The Boche had beaten us, and the slaughter terrific.

The graves of Lieutenant Colonel S J Somerville, the Commanding Officer, and Captain R D Miles, C Company, Brandhoek New Military Cemetery No. 3

Few of the 154 officers and men of the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers who were killed immediatley prior to or during the attack on 16 August 1917 lie in marked graves—three-quarters are commemorated on the Tyne Cot Memorial, a substantially higher proportion that those killed on 1 July 1916 who are commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial. There are four primary reasons for this: firstly, very few bodies could be recovered immediately after the action from the area over which the Battalion had attacked; secondly, the area was subjected to continued severe shelling and was not captured until over a month later, by which time many of the bodies were destroyed; thirdly, in early 1918 a narrow gauge railway was built over the area from which the attack was launched, and, fourthly—in consequence—few of the bodies were identified by name in the post-war battlefield clearance.

When the heavy rain began on 31 July 1917, the men of the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers were at Watou, seven miles west of Ypres preparing for the forthcoming offensive. On 2 August, the Battalion was ordered forward with 13th Royal Irish Rifles and two battalions from 109th Brigade to take over a reserve position in the trenches from which 55th (West Lancashire) Division had attacked on the first day of the battle. This period in the line was short but exhausting, spent in muddy, partially destroyed and crowded trenches and, in the last few hours as the men began the move back west of Ypres, under gas attack. Miraculously, casualties were few but two men, James Greer from Rathfriland and Isaac Hague from Nottingham, would die of their injuries some days later.[1]

Although it was hoped to keep back the attacking battalions, the conditions made their use in the line prior to the attack inevitable and the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers returned to the line on 14 August, this time to the area of Pommern Redoubt, from which the attack would be launched two days later, and support trenches slightly farther back. That day saw one of the heaviest deluges of rain experienced during the battle and the Battalion moved in very difficult, tiring conditions that left the men soaked through and ill-prepared for the action to come. The following night Battalion Headquarters and all four companies assembled at Pommern Redoubt.

The attack by 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers, 16 August 1917

I am not going to describe the attack, suffice it to say that it failed. The thick wire diagonally across the Battalion’s path, the German defence in depth from reinforced concrete dugouts that withstood the preliminary and creeping barrages, the weather and its effect on the ground conditions (described in the war diary as ‘very much cut up by shell fire & very heavy to cross.’) and, most importantly, the weariness of the attacking troops all contributed to the failure. Having attacked at 4.45am, by mid-morning the survivors were back in the trenches that they had left only a few hours before. Captain Godson, formerly the Battalion’s Intelligence Officer and now on the staff of 108th Brigade, later wrote:

About 8.30am saw many of our men coming back, and then Germans in the Battery gun pits on Hill 35. Things looked bad, so I moved up to the front line… There I found chaos…of the 9th R. Ir. Fus. Col Somerville badly wounded (died soon afterwards), Capt Shillington badly wounded (died of wounds), 2nd Lt Miles badly hit (died of wounds afterwards), like­wise Lt Trinder, a gallant Irishman. The Boche had beaten us, and the slaughter terrific.’ [2]

Reverend Samuel Mayes

Most of the wounded were dealt with by Captain Burrows, the Medical Officer, assisted by the Chaplain, Samuel Mayes, in Plum Farm, 1,000 yards south-west of Pommern Redoubt. Burrows treated over 300 men in forty hours in appalling conditions under shell and machine-gun fire before they were evacuated to the three Casualty Clearing Stations near Brandhoek west of Ypres. The final casualty report would make grim reading.

Reverend Mayes compiled a very detailed list that recorded casualties by company. Predictably, most of those noted as ‘missing’ had been killed in action, and many of the men whom he recorded as wounded and who died on 16 August were to be declared ‘killed in action’ on that date.[3]

In addition to the three men who died (and an unknown number of wounded) in the days prior to the attack, the casualty tally for 16 August 1917 totalled 441 all ranks: 151 killed or died of wounds, 280 wounded, and 10 captured.

Of these 154 officers and men who were killed or died of wounds, 111 are commemorated on the Tyne Cot Memorial.

Thirteen officers and men were buried near the medical facility where they died.

Only 30 other men who took part in the attack on 16 August 1917 are buried in named graves and none of these graves are near where the men fell or where they were originally buried. In addition, I have found only two soldiers ‘Known Unto God’ who are recorded as being men of the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers.

Plotted on the map below are the original burial locations of these 32 men. The map used was printed in 1918 and it shows the railway built over the area from which the attack was launched. Also marked is the area of the Battalion’s attack and Plum Farm where the Regimental Aid Post was located. Most of the bodies were recovered in 1919 but five were found in 1920 and two in 1921. Why some men are buried so far north of the Battalion’s attack is inexplicable given the context of the fighting. It should be noted that the date of the original burials are not known and, for some men, it is likely to be considerably after the action on 16 August. The serial numbers on the map correspond to those on this record of the burials.

16 August 1917, Original Burials

The near destruction of the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers on 16 August 1917 resulted in its irrevocable change. Few of its original members were still serving with it now. In September 1917, the Battalion was amalgamated with 2nd North Irish Horse and in 1918 an influx of English soldiers were welcomed into its ranks.

If you are visiting Ypres over this centenary period, consider visiting the cemeteries in which these few identified men of the Battalion lie—the attached casualty list provides the detail.

9th Royal Irish Fusiliers, Casualty List, Battle of Langemarck, 16 August 1917

1. (Back) Hague is erroneously recorded in Blacker’s Boys as one of the casualties from the period immediately prior to the attack on 16 August.
2. (Back) Godson, E A. (No date). The Great War 1914-1918. Incidents, Experiences, Impressions, and Comments of a Junior Officer. Hertford: Self Published. p 19.
3. (Back) The original list may be found in the Royal Irish Fusiliers museum, Armagh.

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