the final of the cricket World Cup in the most dramatic of circumstances on the last ball of a “Superover”, basically the cricket equivalent of a football (soccer) penalty shootout. Whilst this game was in progress, the British Formula One race was taking place and the men’s singles at Wimbledon ended up in an equally thrilling encounter where Novak Djodkevic narrowly defeated Roger Federer in the final game, final set finale. Just to put the icing on the cake, in two days time the British Open Golf Championship will open at Royal Portrush, normally 90 minutes drive from where I am typing this but which will be virtually inaccessible for the duration. For a relatively small nation we do seem to punch way above our weight in sporting terms.
I think I am in a position to wind this saga up now but there is much more to come so stay tuned and spread the word.
6 thoughts on “Lions led by donkeys – a military history.”
These battles were truly a tragedy of monumental proportions. In Australia, the Somme is regarded with awe. The MOTH’s grandfather survived this battle, emerging with a military medal for rescuing wounded under fire. I believe that some of the men drowned in mud – the conditions were abominable. It infuriates me that the commanders were hell bent on these archaic military technique despite conditions that required different approaches. ‘Over the top to die’ is reminiscent of the doomed Gallipoli campaign, where men were seen as fodder for the commands of pompous generals with little grasp on anything other than their reputation. Although lessons were learned albeit at an enormous cost for families. Like Ireland, Australia sent our best and strongest men, young men who were so keen to volunteer. Very sad to think of them not returning home. Thank you for posting this. Lest we Forget their sacrifice.
Well said. The entire high command were indeed living in a bygone age. How can you have cavalry and tanks, albeit very basic first generation ones, on the same battlefield?
The Somme is particularly remembered in my home country of Northern Ireland as the 36th Ulster Division was all but wiped out there. I know that Gallipoli was very much an ANZAC slaughterhouse.
Lest we do forget I still regularly perform both “The Green Fields of France” and “The Band played Waltzing Matilda” in my set, amongst others.
The war to end all wars? If only.
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If only, indeed. We have been relatively lucky that we did not have to grow up in the theatre of war in my country, even though we had men and women who served overseas.
It’s good to see you’ve still got the appetite for all of this stuff Fergy. Hope you’re well
Greetings, Fergy. My great-uncle was in the LIR, and was killed at the Battle of Messines at the age of 16. We were glad to have visited his grave at Chester Farm on the centenary of his death
Good day to you, Keith,
and thanks for getting in touch. Yes, they were all too young and what was it all for? So the “powers that be” could send them off to do it all over again 20 years later!