From the somme to the Armistice
And so the statisticians were left to tally up the grim totals. In terms of loss of life, Saturday 1 July was the most expensive day of the war : 21,000 British soldiers had died or been mortally wounded - over 35,000 had been injured and more than 600 were prisoners. Of all the Divisions taking part, the Ulster Division ranks fourth in the table of losses.
Middlebrook notes 5,104 casualties of which at least 2,000 probably died. When this figure is added to the casualty list for 2-3 July and the casualties in the regular Irish Battalions and Scottish Regiments where Ulstermen also served, it may be assumed that the total of Ulster losses was much greater.
The Ulster Volunteers ended their participation in the Somme campaign with a fine reputation. Not only had they broken through and taken more than 500 prisoners in the first two days of the campaign, but they had gained four VCs for outstanding individual heroism.(a further 5 VC's were awarded by the end of the War)
But of what use was a fine reputation? In terms of a contribution to winning the war, the Ulster Division had done virtually nothing. The ground they had won had been lost again and not until October was the Schwaben Redoubt retaken and consolidated. By mid-November, when the Somme campaign ended, Grandcourt had still not been taken. The ‘Battle of the Somme’ as a whole had cost more than 400,000 British casualties and had gained roughly six miles. In mid-November, the British troops had still not taken Bapaume, and the war had two more years to run.
The Duke of Connaught inspecting the much reduced ranks of the Royal Irish Rifles
near Vlamertinghe in September 1916
The immediate result of the Somme offensive was a drop in enlistment to the 36th Division. But recruitment had already been falling off before the extent of the Somme casualties became known. A decline in recruitment had taken place all over Britain as the war had gone on, and whereas conscription swelled ranks in the mainland Regiments, it was not applied in Ireland. Immediately after the Somme the reserve Battalions of the Ulster Division were able to fill the gaps, but soon the process had to begin of introducing Scots, English, Welsh and indeed Catholic Irish. The Volunteer spirit was whittled away and the term ‘Ulster Division’ was to become a misnomer. But there were men who stayed with the 36th and who fought and died on various battle fronts during the two years of warfare that remained. A few survivors of the men who had packed the recruiting rooms of Ulster in 1914 stayed until the whole ghastly carnage stopped on 11 November 1918.
The declaration which captured British soldiers had to sign at German Prisoner-of-war camps
On 13 JUly 1916 most of the 36th was sent to the training area west of St. Omer for training and reorganisation; they were joined five days later by the artillery who had still been helping to cover the 49th Division at the Somme front. When the drafts of new men from home had began to be absorbed into the ranks, the Division went back to ‘holding the line’ - from the Neuve Eglise - Warneton road to the Wulverghem - Messines road. However, throughout the autumn of 1916 the 36th had a reasonably quiet time - the attention of the Germans was very much focused on the defence of the Somme, further south.
In the early spring of 1917 there was a rapid increase in the pace of life as a build up of troops began for the 2nd army’s attempt to capture the Messines - Wytschaete Ridge. In the Messines attack the 36th was to fight alongside the Irish Catholics of the 16th Division which had been formed primarily from the National Volunteers. On 31 May 1917 the preliminary bombardment opened at the start of yet another effort to break the deadlock. On 7 JUne at 3,10am the troops moved forward, making good progress and exploiting the tactical advantage created by huge mines exploding at zero hour. When the 36th eventually retired from the line on the night of 9 JUne, sixty-one officers and 1,058 other ranks were casualties in the Division, and losses probably three times as great had been inflicted on the enemy. Four days later, the 36th moved to the area between Mont Noir and Bailleul where rest was allowed before the men took over a section of the line between Blauwepoorbeek and Rose Wood, a nearly won position which the Germans were anxious to make difficult to hold. In the air, Baron Von Richthofen (the Red Baron) and his squadron of red scout planes attacked barrage balloons and flew low along the trenches with guns blazing.
On 7 July the Division, minus artillery, Engineers and Pioneers moved back to St Omer for twelve days of rest.
A bathing party from the 36th Division on the French coast.
The 36th was now in the 19th Corps, a part of the 5th Army, and the Division was moved up at the end of July to Poperinge, where, on the last day of the month, the dreaded Third Battles of Ypres began. The Ypres Salient was an area of persistent and bloody conflict throughout the war. In the part of Ypres campaign known as the battle of Langemarck, the 36th was back up to the 5th Division, and once again it was operating alongside the 16th Division. From 2 to 18 August 144 Officers and 3,441 men of the 36th were to become casualties in the Ypres Salient.
The 36th was soon on its way south again where it was to be joined by the 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers, a regular Battalion whose numbers were needed in a Division that was now deplorably under strength. Increasingly the 36th was being filled with conscripts from mainland Britain - a different kind of soldier entirely from the UVF recruits of 1914-1916.
On 27 August the 1st Fusiliers was incorporated into the 107th (the ‘Belfast’) Brigade, where the 8th and 9th Rifles - the old East and West Belfast Volunteers - were amalgamated. Also the North Irish Horse had been dismounted and the three hundred or so men who thus became available were incorporated into the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers. The 7th Royal Irish Rifles, from the 16th Division, was amalgamated with the 2nd (regular) Rifles and the new blend was sent to the 36th’s 108th Brigade, in which the 11th and the 13th Rifles - the old South Antrim and Down Volunteers - were also amalgamated.
Memories of the Somme were stirred when the 36th detrained at Bapaume and Miraumont, towns that had been in German hands when the Ulstermen had occupied the trenches on either side of the Ancre more than a year before. The area was now devastated, and less hospitable than the Picardy Volunteers had known in pre-Somme days. On 29 and 30 August the 36th relieved the 9th Division, confronting the redoubtable Hindenburg line of trenches, strong and recently constructed, beyond which lay the beautiful town of Cambrai.
On 30 September the Pioneers and artillery rejoined the Division from the Salient where the Pioneers had been erecting camouflage over the notorious Menin Road.
On the morning of 20 November the 36th was involved in a new offensive in which they had to capture trenches between the Bapaume-Cambrai road and the Canal du Nord. On 14 December after an exhausting and miserable time the men were relieved and retired from the line to spend a comparatively pleasant Christmas resting and wondering, no doubt, whether 1918 would prove to be the final year of this seemingly interminable war.
Men of the 12th Royal Irish Rifles behind their line near Essigny.
Many must have remembered scenes like this when they thought of dead friends.
In January 1918 the Division took over the line again in the Somme sector, relieving the trench from Sphinx Wood to the St-Quinten-Roisel railway. The British Army as a whole at this time were now being restructured, with smaller Brigades, of three Battalions each. More regular Battalions were added to the 36th - the 1st and 2nd Inniskillings and the 1st Royal Irish Rifles. The Division was now organised as follows :
107th Infantry Brigade
1st Battalion Royal Irish Rifles
2nd Battalion Royal Irish Rifles
3rd Battalion Royal Irish Rifles
108th Infantry Brigade
12th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles
1st Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers
9th Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers
109th Infantry Brigade
1st Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers
2nd Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers
9th Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers
The Pioneers were also slimmed down to only three companies, but the Division was strengthened by the inclusion of another machine gun company.
A German assault was expected any day now: the enemy reaping the fruits of withdrawal from the Russian front, and a make or break encounter with the Allies was anticipated. After a prolonged troop build-up, the German Infantry advanced on 21 March 1918. By 23 March the enemy had broken through, and a couple of days of fighting in open countryside followed, where the 36th suffered badly. At the village of Erches a brave defence was put up and the Division helped to stem the German advance.
On the left a painting by the Ulster artist William Conor, was one of a series printed on Christmas
postcards and sold back home for a penny each in aid of the UVF hospitals for the wounded.
On the right, a Christmas card for the troops still stuck in France in the winter of 1918 to send home.
Between 21 March and the end of the month the 36th had suffered 7,252 casualties, the majority of whom were POW’s. The 108th Brigade had been reduced to 300 men.
Drafts from England filled up the ranks with young and inexperienced recruits as the Division moved north to the Ypres-Salient once again. In May, Maj. General Nugent was replaced by Maj. General Clifford Coffin and one of the last links with the Ulster Volunteer days was thereby severed. By the end of September the 36th had been allocated to Lt General C.W. Jacob’s 2nd Corps, which advanced and took control of landmarks whose names had spelt dread for years - the Menin Road, Zonnebeke, Vlamertinghe and the obstinate ‘Hill 41’.
By 16 October the Division was at the gates of Courtrai, facing a demoralised German Army that was a shadow of its former self.
On October 27 the 108th and the 107th Brigades were relieved from the front line; they would play no further part in the war.
On October 29 the Austrians pulled out of the conflict and on November 11 the Germans ceased to fight.
On the famous ‘eleventh hour of the eleventh month’ the Armistice was signed and Europe at last knew peace. The Great War was over.
Butr the men of the 36th Division were not to return home immediately. They spent winter astride the French-Belgium border, and although the Pioneers engaged in some railway construction, the main occupations for most of the Infantrymen were educational and recreational. Men were being prepared for a return to home life which would at first seem strange to them. The British Prime Minister, Lloyd George, guaranteed “a land fit for heroes to live in”, but the reality was likely to be something else - for one thing, the men would have to find jobs. And in Ireland there were to be further civil troubles. From January to early summer demobilisation took place. By July 1919 the 36th Division - which had started nearly five years previously as a vehicle for the energies and enthusiasm of the Ulster Volunteer Force - was written off the register and ceased to exist. It had been a home for many thousands of young men, this strangely temporary body where they made friendships as deep as any human relationships could be, and where they learnt the depths of misery, pain and boredom that only war could teach. For thousands it formalities and etiquette, its in-jokes and banter, had composed the final society in which they had lived.
Men of the 36th Division before the Battle of Cambrai.