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Irish Guards, The - Actions on the Western Front to 1915 (WWI, World War 1, First Great European War)

Updated on February 5, 2015

Irish Guards Bandsman with Mascot

Bandsman of the Irish Guards with the regimental mascot.
Bandsman of the Irish Guards with the regimental mascot. | Source

Irish Guards Make History

"Those of them that were left have made history." - Lord Cavan.

So the general in charge of the Guards Brigade, wrote to Colonel Proby, the commander of the 1st Battalion Irish Guards, after the first Battle of Ypres; and one can add a little extra poignancy to his lordship's words by saying that those who were not left also did their share in making history on those tremendous and unforgettable days.

This critical hour of this great battle was between two and three o'clock on Saturday afternoon, October 21st, 1914, just as the work-people of Britain were getting home for their weekly half-holiday: and Sir John French described how he and Sir Douglas Haig, standing on a hill near Hooge, were watching anxiously through their field-glasses the slow retreat of the 1st Division.

Quote from Spencer

"Yet sure they (i.e. the Irish) are very very valiant and hardie, for the most part great indurers of colde, labour, hunger, and all hardnesse, very active and strong of hand, very swift of foot, very vigilant and circumspect in their enterprises, very present in perils, very great scorners of death." - Spenser, from "View of the Present State of Ireland".

First Battle of Ypres

Badge of the Irish Guards

Irish Guards' Badge. The Star of the Order of St. Patrick. Regiment raised in 1901 in recognition of the valour of Irish in the South African War.
Irish Guards' Badge. The Star of the Order of St. Patrick. Regiment raised in 1901 in recognition of the valour of Irish in the South African War. | Source

Captain Lord John Hamilton

Captain Lord John Hamilton
Captain Lord John Hamilton | Source

Captain the Hon A.E. Mulholland

Captain the Hon A.E. Mulholland
Captain the Hon A.E. Mulholland | Source

Major A. Herbert-Stepney

Major A. Herbert-Stepney
Major A. Herbert-Stepney | Source

Where the Guards Made History

On the previous evening Sir John had brought up the Irish Guards and the rest of the Guards Brigade to relieve some cavalry regiments which were holding a very perilous position near Klein Zillebeke, and there they remained, although the Germans made the most desperate attempts to move them.

Borne back by sheer superiority of numbers the 1st and the 7th Divisions gave way, but we know from a statement by Lord Cavan that in three fierce attacks the Irish Guards did not go back two hundred yards.

The first of these attacks was on October 31st, and the second on the next day, Sunday. The same story will explain both.

The Germans came on in great numbers, but were beaten back by the steady fire of British troops. On the second of these days a platoon under Lieutenant Woodroffe especially distinguished itself, for as the general said,

"The safety of the right flank of the British section depended entirely on their staunchness."

Happily for Calais that "staunchness" was equal to the strain.

The third attack was on the following Friday, when the retirement of some French soldiers on their right left the Guards in a very dangerous position. But again their "staunchness" prevailed, and not only so, but before it was light on the next morning the Irishmen and the other Guards leapt blithely forward and paid the astonished Germans a small instalment of what they owed them.

But by this time the Irish Guards were only a tattered remnant of their former selves. In these desperate encounters their losses had been terrible. In disputing two hundred yards of ground against superior forces, said the general, they had lost sixteen officers and five hundred and ninety-seven men.

Put in another way, more than half the full strength of their Battalion, and far more than half those in the ranks when this particular spell of fighting began, had been killed or wounded.

Among the officers killed were:

Altogether by this time the Irish Guards had had sixteen officers and one hundred and twenty-three men killed, and twenty officers and five hundred and seventy-one men wounded and ill.

It speaks volumes for their morale to know that, in spite of the hardships of the retreat from Mons, only twelve were prisoners of war and only twenty-seven were missing.

Battle of the Mons, 1914

Lieutenant Thomas Musgrave

Lieut. Thos. Musgrave. Obtained commission Aug. 1912. Retired. On outbreak of war rejoined. Gazetted to 2nd Battalion Sept. 1914.
Lieut. Thos. Musgrave. Obtained commission Aug. 1912. Retired. On outbreak of war rejoined. Gazetted to 2nd Battalion Sept. 1914. | Source

Private J. O'Connor

Pte J. O'Connor received clasp to his D.C.M. for a daring reconnaissance.
Pte J. O'Connor received clasp to his D.C.M. for a daring reconnaissance. | Source

Battle of the Marne 1914

The Irish Guards Weary, Fighting Retreat

The Irish Guards crossed over to France in August as part of the 4th, or Guards, Brigade and of the 2nd Division, and on the Sunday they were in some trenches which they had just dug about midway between Mons and Binche.

There they waited for the Germans, and when they came within range they fired steadily into the masses clad in the blue-grey coats. The Irishmen themselves lost very few men, and when night came they had every reason to congratulate themselves.

But they did not know all that had happened, and in the morning they were ordered to stand to arms and then to march - away from the enemy. They obeyed, and throughout Monday and Tuesday they trudged steadily onwards, they knew not where.

On Tuesday afternoon, footsore and weary, they reached Landrecies, just as the rain began to fall, but they had only just got to rest when they were awakened and ordered out again. The Germans were pouring into the town, and in the darkness and the wet the Irishmen had their first experience of street fighting.

Some turned houses into miniature fortresses and fired their rifles through loopholes, some worked machine-guns in dark and protected corners and byways, and some rushed with the bayonet to drive the Germans from the black and narrow streets.

All did their part well and bravely, and before morning the enemy had disappeared, leaving only their dead behind. For a few days the Guards were allowed to retreat in peace.

But on September 1st they had another fight. They were marching through some woods, near Compi├Ęgne and Villars-Cotterets, enjoying the shade and coolness, which they were able to appreciate after the dust and heat of the past few days, when the sound of firing told them that the Germans were again close behind.

The British Battalions turned to fight, and a battle as big as Agincourt was fought in those woods. Of this the Irish Guards bore the brunt. Time and again they rushed forward, bayonet to the fore, and during one of these charges they lost their gallant colonel, the Hon. G.H. Morris, who was killed while leading them.

Amid the trees the fighting was very confused and difficult, and it cost the Battalion the lives of Major H.F. Crichton, the second-in-command, Major C.A. Tisdall, and several junior officers, as well as a number of men.

Captain Lord Guernsey

Captain Lord Guernsey
Captain Lord Guernsey | Source

Captain Lord Arthur Hay

Captain Lord Arthur Hay
Captain Lord Arthur Hay | Source

Irish Guards "Make Good"

A few days more and the weary retreat ended.

On September 6th the allied armies turned, and the boot was on the other foot, for the Germans began to retire.

The Irish Guards crossed the Marne, hurried after the enemy to the Aisne, and then went forward to "make good" that river.

After some difficulty, and a certain amount of loss, they crossed it near Chavonne in boats, and on the 14th they advanced slowly up the wet and grassy slopes at the top of which the Germans were entrenched..

They made some progress during the morning, and then, after a rest, they got on to the plateau above - a distinct success.

In this fighting Lord Guernsey and Lord Arthur Hay were killed.

In the middle of October the Guards were transferred to the neighbourhood of Ypres, and were ordered to advance towards Bruges.

On the 21st they made some progress, but the Germans were swarming all around them, and Sir John French, seeing the danger, told them just to hold on to their ground near Zonnebeke for two or three days when some French troops would arrive to support them.

Brigadier-General Hon. J.F. H.-S.-F.-Trefusis, D.S.O.

Brig.-Gen. Hon. J.F. H.-S.-F.-Trefusis, D.S.O., 3rd son Dowager Lady Clinton. Gazetted July 1902. A.D.C. to Commander of 4th Army Corps, Gen. Officer commanding Eastern Command, & Gen. Lord Methuen, C.-in-C. South Africa 1908-09.
Brig.-Gen. Hon. J.F. H.-S.-F.-Trefusis, D.S.O., 3rd son Dowager Lady Clinton. Gazetted July 1902. A.D.C. to Commander of 4th Army Corps, Gen. Officer commanding Eastern Command, & Gen. Lord Methuen, C.-in-C. South Africa 1908-09. | Source

Sec.-Lieut. Lennox Cleland Lee

Sec.-Lieut. Lennox Cleland Lee. 21 years old. Ex-Cadet of Officers' Training Corps
Sec.-Lieut. Lennox Cleland Lee. 21 years old. Ex-Cadet of Officers' Training Corps | Source

Brigadier General George Nugent

Brig.-Gen. George Nugent, Commandant. Royal Naval & Military Tournament. Fought at relief of Kimberley & Bloemfontein. Officers' School, Chelsea & Duke of York's School, Dover commandant.
Brig.-Gen. George Nugent, Commandant. Royal Naval & Military Tournament. Fought at relief of Kimberley & Bloemfontein. Officers' School, Chelsea & Duke of York's School, Dover commandant. | Source

Four Commanders in Three Months

For three days they held grimly on, and then the Frenchmen arrived, and the Guards were moved a little to the south. But not to rest, by any means.

On the 25th they advanced again, and took some prisoners and some guns from the Germans.

On this day and the next there was fierce fighting near Reutel, after which, so desperate was the position elsewhere, that the Guards were again moved, this time to Klein Zillebeke.

Then came the three days of combat which revealed the worth and "staunchness" of the Irishmen.

In spite of its very heavy losses the Battalion was soon reorganised, and after a rest it became once more a fighting unit, Major the Hon. J.F. Hepburn-Stuart-Forbes-Trefusis taking over the command in succession to Lord Ardee, who had been wounded.

Thus the battalion had had four commanding officers in three months.

Major Trefusis, who received the D.S.O. in February, and later became a brigadier-general, was killed on October 24th, 1915, just a year afterwards.

In january the Irish Guards were once more in the firing-line, this time in the brickfields at Cuinchy.

On February 1st the Germans broke in the British line here, and the Irishmen and the Coldstreamers failed to drive them out. But they soon tried again, and this time they succeeded.

After the Germans had been well peppered by British artillery, a chosen party of Guards. followed by some Engineers, rushed forward with the bayonet.

All the Irish officers were killed or wounded, so devastating was the German fire, and Lieutenant A.C.W. Innes went forward to take command.

With fourteen men he captured one barricade, and then, dashing over another sixty yards of ground, he took another.

One of the men with Innes was Michael O'Leary, whose superb heroism on this occasion was fittingly rewarded with the Victoria Cross.

Company Sergeant-Major T. Corry

Comp. Sergt-Maj. T. Corry received D.C.M. for acts of great courage under fire.
Comp. Sergt-Maj. T. Corry received D.C.M. for acts of great courage under fire. | Source

Private Hennigan's Heroism

Five days later the Irish and the Coldstreams gave the Germans another taste of steel. Close to them there was another brickfield in which parties of the enemy were entrenched, and it was decided to turn them out.

This was done by the usual method of a bombardment, followed by a bayonet charge, and the Distinguished Conduct Medal (D.S.O.) was given to Sergeant-Major H. McVeigh for taking over the leadership of a section of the attackers when the officer in command had been killed.

Another individual action on this day may be mentioned, for it showed that the Irish were still as "strong of hand" as they were when Spenser wrote of them. Private P. Hennigan threw bombs into the enemy position for six hours continuously.

Captain E.C. Stafford-King-Harman

Capt. E.C. Stafford-King-Harman, eldest son of Sir Thomas Stafford. Gazetted 2nd-Lieut. in 1911.
Capt. E.C. Stafford-King-Harman, eldest son of Sir Thomas Stafford. Gazetted 2nd-Lieut. in 1911.

Ireland's "Scorners of death"

The Irish Guards did not take a leading part in the spring battles - Neuve Chapelle, Ypres, Festubert, and the rest - but they were continually in dangerous spots. One instance may be cited:

From May 17th to 19th they were continuously in the fighting-line at Rue du Bois, and there Lance-Sergeant T. McMullen gained the Distinguished Conduct Medal (D.C.M.) for bringing in wounded men, and so saving many lives.

To turn back to the beginning. The poet Spenser had never heard of the Irish Guards, but could anyone describe them better than he did?

"... very present in perils, very great scorners of death."

is the history of the Irish guards during the Great War.

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