Lancashire and Cheshire, Western Front Association

 Chairman’s notes

Good evening and welcome to the August meeting. The media interest in WWI now seems to have abated somewhat. However, I suspect some of the television History Channels may follow the progression of the Offensive. I am especially waiting to see which newspaper informs us that as from I5th September the British now had a wonder weapon that would help us win the war. (Why then did it take until 1918)?

There now follows a period where I suspect the tabloids will be too lazy to follow the progression of the war until 1917. As I am sure they will inform us, Third Ypres (I doubt they will call it that) was completely fought in mud from the outset and there had not been any successful actions to take the high ground before the assault began. I suspect the Nivelle Offensive and the French Mutinies will not be greatly covered, whereas the great news of America entering the war which was sure to ensure ultimate victory will be mentioned.

Talking of Ypres, It gives me great pleasure to welcome back our popular speaker, Professor John Derry. I do not need to tell our regular attenders of the excellence of his presentations. I am also aware many of you will wish to attend his meeting at Moor End WI on 20th October, when his subject will be Queen Elizabeth I.

I have now completed all the speakers for 2017, including tonight’s guest! I shall try to put them all on the Main WFA website a.s.a.p. Trevor has advised me he will then transcribe them on to our website.

Terry Jackson, Chairman. 

Last month’s talk

Trevor Adams and Denis McCarthy were to talk to us on “The Easter Rising – for Ireland, for England, for Germany?”  However, Denis was called away on urgent business, so in the event Trevor presented their talk on his own.

A key theme was to debunk various myths about the Easter Rising and its aftermath, especially that it was an Anglo Irish war which, of course, it was not. The Irish and the English were on both sides of the conflict which, in reality, lasted until 1923. Perhaps the biggest myth is that the instigator of the Rising, Patrick Pearse, read the declaration of Irish independence on the steps of the GPO in Dublin on Easter Monday 1916. In fact, the GPO building does not, and never has had, any steps!

The origins of the Rising were traced back to 19th century discontent including over land rights and voting rights both for Catholics and for non-conformists. The immediate precursors to the Rising were the Home Rule Bill of 1912 which resulted in the formation by Unionists of the Ulster volunteer Force (UVF), and the reaction to that by nationalists in the formation of the Irish Volunteers. There was gunrunning into Ireland by both sides, though more successfully by the UVF. In 1913, there was intense labour unrest in Dublin due to draconian working conditions, which resulted in a lockout of workers.

The 1914 gunrunning by the Irish Volunteers was organised by Erskine Childers, an upper crust Englishman who had served in the Boer War and who was clerk to the House of Commons. His wife Molly was American and is believed to be the source of Childers’ interest in Irish nationalism. The other leading lights in the gunrunning on the Askard were the Hon Ellen Spring-Rice, an English aristocrat, and Gordon Strachy Shepherd, a British Army captain on leave and close friend of Erskine Childers. The guns supplied both to the UVF and to the Irish volunteers came from Germany, which was keen to foment trouble in the backyard of its enemy.

A key political event in March 1914 was the Curragh mutiny, where British Army officers stationed in Ireland refused to act against Unionists in the North, in effect to face down the UVF, even though they had been ordered to do so by the government. In the end, the government did make some concessions to the army officers but the episode ended with the resignation of the head of the army, Sir John French, and the Minister of War, Col Seeley. The leader of the mutiny was Brig Hubert Gough.

The outbreak of the war in August 1914 forestalled what was likely to be a civil war in Ireland, and political events were put on the backburner. Many members of the UVF and of the Irish Volunteers joined the British army. A small section of the Irish Volunteers who did not join up formed the nucleus of the rebels for the Rising in 1916.

Childers boatLeft: Molly Childers and Hon Ellen Spring-Rice on board the "Askard"
On the eve of the Rising in April 1916, Sir Roger Casement landed in the west of Ireland from a U-boat and was quickly arrested by Irish police. A German ship, the Aud, which was loaded with arms for the Rising was intercepted by the Royal Navy, on information from the Americans. The Aud was scuttled by the German crew as it was being escorted into harbour near Cork. In light of these events, Eoin MacNeill called off the Rising by means of a newspaper advertisement on Easter Sunday. At a meeting later that day, the diehards decided to go ahead with the Rising on Easter Monday but in effect only in Dublin. In fact, the British authorities had expected some sort of insurrection at Easter but the arrest of Casement and the capture of the Aud made them complacent, to the extent that key figures in the intelligence and security services were at the horse races on Easter Monday when the Rising began.  Key buildings in Dublin were seized by the rebels, notably the GPO which became their headquarters. They failed to take Dublin Castle, the centre of British administration in Ireland, even though it was not properly defended. Indeed, it seems the only live rounds fired by British forces were from the revolver of the major in charge of Dublin Castle security. The rebels also dug trenches in St Stephen’s Green, which was militarily nonsense as the area was surrounded by high buildings which they did not control.

For the first 48 hours, the Rising was opposed largely by Irish troops in the British Army, that is the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, the Inniskilling Fusiliers and other Irish regiments. Troops from England did not start to arrive until late on the Wednesday. Four worn-out field guns were brought up from a training depot in Athlone but only shrapnel shells were available. These, of course, were designed to be used against troops in the field, not against buildings so were not effective. A fisheries protection vessel was therefore brought up the River Liffey to use its high explosive shells against the buildings. Later on that week, more artillery and high explosive shells became available, resulting in the extensive destruction of a lot of central Dublin.

A key example of Western Front tactics being used in Dublin was the action at the Mount Street bridge, which was a bridge over a narrow canal. It was defended by only 17 rebels. However, nearby canal bridges were not defended at all and could have been used to bypass the area. Two battalions of Sherwood Foresters were stopped here and lost many men in frontal assaults on the rebel positions, which could in fact have easily been taken by a flanking manoeuvre, or avoided altogether.

The Rising was largely over by the Saturday. A key figure in the surrender was nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell who, until recently, was rather airbrushed out of history as being female and a lesbian did not suit the myth of the Easter Rising. The casualties for the week were 63 rebels, 126 soldiers, 18 police officers and 278 civilians including 38 children. The high total of civilian casualties indicates the rather trigger-happy, nervous attitude of inexperienced rebels and soldiers.

The public mood in Dublin was very much in favour of the Crown forces and very much against the rebels, who were jeered and booed, and were in danger of being attacked as they were taken into captivity. However, the mood changed entirely with the subsequent use of brief field court-martials against civilians who should have had the right to a civilian trial, and the subsequent series of immediate executions taking place over 10 days. In effect, the new GOC Gen Maxwell was lumbered by Asquith with using a military solution to what was essentially a political problem. The British government in effect failed to put itself in political charge of the situation. Eamon de Valera was the key figure who avoided execution, it is now believed because Asquith belatedly called a halt to the executions in early May.

In the following years, the War of Independence ran from 1919 until the middle of 1921, with Michael Collins being in charge of what had become the IRA. He was a minor figure in the 1916 Rising. As the British were short of troops after WWI demobilisation, irregular forces were used to bolster the Irish police. One key element was “auxiliaries” who operated independently of the police and were often responsible for violent events attributed to the so-called “black and tans”, who in reality only operated as part of the Irish police. However, many of the retaliatory acts against the civilian population were carried out by Irish police in retaliation for the killing of Irish police officers by Irish rebels. After the signing of the treaty between the Irish leadership and the British government in 1922, the Irish rebel movement split into pro-treaty and anti-treaty forces.  The Irish Civil War then ensued over 10 months. It is perhaps worth recording that in the War of Independence the British regime executed 24 prisoners, whereas in the Irish Civil War the new Irish government executed 77 prisoners officially, and about 153 others unofficially.

As regards the fate of some of the key characters, Eamon de Valera later became Irish Prime Minister and then President, for a total of 37 years. The son of the British Army GOC, John Lowe, left the army in 1918 and became a film star in Hollywood, marrying Hedy Lamar and starring in the film “How Green is my Valley” with Arthur Shields, an Irish volunteer in the Rising in 1916. Erskine Childers was shot for a contrived offence during the civil war but his son, also Erskine Childers, eventually became an Irish MP, deputy prime minister and president of Ireland. Such is fate!

Somme + 100

Although I would have liked to have seen the Manchester Commemorations I was determined to be somewhere on the Somme on 1 July. Simon Cooper shared this ambition, so we left Hull for Rotterdam on Monday 27th June. We should have been sailing to Zeebrugge, but as that vessel was having a refit, we were put on the Dutch bound ship. Fortunately we were given a premium cabin, with two beds, avoiding the necessity for one of us to have to climb up to the top bunk. I also had the dubious pleasure of watching the England Euro Cup defeat on the ship’s big screen.

We berthed in Europort next day without incident. Unfortunately, I had omitted to remove my ‘avoid all motorways’ option on the Sat Nav and we were sent on a most circuitous trek through the lowlands hampered by several works related diversions. I had visions of not getting there for the Image00001
Armistice, never mind the Somme!

Fortunately, I eventually reprogrammed the machine & we finally got to Houplines. A small town just to the east of Armentières, it was the scene of much fighting in 1914 as part of the so called ‘Race to the Sea’. During the War Armentières was generally a quiet area. There was little evidence of the trench lines, save for several imposing bunkers/pill boxes. (Andy McVeety please note). We then had a short visit to the Vimy Memorial, before heading to our hotel in Cambrai

Our hotel is owned by Phillipe Gorcynsky, who many of you will know spearheaded the recovery of Deborah, a tank which had been buried at Flesquieres after the Battle of Cambrai. On our first full day we decided to visit some of the well-known areas synonymous with 1 July. We visited the Gommecourt area to taken in the diversionary attacks by TA Divisions 46th and 56th. I am indebted to Simon for showing me the original well that provided water. This is near the sunken lane used by the Staffordshire Division. I had always thought it was in Fonquevlllers and so ended my years of trapesing through that village in the forlorn hope of re-finding the said well!

The Diversionary attack is an interesting area. The wood at Gommecourt is basically an  L shape with the long arm running eastwards and the other to the south, creating a huge swing in the line. The furthest tree to the west was known by the Germans as the Kaiser’s Oak. The British attack was purely meant to draw fire away from the main attack to the south.  The 46th attack from the north failed. This eventually led to the dismissal of the commander of this North Midland division E.J.Montagu-Stuart-Wortley. To the south the 56th (First London) Division had initial success. By digging fresh trenches in No Man’s Land, they were able to enter the enemy lines. Unfortunately, due to the failure of the northern attack and lack of ammunition, they were forced to retreat.    

We were aware that the central area of the assault was out of bounds on the First Day. Although we were able to get into the Sunken Lane occupied overnight by the Lancashire Fusiliers, Newfoundland Park was closed and the back track form Beaumont Hamel to Y Ravine was closed at the park and guarded by a security man. Nevertheless I was able to show Simon the bottom end of Y Ravine, near the farm at the village. We also made a return visit to Boom Ravine just outside Miraumont. This is a smaller version of the renowned Y, but still has its own story of the British attack in February 1917..

Having no hotel for the night before the attack, we decided to sleep in the car on the Hébuterne-Serre road, just near Luke Copse Cemetery. Next morning, just after 7.00 am we strolled to Sheffield Park where people were beginning to gather. A number of East Lancashire WFA members were present. The Mayor of Accrington and others also attended. We stood in silence at 7.30am, looking up the slope that the Lancashire andImage00002
Yorkshire Pals assaulted. The grim results are well known. Fortunately we had booked another hotel for the remainder of our stay and finally fell gratefully into our beds for a good night’s sleep.

On subsequent days we visited the other main sites and also looked at the entirely French attack on the south side of the Somme. Like most of the attacks south of the Albert-Bapaume road all objectives were reached. However, it has to be born in mind that those objectives were not as far as the northern ones and the German defences were not as formidable. There was also the benefit of the French Army’s experiences beforehand and their greater number of regular units. Their artillery had also performed much better.

The terrain is gentle rolling farm land and it has been almost completely restored to its original state. Only the destroyed village of Fay gives testament to the fighting that went on there.

As the Thiepval Memorial was still closed 3 days after the commemorations, we only paid a quick visit to the visitor centre. It had been almost impossible to come up from the Ancre past Ulster Tower due to the number of Irish registered coaches discharging their passengers to the tea room.

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On the final day, despite being stuck in a horrendous traffic jam near Lille, we were able to pay a visit to Ypres. We took a look at the little known night action on 2nd December 1917. An assault was made by 8th and 32nd Divisions to take the ridge to the north of Passendaele, but failed completely. Advancing in snow under bright moonlight, the British soldiers were easy targets for the waiting enemy. The action which was the PhD thesis of Michael Locicero has now been published under the title ‘A Moonlight Massacre’.

There is little evidence now of the action, although we discovered a small plaque hidden beneath a bush commemorating Private Hugh Cairns of the Highland Light Infantry. He died in the assault and has no known grave. It is difficult to estimate how long this personal memorial has been there.

After returning to Ypres town centre for some light refreshments, we made the short trip to Zeebruge and waited to board the ship home.

Ed

 

Top left: Terry at Serre, 7.30am 1st July 2016 

Top right: Simon at Boom Ravine

Above left: Fay, a destroyed village south of the Somme