In March 1918, for the third time in 21 months, the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers in 108th Brigade, 36th (Ulster) Division was all but destroyed. Blacker’s Boys devotes a whole chapter to the actions fought in the week following the German attack south of the River Somme and the subsequent action against the German second phase attack south of Ypres.
In these actions, 36th (Ulster) Division suffered over 7,200 casualties, of which over 5,600 were missing, most of whom had been captured. This was the highest casualty rate of any division facing the German attack. The 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers lost 46 killed or died of wounds, 142 wounded and an estimated 334 captured. By this stage of the war the Battalion was nothing like that which had landed in France in October 1915. The majority of its men were those who had joined from 2nd North Irish Horse, there was also a fair number of Englishmen—from Yorkshire, Derbyshire and London—and Irish soldiers from all over Ireland, both Catholic and Protestant.
Many of the men killed in the actions fought in March 1918 were later described as falling in the period 21-29 March or on 29 March but neither of these descriptions is wholly accurate. All of those who were killed in action fell between 21 March and the Battalion’s last stand at Erches on 27 March. No-one was killed in action on 28 or 29 March but the latter was the first day that the Battalion was able to compile its records of killed, wounded and missing. The fate of one gallant NCO illustrates this perfectly:
4517 Company Quartermaster Sergeant James Hughes MM, a fruit dealer and widower from John Street, Portadown, was a pre-war member of the Armagh Regiment, Ulster Volunteer Force. He was also a Special Reservist and on the outbreak of war he had been mobilised and posted to the 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers, with which he went to France on 22 August 1914. He was wounded in the face in October 1916 and earned a Military Medal in the fighting at the Chemical Works at Roeux in April and May 1917. Posted to the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers after he had recovered, he was appointed Company Quartermaster Sergeant in ‘A’ Company.
At Ollezy, on the southern bank of the River Somme, on 23 March the Battalion fought a gallant rearguard action during which Company Quartermaster Sergeant Hughes ‘went forward with a Lewis gun and knocked out an enemy machine-gun which was firing on our right flank. When the team was disabled, although wounded himself, he kept the gun in action until reinforcements came up.’ So recorded the citation of his Distinguished Conduct Medal. Hughes, having been wounded in this action, was later declared missing in the period 21-28 March and finally declared killed in action on 29 March. He died, in fact, on 23 March, the day of his gallant stand and was buried by the advancing Germans, who recorded the date of his death. He was one of 85 British soldiers buried in March and April in a section of the German military cemetery south of Roye; that section became known as Roye Old British Cemetery. His remains were reinterred in Roye New British Cemetery in 1920. Buried two graves along is 41126 Private James Frazer Johnston, born in Clogher, County Tyrone and from Blacklion, County Cavan, who served with 2nd North Irish Horse before joining ‘A’ Company when the units amalgamated in September 1917; he died of wounds on 25 March; he too was reinterred in 1920. Also buried here are two officers of the Battalion: Major John George Brew, who died of wounds in captivity on 6 April 1918, and Second Lieutenant William Henry Roche, who was killed in action on 27 March 1918 at Erches. There are also two soldiers of 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers buried here: 8746 Private Joseph Adamson, captured on 21 March 1918 and died in captivity in a military hospital at Ham on 6 June 1918 from an abdominal gunshot wound; and 41810 Private Alexander Patrick, killed in action on 24 March 1918. A third soldier of 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers, 18114 Private Walter Behan, who was wounded in the head, captured and died of wounds in a German military hospital in Goyencourt on 2 April 1918 is commemorated on a special memorial here; he was buried in Goyencourt Chateau German Cemetery but his grave was lost.
James Hughes’ grave has been visited previously by three later generations of his family and this year, the 100th anniversary of his death, his great-grandson visited again. He also visited the grave of Major Brew and placed a small remembrance cross at the village war memorial in Ollezy, near where Sergeant Hughes earned his DCM and died of his wounds.