Battle of The Somme, 1916.

Fourth (UK) Army deployment, 1 July 1916.

By Richard Doherty, military historian, writer and broadcaster.

‘Their attack was one of the finest displays of human courage in the world’

When The Royal Irish Rangers was formed by the amalgamation of the three antecedent regiments of the North Irish Brigade on 1st July 1968, the date chosen marked not only the birth of the new regiment, but a major battle honour shared by its antecedents: The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, The Royal Ulster Rifles and The Royal Irish Fusiliers (Princess Victoria’s).

That battle had occurred fifty-two years earlier, then within living memory for many. Today it has passed from memory, but its opening day is written indelibly into the Army’s history as its bloodiest ever. It’s also engraved in the history of most regiments and in the nation’s psyche. On that date, Saturday 1st July 1916, soldiers from seventeen battalions of our antecedent regiments took part in the opening attack of an offensive that lasted until late-November.

BH SOMMEAlthough the Battle Honour SOMME 1916 covers all the fighting along that sector of the Western Front during those months, twelve subsidiary honours were also awarded. All but one of those were awarded to Irish regiments. Our antecedent regiments earned eight: ‘Albert’ (1st - 13th July); ‘Bazentin Ridge’(14th -17th July); ‘Pozières’ (23rdJuly – 7th August); ‘Guillemont’ (3rd – 6th September); ‘Ginchy’ (9th September); ‘le Transloy’ (1st October – 11th November); ‘Ancre Heights’ (1st October – 11th November); ‘Ancre’ (13th – 18th November). Ironically, the sole Somme battle honour not awarded to an Irish regiment was ‘Thiepval’.

The Somme offensive was part of an Entente strategic plan for 1916 with a Franco-British attack on the Western Front, Russian on the Eastern Front and Italian on the Southern. However, the German assault on Verdun in February affected the Western Front plan when the defence of that town sucked in French reinforcements, reducing their commitment to the summer offensive. A greater British commitment was called for and Haig’s plea for a delay until August was rejected. Haig wanted a delay so that the British Expeditionary Force could amass more artillery and better train their citizen soldiers. However, the attack was scheduled for Thursday 29th June 1916.

Delayed by two days because of bad weather, the story of the attack on Saturday 1st July is well known, as is the part played by 36th (Ulster) Division. Not so well known are the stories of other Irish regiments and other battalions of our antecedent regiments in that attack. Both regular battalions of the Inniskillings were involved, as were 1st Bn The Royal Irish Rifles and 1st Bn The Royal Irish Fusiliers. Attacking on the left flank of the Ulster Division, as part of 29th Division, 1st Bn The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers sustained heavy losses, their casualties numbering 568, much the same as the most heavily hit units of 36th Division – 13th Bn The Royal Irish Rifles and 11th Bn The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers (595 and 598 respectively). In all, twenty Irish battalions, plus The Tyneside Irish, took part in the attack.

In his history of the Ulster Division, Cyril Falls, an officer of the Division, dismisses the attack by 108th Brigade on the left flank as “separate from the other and of less importance”, a strange comment since this attack was integral to the overall 36th Division, and Fourth Army, plan. Split by the Ancre River, the brigade suffered severely with the 9th Bn The Royal Irish Fusiliers being all but wiped out.

For Falls, the main attack was that by 109th Brigade, with 107th Brigade following up. The leading battalions of 109th Brigade (9th Bn and 10th Bn The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers) broke into the Schwaben Redoubt with some elements even pushing on to reach the ‘D Line’, part of the German second defensive zone. But the Schwaben Redoubt was retaken by German troops after intensive fighting. The Ulster Division withdrew to count its losses. Four Victoria Crosses, including three posthumous awards, were earned in the course of the day, two to The Royal Irish Rifles and one each to The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and The Royal Irish Fusiliers. One war correspondent wrote that “Their attack was one of the finest displays of human courage in the world” but, on 1st and 2nd July, their losses exceeded 5,500 dead, wounded or missing.

On either flank of the Ulster Division, the German defences had prevailed. In 29th Division, on the left, 1st Bn The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, veterans of Gallipoli (as was the Division), suffered losses second only to those of 1st Bn The Hampshire Regiment; 29th Division’s overall losses were higher than those of 36th. The 2nd Battalion The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, known as ‘The Lumps’, were in the 32nd Division on the right flank, which had been stopped almost as its units left their start lines by heavy machine-gun fire from the Thiepval Spur.

The other Regular battalions were in the 4th Division (1st Bn The Royal Irish Fusiliers) and the 8th Division (1st Bn The Royal Irish Rifles), which were, respectively, to the left of 29th Division and the right of 32nd Division. The Faughs, whose involvement did not begin until late in the day, became embroiled in an effort to relieve troops besieged in the German redoubt known as ‘The Quadrilateral’. Their company-strength operation succeeded, resulting in the capture of enemy equipment and prisoners, and a Military Cross for the Company Commander.

In 25th Brigade of the 8th Division, 1st Bn The Royal Irish Rifles took part in the attack on Ovillers. By the end of the day two companies had been lost, the Commanding Officer wounded (he died later), the Adjutant killed and the Assistant Adjutant found it impossible to produce an accurate report of the day’s fighting.

Although the attack in the northern sector of Fourth Army’s line had been repelled almost everywhere, there was significant success to the south where divisions of XV and XIII Corps took most of their first-day objectives; many of the others were taken in subsequent days. The sole Irish unit involved was 2nd Bn The Royal Irish Regiment (18th of Foot) in 22nd Brigade of the 7th Division, at Mametz.

Although the part played by the 36th (Ulster) Division in the Somme battles was over, there was still much to do for Inniskilling, Rifles and Faugh battalions. The Regulars remained on the Somme front as the campaign continued and additional service battalions arrived at the end of August with the transfer of 16th (Irish) Division to the sector. While 7th Bn The Royal Irish Rifles was the only battalion of our antecedent regiments to serve in either 47th or 48th Brigades, 49th Brigade included two battalions of Inniskillings and two of Faughs (7th and 8th in both cases) and was known unofficially as the ‘Ulster Brigade’.

On Sunday 3rd September the Division took part in the attack on Guillemont, committing 47th Brigade after 20th (Light) Division had been withdrawn; two VCs were earned. A week later 16th (Irish) Division attacked Ginchy, a mile north-east of Guillemont. This was a XIV Corps operation to secure suitable ground from which to launch the first operation involving tanks, which occurred a few days later at Flers-Courcelette. All three brigades fought in the Battle for Ginchy, although 49th Brigade was in reserve initially. The village had resisted all previous attempts to capture it and resistance remained stubborn, resulting in heavy losses for 47th Brigade.

With 49th Brigade called in to support the attack, more success was gained on the left where 7th Bn The Royal Irish Rifles of 48th Brigade and 7th Bn The Royal Irish Fusiliers of 49th Brigade broke through the German line, allowing two battalions from The Royal Dublin Fusiliers to pass through to seize the objective. An officer in the Faughs described Ginchy as belching “forth smoke like a volcano” from the bombardment; the village was reduced to a wasteland. At Guillemont and Ginchy the already understrength 16th Division had suffered over 4,300 casualties.

albertqclqdrAmong the other honoured engagements of the Somme campaign, the Inniskillings were involved at Bazentin Ridge and also received the honour ‘Ancre 1916’. The Rifles were honoured for ‘Bazentin Ridge’, ‘Pozières’ and ‘Ancre Heights’, while one of their affiliated Territorial Force battalions, 1st Bn The London Irish Rifles, also received the honour ‘le Transloy’. The Faughs too received ‘le Transloy’ as a battle honour. All three regiments were awarded ‘Albert’, the official designation of the opening phase from 1st to 13th July 1916.

The bloody and prolonged Somme campaign included some of the hardest-earned battle honours handed down from our antecedent regiments. Those who earned them did so in a tradition born in the 17th century and carried on in the 21st century by the officers and all ranks of The Royal Irish Regiment.

'Nec Aspera Terrent’. . . . . .‘Quis Separabit’. . . . . .‘Faugh-a-Ballagh!’

[Above:Troops of the Royal Irish Rifles resting in a communication trench during the opening hours of the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916. (IWM © image (Q 1))]


The painting, 'Attack of the Ulster Division, 1 July 1916' by J P Beadle' is reproduced by kind permission of the Belfast City Council. The original hangs in the City Hall, Belfast.