Two linked books of the Irish on many fronts of the Great War
This book concerns the service of the regiments of the British Army raised in Ireland before and during the First World War together with those with Irish affiliations. So within its pages readers will discover not only The Irish Guards, the Connaught Rangers, The Royal Munster Fusiliers and many other regiments with long and venerable histories and battle honours but also the London Irish, the Tyneside Irish and the battalions of the new army. Each chapter features a particular front or action providing an excellent overview of the Irish in action throughout the conflict. Here we join them on the Retreat from Mons, on the Gallipoli peninsula, at Loos and during the Somme offensive. No account of the Irish could possibly be complete without the inclusion, as here, of anecdotes from the irrepressible Irish soldier himself, with all his wry humour and indomitable bravery and fighting prowess. This book brings together two volumes on the same theme by the same author. Available in softcover and hardcover with dust jacket.
“Before starting, and when our guns were at their heaviest, there was a good deal of movement, up and down, and talking in the trenches. A running fire of chaff was kept up, and there was many a smart reply, for Irish wit will out even in the face of death,” said Lieutenant James Hately, who was wounded in that battle. “Some of the fellows were very quiet, but none the less determined. Most of us were laughing. At the same time I felt sorry, for the thought would obtrude itself on my mind that many of the poor chaps I saw around me would never see home again. As for myself, curiously enough, it never occurred to me that I would even be hit. Perhaps that was because I am of a sanguine or optimistic disposition. I started off, like many another officer, with a cigarette well alight. Many of the men were puffing at their pipes. Officers and men exchanged ‘good-lucks,’ ‘cheer-ohs’ and other expressions of comradeship and encouragement.”<br>
Many were, naturally, in a serious mood. They felt too near to death for the chaff of the billets or trenches to be seemly. They thought of home, of dear ones, of life in the workshops and offices of Newcastle and Sunderland, and the gay companions of favourite sports and amusements, and, more poignant still, some recalled the last sight of the cabin in Donegal, before turning down the lane to the valley and the distant station, on their way to try their fortune in England. Thus there was some restlessness and anxiety, but the company officers in closest touch with the men agree that the general mood was eagerness to get into grips with the enemy, and relish for the adventure, without any great concern as to its results to themselves individually.<br>
When the command was given, “up and over,” the brigade, in fact, was like a huge electric battery fresh from a generating station, for its immense driving force and not less for the lively agitation of its varied emotions. Up and over the battalions went, and moved forward in successive waves, the men in single file abreast, the lines about fifty yards apart. For about two hundred yards or so nothing of moment happened. Then they came under heavy fire. Shells burst about them, shrapnel fell from above, bullets from rifle and machine-gun tore through the air, or caused hundreds of little spurts of earth to leap and dance about their feet. One of the men told me that the shrieking and hissing of these deadly missiles reminded him of banshees and serpents, a confused and grotesque association appropriate to a battlefield as to a nightmare.<br>
It must not be supposed that everything was carried with a rush and a shout, at point of the bayonet. An impetuous advance is what the men would have liked best. It would be most in tune with the ardour of their feelings, and less a strain on their nerves. But there were many reasons why that was impossible. The country, in its natural formation, was upward sloping, and all dips and swells. It was broken up into enormous shell-holes and mine-craters, seamed with zigzag lines of white chalky rubble marking the German trenches, and strewn with the wire of demolished entanglements, fallen trees and the wreckage of houses.<br>
The men were heavily equipped in what is called righting order. They carried haversacks, water-bottles, gas-helmets, bandoliers filled with cartridges, as well as rifles and bayonets. Some were additionally burdened with bombs and hand grenades. Behind them came the working parties with entrenching tools, such as picks and shovels. Accordingly, the physical labour of the advance alone was tremendous. It would have been stiff and toilsome work for the strongest and most active, even if there had been no storm of shot and shell to face besides. There was, furthermore, the danger in a too hasty progress of plunging headlong into the curtain of high explosives which the artillery, firing from miles behind, hung along the front of the infantry, lifting it and moving it forward as the lines were seen to advance.<br>
Nevertheless the men went on steadily, undaunted by the fire and tumult; and the shuddering earth; undaunted even by the spectacle of the dead and dying of the battalions which preceded them in the attack; shaken only by one horror—a horror unspeakable—that of seeing fond comrades of their own falling bereft of life, as in a flash, by a bullet through the brain or heart; or, worse still, just as suddenly disappearing into bloody fragments amid the roar and smoke of a bursting shell. Now and then men stopped awhile, trembling at the sight and aghast; and, under the sway of impulses that were irresistible, put their right hands over their faces as a protection to their eyes—an appeal, expressed in action rather than in words, that they might be mercifully spared their sight—or else made a sweeping gesture of the arm, as if to brush aside the bullets which buzzed about them like venomous insects.