HULLUCH, April, 1916

The 16th (Irish) Division arrived in France in December 1915 and was assigned to the Loos sector. The soldiers experienced trench warfare and suffered casualties during each 8-day period in the front line.    They were in the trenches at Hulluch when the Germans launched a gas attack on April 27th, 1916. Of the 1980 casualties, 570 were killed and many of the wounded died later from respiratory diseases. The Germans had put up placards opposite the Irish trenches to bring news of the Easter Rising which had begun in Dublin.   The Division remained at Loos until August when it moved to the Somme area. The Division had suffered 6,000 casualties (1,496 killed).

One testimony from a member of the Irish division caught in a poison gas attack at Loos in 1916 gives an idea of the nature of this war and its overwhelming effect on the young men who found themselves in the middle of every awful aspect of it, namely, the shelling, the trenches, the charges into no-man’s land, the shell-shock and, in this case, the poison gas. He stated: Luckily for us, with the rising sun the wind began to change and we immediately counter-attacked and drove the enemy off, but the Dublin Fusiliers had been caught unawares and their casualties were very heavy. When it was over, I had the sad job of collecting and burying the dead. They were in all sorts of tragic attitudes, some of them holding hands like children in the dark. They were nearly all gassed and I buried about 60 of them in an enormous shell hole.A total of 338 Irishmen died in that attack



Hulluch, April 1916: The Depots of the 16th (Irish) Division were at Mallow and Fermoy in County Cork and in Tipperary town. The Division was made up of the following Irish regiments. The 6th Battalion Royal Irish Regiment, the 6th Battalion the Connaught Rangers, the 7th Battalion the Leinster Regiment, 8th and 9th Battalions the Royal Munster Fusiliers, the 8th and 9th Battalions the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, the 7th Battalion the Royal Irish Rifles, the 7th and 8th Battalions the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and the 7th and 8th Battalions the Royal Irish Fusiliers.

Following months of training in Ireland, the Division left in September 1915 for a final three months of training at Blackdown near Aldershot in Surrey. Training was very poor, it mainly consisted of route marching and limited target practice. On the 2nd of December, the Irish troops were inspected in good weather by Queen Mary. They marched past by battalion in line of companies to their regimental tunes of Garryowen, Come Back to Erin and St. Patrick’s Day. On the 18th of December 1915, the 16th (Irish) Division, less the 49th Brigade, arrived in France. Recruitment into the 49th brigade was poor and was nicknamed, 'The Runt of the Division.' The early months of 1916 were spent preparing men for the trauma of trench warfare. The practice of throwing raw men into the front line immediately, as happened to the 10th (Irish) Division was, by late 1915, discredited. Their first sector was in the muddy trenches around Hulluch near the French village of Loos. It was here that the Irish Brigades received their baptism into the terror of Flanders.

In the week Patrick Pearse declared the Irish Republic on the steps of the GPO, the Irish Brigades of the 16th (Irish) Division suffered horribly in a gas attack launched by the Germans on the 27th of April 1916 at Hulluch. There were  2,128 Irish casualities; approx. 538 were killed, the remainder were to suffer chronic lung and breathing conditions for the rest of their lives. Like the men from the 2nd Dublins back in May 1915, many died years later as a result of this attack. On the 29th of April, the Germans launched another gas attack on the Irish lines, however on this occasion the wind turned right round and blew the gas back over the German lines, the result being equally appalling.

The timing of this attack on the 27th of April was very poignant indeed. News of the Easter Rebellion in Dublin reached the Irish troops with disappointment. The Easter Rebellion was regarded as a stab in the back for the thousands of National Volunteers who followed John Redmond’s advice. He commented in the House of Commons:

Is it not an additional horror that on the very day when we hear that the men of the Dublin Fusiliers have been killed by Irishmen on the streets of Dublin, we receive the news of how the men of the 16th Division - our own Irish Brigade, and of the same Dublin Fusiliers - had dashed forward and by their unconquerable bravery retaken the trenches that the Germans had won at Hulluch? Was there ever such a picture of a tragedy which a small section of Irish faction had so often inflicted on the fairest hopes and the bravest deeds of Ireland.

An officer of the 7th Leinster regiment, Lieutenant Lyon, had the terrible task of gathering the dead. ‘They were in all sorts of tragic attitudes, some of them holding hands like children in the dark.’ He and his men found themselves pestered for the next few days by ‘half-poisoned rats by the hundred.’ The Chaplain to the Dublin Fusiliers described the scenes after the attack in a letter home to his father:

Many men died before I could reach them and were gone before I could pass back. There they lay, scores of them (we lost 800, nearly all from gas) in the bottom of the trench, in every conceivable posture of human agony; the cloths torn off their bodies in a vain effort to breathe while from end to end of that valley of death came one long unceasing moan from the lips of brave men fighting and struggling for life.

German newspapers were aware of the Dublin Rebellion and this news travelled to the German lines at the front. One read ‘Irishmen! Heavy uproar in Ireland. English guns are firing on your wives and children 1st May 1916’. Roger Casement went to the Limburg POW Camp to try to recruit Irish POWs. He had little or no success. Out of a prisoner of war population of 2500, Casement managed to recruit 53. The 9th Munsters hung a effigy of Casement in no-man's land just to annoy the Germans. They tore up Casement's recruiting forms and told him, ‘In addition to being Irish Catholics, we have the honour to be British Soldiers.’

In 1996, members of a Dublin Corporation housing maintenance team were clearing out a house in Blackrock, Co. Dublin. In the attic of this old house, the men came across a British Army death certificate and a press cutting of a Private Joseph Pender, regimental number 8477, of the 9th Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers. The date on the death certificate was the 27th of April 1916, cause of death was gas poisoning. Joseph was seventeen years of age when he suffered the agony of his lungs burning from the effects of the poisonous gas. Another boy soldier to die of gas poisoning was Paddy Byrne from 19 Summerhill, in Dublin. Paddy was a colleague of Joseph in the 8th Battalion Dublin Fusiliers. Both seventeen year old Dublin lads are remembered on the Loos Memorial.