Monday 26 February 2018

1916 to 1918: key battles in bloody final years

The Somme, Messines and Ypres would become synonymous with death.

The Irish Brigade going back to a rest area after taking Guillemont in September 1916.
The Irish Brigade going back to a rest area after taking Guillemont in September 1916.
American troops advancing at the Battle of Cantigny on May 28, 1918.
Derek Webb plays the Last Post for his Great Uncle Albert Webb at Tyne Cot cemetery near Ypres
Remains of British soldiers found in Arras.
John Meagher

John Meagher

In last week's issue, we looked at the key battles of World War I, from the five offences that comprise the Battle of the Frontiers at the outset of the conflict to the start of the Battle of the Somme, which remains – for many – the defining struggle of the entire war.

With an estimated 200,000 from this island taking part and 49,000 of those perishing in the war, the Irish were involved in virtually all battles over its four-year duration. And, as we shall see, some of those troops would play a major part in one of the great Allied success stories of the bloody campaign.


May 31 – June 1

Battle of Jutland

The only major naval battle of the war, it took place west of Denmark's Jutland Peninsula and featured Britain's royal navy, aided by naval officers from Australia and Canada, against the Imperial German navy.

Despite the Allies' greater number of war ships and personnel, the Germans enjoyed a resounding victory by sinking a greater proportion of British warships. Roughly 5,600 Allies perished, while around 2,000 Germans lost their lives.

The lessons of Jutland would stand the royal navy in good stead during World War II.

July 1 – NOVEMBER 18

Battle of the Somme

The most savage battle of the war from an Allied point of view: There were 58,000 British casualties in the first 24 hours and more than one million losses from both sides by the time the battle petered out in the harsh weather of November.

It had been hoped that a decisive Allied victory would bring the conflict to an end and yet, by the end of this campaign, the positions of the adversaries would be barely changed.

The losses experienced by the Irish were immense. The 36th Ulster Division was especially hard hit with almost 2,000 of its troops killed within the first few hours of fighting. Another 3,000 were injured.

The 16th Irish Division experienced huge losses in the vicious fighting of September with 1,200 killed and a further 3,000 injured. Many of these men had previously given their allegiance to the National Volunteers and Home Rule and had been dismissed by one Ulster unionist as "Johnnie Redmond's pets".

The bravery of Irish soldiers was noted in London media reports at the time, not least because of the 16th Division's contribution to the successful capture of the towns of Guillemont and Ginchy. The 'Daily Express's' headline summed up the valour of the Irish soldiers: How the Irish took Ginchy – splendid daring of the Irish troops.

Tom Kettle, the Nationalist MP for Tyrone and an economics professor at UCD, was among the most high-profile Irish men to die in the war – he was killed at the aforementioned capture of Ginchy.

The total number of Irish casualties cannot be calculated with accuracy – the Somme affected every community in Ireland.

Battle of STRUMA June 1916 – June 1917

The 10 Irish Division were deployed on the Middle Eastern Front which was concentrated around the Struma River in Greece and played a significant part in the Allied fight against the Bulgarian-assisted Germany army.


April 9–12

Battle of Arras and Vimy Ridge

Another example of the global nature of the war, this saw Canadian troops – many of them Newfoundlanders of Irish descent – attacking German defences through miles of tunnels and aerial reconnaissance. There were almost 11,000 Canadian casualties and 20,000 German.

April 16 – May 9

Second Battle of the Aisne

Chiefly fought between French and German soldiers, this was the centrepiece of the French army's Nivelle offensive. It would prove to be a disastrous campaign with almost 200,000 French soldiers killed in just three weeks. It was a battle that sparked widespread mutiny.

June 7–14

Battle of Messines

An important victory for the Allies thanks to the detonation of 19 mines beneath German positions which enabled the Allies to capture key opposition territory. In what is thought to have been the largest contingent of Irish soldiers on a battlefield, both the 16th Irish Division and the 36th Ulster Division fought side by side and played a pivotal role in this success.

The battle was also significant because it was the first on the western front to see defensive casualties exceed attacking losses: 25,000 against 17,000. Among those killed was Major Willie Redmond, MP for East Clare, and brother of John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party.

July 31 – November 6

Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele)

Hopes were high after the success at Messines that the Allies would enjoy a resounding victory at Flanders. But the muddy, swampy conditions they encountered made progress perilously slow and both sides suffered huge losses. It's estimated that the British Expeditionary Force suffered 310,000 casualties and the Germans 260,000.

November 20 – December 7

Battle of Cambrai

Significant, because it was the first time in the war that tanks were used in vast numbers. The impact of the new vehicles was telling. The Germans lost 50,000, the British 45,000.


May 27 – June 6

The Third Battle of the Aisne

With American involvement imminent, the Germans went all out for what they hoped would be a decisive victory but initial gains were halted by poor supplies and reserve support. France lost 98,000 men and Britain 29,000 troops. German losses were similar.

May 28

Battle of Cantigny

The American army captured the village of Cantigny from the German 18th army. US forces suffered 1,067 casualties and captured around 100 German prisoners. One of the smaller battles of the war, but a hugely important one from an Allied point of view now that the might of the US was involved.

June 3–26

Battles of Chateau Thierry and Belleau Wood

Yet more important victories for the Allies thanks to the capture by US troops of long-held German positions. US forces lost 9,777. Around 1,600 Germans were taken prisoner.

July 15–August 5

Second Battle of the Marne

The battle that proved to the Germans that the game was up. Initially conceived to divert Allied forces away from Flanders, the German attack faltered, allowing a decisive counter-attack. France lost 95,000, Britain 13,000, the US 12,000 and Germany 168,000.

Footnote: The Irish who died on the Western Front were buried close to the battlegrounds on which they fell. Those who died after returning home to Ireland, and whose bodies were not claimed by relatives, were buried at Grangegorman Military Cemetery in Dublin.


See our dedicated  World War 1 section here.

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