The North Irish Horse in the Great War by Phillip Tardif

A number of years ago, when I was putting together Blacker’s Boys, I began to share information with Phillip Tardif, an Australian whose grandfather, Frank McMahon, and my great-grandfather, William Neill, served together during the First World War. No-one knows more about the actions of the North Irish Horse or the men who served in its ranks and I am very pleased that Phillip has written this unique history of the Regiment. This short essay by Phillip is a super introduction to an excellent piece of work that will contribute much to the bibliography of work about Ireland in the Great War.

North Irish Horse Private, at Ballyshannon

North Irish Horse Private, at Ballyshannon

In his account of the British Army’s role in the first months of the Great War, Sir John French, its former Commander-in-Chief, praised ‘the fine work done by the Oxfordshire Hussars and the London Scottish‘ as the first non-regular army units ‘to enter the line of battle‘ in the Great War. He added, by way of a footnote: ‘The North and South Irish Horse went to France much earlier than these troops but were employed as special escort to GHQ.’ In other words, these Irish units could not claim the distinction of being the first non-regulars involved in the fighting in the First World War. That would have been news to the families of North Irish Horsemen Private William Moore of Balteagh, County Londonderry, Private Henry St George Scott of Carndonagh, County Donegal, and Lieutenant Samuel Barbour Combe of Donaghcloney, County Down, whose deaths in September and October of 1914 were so far into the ‘line of battle’ that their bodies were never recovered. It would also have surprised Private William McLanahan of Garvagh, County Londonderry, who at this time ‘accounted for three Uhlans and took two horses single-handed‘. The truth is that the North Irish Horse was the first non-regular unit of the British Expeditionary Force actively engaged in fighting in the First World War, their presence in France dating from 19 August, just two weeks after Britain declared war, and their involvement with the enemy dating from just five days later.

North Irish Horse recruit Frank McMahon, 1914

North Irish Horse recruit Frank McMahon, 1914

The men of the North Irish Horse saw the war in almost every theatre (though mostly in France and Belgium), and through every phase. They were rearguard to the British army on the retreat from Mons and advance guard when the Germans were forced back to the Aisne in August and September 1914, taking part in many thrilling adventures that could have been taken word-for-word from a Boy’s Own story-book. As the lines became more static they took their turn in the trenches on the la Bassée front, on the Ancre and at Ypres. They amused themselves in the rear areas with polo, cock-fighting and steeplechases. They were at the Somme on 1 July 1916 as witness to the destruction of the 36th (Ulster) Division, and through that month cleared the battlefield of the massed and mangled bodies of the men who had fallen that day. At Messines and Passchendaele in 1917 they waited in vain for the order to advance through broken German lines. As infantry, they fought with the Ulster Division in the assault on the Hindenburg Line at Cambrai. They were in the lines in front of St Quentin when the Germans threw all they had at them in the offensive of March 1918, fighting a desperate retreat almost to the gates of Amiens. Weeks later at Kemmel they faced another equally ferocious offensive. As infantry and as cyclists they joined the ‘Advance to Victory’, a three month offensive that broke German resistance and brought the war to an end. By then the North Irish Horse was barely recognisable from that which was rushed to France in August 1914. When the war began they were a part-time reserve regiment, staunchly Unionist, and the regiment of choice for the wealthy landed gentry, farmers and rural tradesmen of Ireland’s north. By the end of 1918 they were very different—military professionals, urbane, more religiously diverse, and with officers and men drawn from as far afield as Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia. Most obviously, they had been dismounted and converted to cyclists and infantry, retaining their ‘cavalry’ title in name only. Many whose service began in the North Irish Horse found themselves transferred elsewhere; they saw action as tank crews, airmen, military police and artillerymen in the European theatre, the Balkans and even further afield.

Many of them never returned to Ireland. They lie in Belgium, France, England, Egypt and Palestine. Their names are inscribed amongst the ranks of the missing at Pozières, Tyne Cot, Thiepval, Cambrai, le Touret, Loos and Ploegsteert, and on gravestones in more than ninety cemeteries around the world; stones that speak of family grief and faith:

  • The glory dies not, and the grief is past.
  • He died for us.
  • Having served his generation, by the will of God, he fell on sleep.
  • In memory of our son who is sadly missed, by his father, mother, brothers and sisters.
  • Not dead to those that loved him.
  • Death is swallowed up in victory.
Two North Irish Horsemen, one 'unknown'

Two North Irish Horsemen, one ‘unknown’

One hundred years on, their story is worth the telling, as it is for all those who served with the North Irish Horse during the Great War.

The North Irish HorsePhillip Tardif is the leading expert on the North Irish Horse in the First World War. His previously published works include ‘Notorious Strumpets and Dangerous Girls; Convict Women in Van Diemen’s Lane 1803-1829′ and ‘John Bowen’s Hobart: The Beginning of European Settlement in Tasmania’—the latter won the Tasmanian Bicentenary Local History Prize and was shortlisted for the 2005 Tasmania Prize. He lives in Canberra, Australia.

There is a huge amount of information about the North Irish Horse on Phillip’s website. His book ‘The North Irish Horse in the Great War‘ is published by Pen and Sword; it can also be bought at Amazon.

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