Almost a decade before the war, the Germans started developing a strategy to invade most of northern Europe. Ruthlessly efficient, the Schlieffen Plan was implemented on August 6, 1914. 3,120,000 men on eleven thousand trains, were transported through Belgium and France.
The British Expeditionary Force arriving in France on August 23rd, was about 100,000 strong, faced German forces of around 250,000. The 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers formed part of the 10th Brigade, 4th Division and this army was under the command of General French. The Kaiser reputedly ordered his soldiers to walk over French’s ‘contemptible little army’, so earning them the nickname, ‘The Old Contemptibles.’
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Le Cateau August 1914
The Dubs had their first wartime engagement at Le Cateau. On August 26th, many, cut off from their battalions, were taken prisoner by the German forces (which outnumbered them 3:1). They were held at Limburg Prisoner-of-War camp, where hundreds of Irish died. After twenty days of fighting, the 2nd Royal Fusiliers had just 10 officers and 478 other ranks left from an initial force of 22 officers and 1,023 other ranks. The British Expeditionary Force was practically wiped out as was the French army, which lost 40,000 men in just four days – 27,000 on August 23, alone.
Helles Landings, GallipolI, April 1915
The Royal Dublin Fusiliers suffered in the slaughter of the Helles Landings at Gallipoli. Most of the regular army battalions had already been sent to France and Flanders and the new recruits were still in training. Of the regular army, the 29th Division, including the 1st Battalions of the Royal Dublin, Munster and Inniskilling Fusiliers, was selected for the offensive. Cape Helles was an appalling choice of landing site, being the perfect defensive location with gun emplacements housed on steep slopes. The naval bombardment failed to neutralize the Turkish defences. The Dublins and Munsters were the first to disembark from the S.S. River Clyde and of the first 200 men, 149 were killed and 30 wounded immediately. A Sergeant McColgan wrote:
S.S. River Clyde run aground at “V” Beach on
25th April, 1915.
“One fellow’s brains were shot into my mouth as I was shouting to them to jump for it.”
Many men drowned because their backpacks weighed 60 lbs when dry. It took 36 hours for the RDF to get ashore. The battalion strength at the outset was 25 officers and 987 other ranks, one (young) officer and 374 other ranks made it ashore – casualties in that 36 hours mounted to 637 men.
St. Julien, Second Battle Of Ypres, May 1915
Near St. Julien, at the second battle of Ypres, the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers suffered near annihilation a month after the Helles Landings. On May 24th, 1915, around 2.45am, the Germans launched a poison gas attack. The Battalion strength was 666 men. By 9.30 pm, only one officer and 20 other ranks ‘retired’ to headquarters – 645 men were shelled, gassed, or driven insane by the poison. Many of the ‘survivors’ died slowly in the following years.
Suvla Bay, Gallipoli, August 1915
The Allies decided to launch a fresh attack against the Turks and chose Suvla Bay, 25 miles north of Cape Helles. The first Irish volunteer unit into the war was the 10th (Irish) Division. This included the new 6th and 7th Battalions of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. Many of these men saw their friends and families for the last time in April 1915. Following further training, they set sail for Gallipoli aboard the H.M.T. Alaunia, a ship commanded by Captain Rostron, who was in charge of the Carpathia when she rescued Titanic survivors. Administrative incompetance meant that the 10th (Irish) Division’s artillery was sent to France, not Gallipoli and that the men arrived without either maps or orders. There was a chronic water shortage and the soldiers ran out of ammunition and had to resort to throwing stones at the enemy. Having not gained any ground, the Allies withdrew from Gallipoli in January 1916, with 250,000 casualties. 3,411 of the dead, wounded or missing were from the 10th (Irish) Division, 569 from the 1st Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers.
Salonika October 1915
September 29, 1915, saw Lieutenant General Sir Bryan Mahon prepare to move the 10th (Irish) from Gallipoli. 91 officers and 2,363 other ranks, including the 6th and 7th Dublins, set sail for Salonika. They were reinforced by men drafted from other regiments. Frostbite, exposure, malaria and dysentry caused many casualties. On October 3, the 6th and 7th Dublins and Munsters were at the front line and were ordered to take the village of Jenikoj. They were successful and advanced, then being caught between their own artillery and the Bulgarians’ counterattack. Confused orders meant that some men were withdrawn, others remained and the exhausted soldiers were again sent to retake the village. 385 men were killed, wounded or missing; 131 were 6th Dublins and 128 were 7th Dublins. In September 1917, the 6th and 7th Dublins were sent to Alexandria and in May 1918 were dispatched to France for disbandment and drafting to the 1st and 2nd Dublins at the Western Front.
Hulluch, April 1916
The 16th (Irish) Division comprised of different battalions from various Irish regiments, including the 8th and 9th Royal Dublin Fusiliers. By 1916, commanders had realized the folly of sending raw men to the front and unlike the 10th (Irish) Division, the 16th (Irish) Division were somewhat prepared for trench warfare. The Irish Brigades of the 16th (Irish) were in the trenches at Hulluch when the Germans launched a gas attack on April 27th, 1916. Of the 2,128 casualties, about 538 were killed and many of the wounded died slowly from respiratory diseases. Lieutenant Lyon of the 7th Leinsters, described gathering the dead, “some of them holding hands like children in the dark.”
The Somme, June 1916
Attempting to break the deadlock of trench warfare, British commanders launched an offensive along a 14 mile front. The Battle of the Somme began on June 24, 1916, bombarding the Germans with 1.7 million shells. The 36th (Ulster) Division, largely Pals, was assigned a target which included a huge concrete bunker where German troops sheltered. The bombardment of German lines, supposed to annihilate the enemy, stopped on July 1st and the 36th (Ulster) advanced across no-man’s land and were met by machine-gunfire. The 1st Royal Dublin Fusiliers, many veterans of Gallipoli, were in a sector neighbouring the 36th (Ulster), as reserve to the 2nd Royal Fusiliers.
Men of the 36th (Ulster) Division, shortly before going into battle.
Three 2nd RDF companies participated in the second wave of the attack, going to battle with 23 officers and 480 other ranks: 14 officers and 311 other ranks were casualties. British casualties for the first day, reached 60,695 – 19,240 were dead. After two days, 5,500 Ulstermen were dead, wounded or missing and the 36th (Ulster) was practically wiped out. The 47th Irish Brigade taking Guillemont was described as, ‘one of the most astonishing feats of the war.’ The Dublins were involved at Ginchy in September and the following month, the 2nd Dubs fought hand-to-hand in German trenches to win their objective. Hamel saw the last major engagement of this phase of the Somme battles, with the 10th Royal Dublin Fusiliers attached to the 2nd Royal Marines, suffering 51% losses.
Messines Ridge, June 1917
Taking the Messines Ridge was strategically important to straighten the line south of Ypres. The 16th (Irish) and 36th (Ulster) were to fight together to take the Belgian village of Wytschaete. General Plumer had a scaled model of the Ridge made so troops could see what lay ahead. He had mines dug for explosives beneath German defences. About 3 million shells bombarded Messines for over a week. The barrage eased just before Plumer detonated 9,500 tons of explosives under the Germans. The 47th and 49th Brigades led the attack, the 48th (with the 9th Royal Dublin Fusiliers) in reserve. An Ulsterman of the 12th Irish Rifles said, “there wasn’t a human body intact lying around the place … just bits and pieces.” The battle lasted two days. Willie Redmond, M.P. and brother of John, leader of the Irish Party, died of his wounds at Messines. Another casualty was Henry Gallaugher of the 11th Inniskilling Fusiliers and the 36th (Ulster), who distinguished himself, but was not decorated.
Passchendaele, The 3rd Battle Of Ypres, July 1917
The 16th (Irish) and 36th (Ulster) Divisions were transferred to General Gough’s 5th Army in July 1917. Rain made conditions impossible – there was no escape from mud, no trenches or shelters. Exhausted and ill, the 48th and 49th Irish Brigades, (the 47th in reserve), launched their attack at 4.45am, August 16th. 65% of the leading units (7th Royal Irish Rifles and 9th Dublin Fusiliers, with the 2nd Dublins in reserve) were lost before the attack due to heavy German shelling. Machine guns cut down the 48th Brigade. Only five soldiers of B Company, 2nd RDF, survived. C Company of the 2nd Dublins moved in to support the 9th Dublins. All of the battalion, except 2 officers and 10 other ranks, were killed, wounded or missing. Mid-August saw the Irish Brigades devastated: the 36th (Ulster) had 3,585 casualties and the 16th (Irish) 4,231. On October 24th, the 8th and 9th Dublins were amalgamated. The 16th (Irish) Division did have some further success before 1917 ended at Tunnel Trench. The Allied gains over four months were lost in three days during March 1918.
1918 – From Near Defeat to Victory
Heavy casualties forced a British Army reorganization in February 1918, leading to the disbandment and reassignment of the 8th, 9th and 10th Royal Dublin Fusiliers. Instead of manning continuous trench lines, they adopted the German ‘defence in depth’ approach, with three zones (Advanced, Battle and Rear) containing strongly manned posts. Reserves were in the Rear Zone and most fighting was in the Battle Zone. Before dawn on March 21st, the 1st and 2nd Dublins (the latter in the trenches for 40 days and nights) were side by side awaiting attack. The German pre-assault bombardment was eight miles deep: gas and shelling claimed 1,062 of the 1st and 2nd RDF in under ten hours. During the next 10 days, the 16th (Irish) Division lost 7,149 men and the Ulster regiments, 6,109. Along with 500 Americans and 400 Canadians, the Division dug in near Le Hamel to stop the German advance. The 16th was reduced to the strength of a single infantry battalion. The 5th Royal Irish Fusiliers was the only Irish unit remaining in the 16th Division. The 1st Dublins were sent back to the 29th Division and the 2nd and later the 7th RDF joined the 31st Division. The 2nd Dublins went into battle near Le Cateau on October 16th, suffering 44% casualties within two days. The Great War ended within a month.