The background to this series of essays and an index may be found here. This essay provides a short history of the Regiment from 1914 to 1918 and explains why there were insufficient Irish soldiers available to replace the casualties suffered in the major actions.
The Battalions of Princess Victoria’s (Royal Irish Fusiliers) 1914-1918
When war broke out in August 1914, the Royal Irish Fusiliers comprised two regular battalions, the 1st and 2nd, and two battalions of Special Reserve, the 3rd and 4th. By the end of 1914 the Regiment had raised five service battalions: the 5th and 6th in 31st Brigade, 10th (Irish) Division; the 7th and 8th in 49th Brigade, 16th (Irish) Division and the 9th (County Armagh) in 108th Brigade, 36th (Ulster) Division. Meanwhile the 3rd (Reserve) and 4th (Extra Reserve) Battalions had been mobilised and were responsible for training new men and for holding trained soldiers, including the men of the Special Reserve, until they were required as reinforcements.
The 1st Battalion, in 10th Brigade, 4th Division (which initially had been held back in England) arrived in France to join the British Expeditionary Force on 23 August 1914, in time to fight in the Battles of Le Cateau, the Marne, the Aisne and at Armentieres. Having been recalled from India, the 2nd Battalion deployed to France in 82nd Brigade, 27th Division on 19 December 1914. Both battalions fought during the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915.
The 5th and 6th Battalions sailed with the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force in July 1915 and saw action at Gallipoli, suffering very heavy casualties. They were transferred to Salonika later in the year. The 2nd Battalion arrived in the Mediterranean in December 1915 and these three battalions saw action in Macedonia in 1916. In November that year the 5th and 6th were amalgamated to form the 5th/6th (Service) Battalion, which was joined in 31st Brigade by the 2nd Battalion. Both battalions fought in Allenby’s campaign in Palestine throughout 1917.
The 9th (Service) Battalion (County Armagh) was next to deploy—it landed in France in early October 1915. It was followed by the 7th and 8th Battalions in February 1916. All three fought during the Battle of the Somme and suffered grievously—the 9th at Hamel on 1 July and the 7th and 8th at Guillemont and Ginchy in September. The 1st Battalion also took part in the attack on 1 July, north of Beaumont Hamel, and it was fortunate to have been relatively uncommitted before the attack foundered and suffered fewer casualties. In October 1916 the 7th and 8th were amalgamated to form the 7th/8th (Service) Battalion.
In September 1915, the 10th (Reserve) Battalion had been formed to support the 9th Battalion. At the same time, the 1st Garrison Battalion had been raised in Dublin and in February 1916 it sailed for India, where it remained until May 1917 when it joined the Burma Division. The 2nd Garrison Battalion was raised in Dublin in March 1916 and it deployed to Salonika in August. At the end of that year the 3rd (Reserve) Garrison Battalion was raised in Dublin as the reserve battalion for the 1st and 2nd Garrison Battalions.
In April and May 1917 the 1st Battalion took part in the Battle of Arras, taking heavy casualties. Both the 7th/8th and 9th Battalions fought at Messines in June 1917 and alongside each other during the Third Battle of Ypres on 16 August 1917, when they too suffered very heavy casualties. The major change to the structure of the Regiment in 1917 came in September when the 9th Battalion absorbed the disbanded 2nd North Irish Horse; it was retitled the 9th (North Irish Horse) Battalion. The 1st Battalion had joined the 9th in 36th (Ulster) Division in August 1917 and both fought during the Battle of Cambrai. The 7th/8th also fought at Cambrai, which would be its last major action.
When the infantry of the British Expeditionary Force was reorganised in February 1918, the 7th/8th Battalion was disbanded; the men being posted to the 1st and 9th Battalions. These two Battalions were mauled during the German offensive in March 1918 and again near Ypres in April 1918, being almost destroyed. Both were brought up to strength and took part in the Advance to Victory. The 5th/6th Battalion left Palestine for France in May 1918 and joined 66th (2nd East Lancashire) Division in July. Meanwhile the 11th (Service) Battalion had been raised in England in June 1918. It joined the reconstituted 16th (Irish) Division in 48th Brigade but in August it was absorbed by the 5th/6th Battalion when that Battalion was transferred to 48th Brigade. The 5th/6th Battalion was the only Irish battalion in 16th (Irish) Division now and it remained there for the remainder of the war. The 2nd Battalion remained in Palestine, one of only three Irish battalions left in 10th (Irish) Division.
The reserve battalions were reorganised in April 1918. The 4th (Extra Reserve) and the 10th (Reserve) Battalion were absorbed by the 3rd and moved to England, where the 3rd (Reserve) Battalion remained for the rest of the war. At the end of the war the Regiment comprised:
1st Battalion – 108th Brigade, 36th (Ulster) Division
2nd Battalion – 31st Brigade, 10th (Irish) Division
3rd (Reserve) Battalion – West Riding Reserve Brigade, Territorial Force
5th/6th (Service) Battalion – 48th Brigade, 16th (Irish) Division
9th (North Irish Horse) Battalion – 108th Brigade, 36th (Ulster) Division
1st Garrison Battalion – Burma
2nd Garrison Battalion – Salonika
3rd (Reserve) Garrison Battalion – Tees Garrison
At the early stages of the war the 1st and 2nd Battalions had been brought up to strength and then sustained by recalled men of the Army Reserve and by some Special Reservists. Throughout the war the casualties suffered by all of the battalions during ‘routine’ operations in the line were replaced initially by Special Reservists and later by Irish recruits or by those soldiers of the Regiment who had recovered from wounds and sickness, all of whom were trained and held ready by the 3rd (Reserve), 4th (Extra Reserve), 10th (Reserve) and 3rd (Reserve) Garrison Battalions. The scale of the casualties suffered in the major actions—Gallipoli, the Battle of the Somme, the Battle of Messines, the Third Battle of Ypres, Cambrai, the German offensive in March and April 1918 and the Advance to Victory—were so severe, however, that the battalions could not be brought up to strength by Irish soldiers alone.
By the end of the war, all of the battalions of the Regiment had become, to a greater or lesser degree, an amalgam of Irishmen, men from elsewhere in the United Kingdom (and the Empire), regular soldiers, men of the Special Reserve and the Territorial Force, wartime volunteers and conscripts. This, and the reduction in size of the Regiment to two regular and two service battalions, may be explained simply—recruiting in Ireland could not meet the demand for men as the war progressed.
Recruiting in Ireland
Following an initial surge of enthusiasm, recruiting levels dropped markedly across Ireland from mid-1915. It should be said that recruiting levels in the northern counties were more akin to those seen in Great Britain but, even there, the number of men who enlisted remained under the requirement. The problem was a significant one; it was the subject of numerous newspaper editorials and was frequently debated in Parliament. Even at the early stages of the war when recruiting was at its height, men had to be found from outside Ireland.
Those responsible for recruitment, at every level, did all that they could to increase the number of men coming forward—regiments sent men on recruiting marches around their traditional recruiting areas; newspaper articles and editorials exhorted men to enlist; notices and posters targeted potential recruits and those who could influence them; and much was made of Ireland standing for freedom and in opposition to tyranny. It was not enough.
Six principal factors adversely influenced recruiting in Ireland.
The demands of industry and agriculture. War-related or important industries employed a large number of men and some, for example ship building, precluded the widespread employment of women. The war caused an initial downturn in the Irish based economy but, as it progressed, the linen industry refocused on war-related products, the Belfast shipyards became an important centre of the repair and conversion of war shipping, five national munitions factories were set up (worked by men and women) and men and women were sent from Ireland to England to work in munitions factories there. Importantly, the demands on Irish agriculture increased as other sources of produce were closed. It should not be forgotten that the Irish famine, and its devastating impact, was within living memory for many, influencing men to stay and farm the land—their families’ livelihood.
The scale of the casualties. The scale of the casualties suffered in the major actions became a noteworthy influence on recruitment across the United Kingdom. The first casualties from Ireland were notified within days of the deployment of the British Expeditionary Force. The first men of the Royal Irish Fusiliers to be killed in action were from the 1st Battalion—ten men were killed at Haucourt on 26 August 1914 in the early stages of the Battle of Le Cateau—and thereafter casualties mounted steadily. The major actions saw the greatest impact; the casualties from the Second Battle of Ypres, Gallipoli and, in particular, the Somme were considerable. It was not only the lists of those ‘killed in action’ that had an influence on the willingness of families to encourage their men-folk to volunteer, but the sight of the increasing number of men at home who had been grievously wounded.
Home Rule and the rise of Irish nationalism. The Irish political scene—the issue of ‘Home Rule’—influenced almost every aspect of life in Ireland in the immediate pre-war years. Notwithstanding the support for military action against Germany voiced by John Redmond and the Irish Parliamentary Party, Irish nationalists did not join the Army in the numbers (proportionally) seen in the northern Unionist population. The rise of more radical and militant Irish nationalism—particularly after the Easter Rising in 1916—increasingly, and adversely, influenced recruiting, particularly in southern counties. The politics of Home Rule influenced many aspects of recruiting in Ireland and shaped the Military Service Act, 1916. There was significant opposition to the imposition of conscription in 1918, with the proposal being opposed by Unionists and Nationalists alike.
The influence of the Roman Catholic church. The Roman Catholic church was the most powerful single entity in the southern counties of Ireland. It was not united, however, in its support or opposition to the war effort. The plight of ‘Catholic Belgium’—and support for its protection and defence—and opposition to German militaristic expansion, sat contrary to the Church’s desire for peace. The call for peace had its greatest voice in the Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum, the encyclical of Pope Benedict XV given on 1 November 1914. In addition, the position of many bishops and priests was as much about their politics as it was about their faith. The attempt to impose conscription in Ireland in 1918 was vehemently opposed by the Roman Catholic church.
The reorganisation of the reserve battalions. In April 1918 the reserve battalions of the Irish regiments underwent a major reorganisation. They moved to England, were reduced in number and were re-brigaded. The reserve battalions of the Regiment will be the subject of another essay but, suffice it to say, this relocation and reorganisation did little to help increase the flow of Irish recruits to the battalions on the Western Front or in the Middle East when they were so desperately needed in the final year of the war.
No conscription. The reduction of willing volunteers seen across the rest of the United Kingdom resulted in a number of schemes to increase recruitment (and, importantly, the identification of men fit enough to serve) before the Military Service Act, 1916—conscription—was introduced. None of these schemes were applied in Ireland and for myriad reasons, all of them political, the Military Service Act, 1916 did not apply to Ireland, or to Irishmen working in Great Britain who were not normally resident there. In April 1918, during the major German offensive in France and Flanders, the Act was amended to include Ireland but the level of opposition was such that no Irishmen were conscripted.
The consequence of insufficient Irish soldiers to replace the casualties suffered by the battalions of the Royal Irish Fusiliers will be examined in the subsequent parts of this essay.
(Recruiting posters from the Library of Congress, all other images from the author’s collection.)
1. (Back) For those with a copy of Blacker’s Boys the material about the 9th (Service) Battalion/9th North Irish Horse) Battalion may be found in the introduction to Appendix 6.
2. (Back) More information about these different types of soldier may be found online in The Long, Long Trail.
3. (Back) A search of Hansard will reveal numerous questions and discussions on the level of recruitment in Ireland. See, here, for example:
4. (Back) Two examples: (a) Men from the Channel Islands were sent to Ireland and joined the Royal Irish Regiment, Royal Irish Fusiliers and Royal Irish Rifles in 16th (Irish) Division. (b) The north-east of England was a ripe recruiting ground in the early months of the war, particularly given that the coal mines were on a reduced working week. A number of regiments established recruiting offices in the region including The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, which began a successful recruiting drive there in December 1914. In order to balance numbers across 36th (Ulster) Division, a batch of these men were transferred to Princess Victoria’s (Royal Irish Fusiliers) on 30 June 1915 and joined the 9th Battalion.
5. (Back) Responsibility for recruiting lay with the Central Council for the Organisation of Recruiting in Ireland, which was created in 1914 and based at Great Brunswick Street in Dublin. It became the Department of Recruiting in Ireland in 1915 and the Irish Recruiting Council in 1918. Its principal roles were to produce guidance on how recruiting efforts were to be organised at county and local levels, (for example, in 1914 it published ‘Instructions for Voluntary Helpers’), and to organise the production of recruiting posters and patriotic literature. It also issued a certificate for enlistment for active service to all of the men recruited.
6. (Back) The number of Irishmen (i.e. those resident in Ireland) who volunteered during the course of the war is recorded as 134,202 men. This does not include men of the Army Reserve or Special Reserve mobilised in 1914. This figure is a little over 6% of the male population in 1914. The figure for English volunteers is 24%. Further analysis becomes difficult because of, for example, the emigration of men of recruiting age who had left Ireland in the years prior to the war, which was greater, proportionally, than for the rest of the United Kingdom.
7. (Back) Some of these were common to the rest of the United Kingdom, which also suffered a drop in recruits prior to the introduction of conscription
8. (Back) In Great Britain, men in these occupations were in two categories. ‘Badged’ men were in possession of a Badge Certificate issued by the Ministry of Munitions, the Admiralty or the War Office. They were issued with a brass badge indicating that they were ‘On War Service’. They were exempt from conscription. ‘Starred’ occupations (also known as ‘reserved occupations’, the more common term used during the Second World War) were those that were important to the war effort but the men in them had to apply to a Local Tribunal before 2 March 1916 for a ‘Certificate of Exemption’ in order to be exempt from conscription.
9. (Back) These were in Dublin (two—a National Shell Factory and a National Fuse Factory), at Bilberry in Waterford (cartridge cases), and a National Shell Factory in both Cork and Galway. Some commercial factories also had munitions contracts.
10. (Back) More on these factors may be found in the excellent MPhil thesis by J M Brennan: Irish Catholic Chaplains in the First World War.
11. (Back) Although individual clergy in other denominations opposed the war, the widespread opposition to involvement in the war effort voiced by the Roman Catholic church was not seen in the Church of Ireland or in the non-conformist churches.
12. (Back) The reserve battalions of the Irish regiments were never part of the re-organised Training Reserve formed from the reserve battalions of English, Scottish and Welsh regiments in September 1916.
13. (Back) See The Long, Long Trail: The Group Scheme and The Military Service Act, 1916.