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Saturday, 3 September 2016

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3 September 1916: The Battles of Guillemont & then Ginchy began on this day. The 16 (Irish) Division of the British Army was deeply involved in both affairs and suffered tremendous casualties as a result.

These two villages were on the extreme right flank of the British Army on the Somme battlefield where they met those of their allies the French. Guillemont and Ginchy lay on spurs, which constricted the British right flank and commanded the ground to the south, in the French Sixth Army area. It was the task of the British 4th Army to clear these devastated villages of their German defenders and remove the threat their possession posed to the Allied Armies. It was tasked to advance up the gradual but perceptible slope that the German Army had so skilfully entrenched and fortified in their attempts to stop their enemies from advancing any further upon their lines.

Most of these villages had fortified blockhouses with them that were interconnected by deep tunnels. To simply overrun these places would not be enough. Usually each had to be taken out one by one with companies of grenadiers much in demand to winkle out or simply destroy the defenders.

An Irish Officer of the 2nd Leinsters who witnessed the attacks upon Guillemont in August described the scene:

“Shell-fire was hellish all afternoon. Box barrages were put down all round and the earth was going up like volcanoes completely smothering us. During a bombardment one developed a craze for two things: water and cigarettes. Few could ever eat under an intense bombardment especially on the Somme, when every now and then a shell would blow pieces of mortality, or complete bodies which had been putrefying in no man’s land and slap into one’s trench.”

 Stand To! - A Diary Of The Trenches 1915-1918 by Captain F. C. Hitchcock

Villages were natural fortifications that the engineers of any army sought to fortify when threatened by an enemy. By 1916 the Germans had this down a high degree of skill and any attempt to take one was always going to be a tough nut to crack. Wilfrid Miles noted in the History of the Great War (the British official history, 1938), that the defence of Guillemont in late August and early September was judged by some observers to be the best performance of the war by the German army on the Western Front.

The assault was repeatedly delayed by bad weather but it was agreed to go ahead on September 3rd with the 20th (Light) Division and the 16th (Irish) Division attempting what had been beyond previous attempts.

The men lay down in their shallow trenches from 4am waiting for the assault. The regimental pipers were busy from early morning. They played Brian Boru’s March, The White Cockade, The Wearin’ o’ the Green and A Nation Once Again.

The Irish battalions involved in the Battle of Guillemont were the 7th Leinsters, the 6th Connaught Rangers, the 8th Royal Munster Fusiliers and the 6th Royal Irish Regiment.

The commanding officer of the Connaught Rangers, Lieutenant Colonel John Lenox-Conyngham, was killed as soon as he stood on the parapet to wave his men on. Undaunted, they pressed ahead. Within minutes, the German’s front positions in the village were overrun.

With Guillemont now captured the next objective was the equally hard target of the village of Ginchy. The preparations for attack took a few days to organise but by the morning of the 9th September all was ready - or as ready as it would ever be. The 47 & 48 Brigades of the 16 Irish Division were tasked with taking a lead role in the attack.

The 47th  Brigade was understrength going into the assault with around a thousand men ready for battle - roughly about the strength of a single battalion. With four battalions to a brigade it was some task they were been given. To make matters worse due to a cock up they were sent ‘over the top’ just as the Germans launched a counter barrage and to add to their misery they ran right into a nest of German machine guns that cut down many of the survivors.

However the 48th brigade achieved great success. It attacked in two waves, the 1st battalion, Royal Munster Fusiliers, and 7th battalion, Royal Irish Rifles, led off , with the remaining two battalions following in support. It too was also severely under strength. The RIR also had the indignity of being heavily shelled by British Artillery as they attempted to hold their positions prior to attack. Then the 7th battalion, Royal Irish Fusiliers, the divisional reserve, was brought up to reinforce the lines and at 4.45pm both battalions attacked.

 Second Lieutenant Young of the 7th battalion, Royal Irish Fusiliers, remembered the scene:

The bombardment was now intense. Our shells bursting in the village of Ginchy made it belch forth smoke like a volcano… We couldn’t run. We advanced at a steady walking pace, stumbling here and there…(a shell) landed in the midst of a bunch of men about seventy yards away on my right. I have a most vivid recollection of seeing a tremendous burst of clay and earth go shooting up into the air—yes, and even parts of human bodies and that when the smoke cleared away there was nothing left. I shall never forget that horrifying spectacle as long as I live.

But terrible as the suffering and sacrifice had been by 5.25pm Ginchy itself was captured and positions secured beyond the village to guard against counter attack. Unfortunately the 48th brigade paid a high price for this success; half the attacking force were casualties.

The 16th (Irish) Division paid a terrible price for its efforts to secure these villages, now reduced to a smudge on the surface of the Earth. Of the nearly 11,000 officers and men who arrived there on September 1st, more than 4,300 were casualties. The number of dead amounted to 1,067.

Today the land of the Somme has long since  been re-landscaped to reflect how it looked before the Great War began. There are not that many monuments to commemorate the sacrifices of Irishmen who fell on the Western Front in the War but such is in the village of Guillemont that has one known as the ‘Ginchy Cross’. This monument is a replacement of the original one which is now secured in the War Memorial Gardens Islandbridge Dublin. I had the chance to stand it before it the pouring rain on summers day some years ago. Upon it is written the following words:

1914-1918 - In commemoration of the victories of Guillemont and Ginchy September 3rd and 9th 1916 in memory of those who fell therein and of all Irishmen who gave their lives in the great war. RIP.

Pictures: The 'Ginchy Cross' at Guillemont & German dead at Guillemont, Summer 1916.