County Armagh is plunged in grief for the many brave, patriotic sons of her Volunteer Battalion, who have fallen on the battlefield….. We are told their charge was magnificent- one that will live in History. Death was before them, but they never hesitated…. Not since the great Armagh disaster have our homes been so filled with sorrow.
So said the Armagh Guardion Editorial of Friday 14th July 1916. The Armagh Volunteers, 9th Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers, had a strength of approximately 800 men in June 1916. 600 of these men along with 15 officers went over the top on the 1st of July. 518 men and 14 officers were either killed, seriously injured, or went missing in the assault. In all there were 532 9th Battalion casualties by the end of the day. The majority were ‘Armagh’s’.
The Armagh Volunteers, regarded by many as the best Battalion in the Ulster Division, had been massacred. The training the men underwent in the UVF, followed by almost 2 years of hardship and training in the regular army, had been totally and utterly wasted. The Volunteers had unnecessarily made the ultimate sacrifice because of nieve and inadequate military strategy.
THE SEQUENCE OF EVENTS
The Armagh Guardian described the events of the 1st of July as follows (note: the 9th Battalion was divided into 4 Companies of approximately 150 men):
“Details of this are now slowly coming in, and add to the splendid heroism of our men…. ‘A’ company were so quick in getting over the parapets of the trench and across No Man’s Land that they were close on the German trenches before the enemy recovered from their surprise and opened fire. ‘B’ company, which got out slightly later than ‘A’, therefore received more of the heavy fire of shrapnel and machine guns, and suffered accordingly, but ‘C’ and ‘D’ companies which followed, were received with a tornado of fire which decimated the ranks. They were just able to reach the first trench—or what was left of them, and here, with some companies of a Rifle battalion, were held up. But the Armagh and Loughgall Company (A) and ‘B’ company kept right on, and fought their way to the 4th trench, which was the position they had been ordered to reach. The German fire was, however, so terrific that the supporting division could not get forward without tremendous loss of life, and so two companies had to firmly hold their ground beating back German attacks under enfilading fire. Here for over fourteen hours they fought despite their decreasing numbers until they were officially recalled. Our Ulster Volunteers had achieved the seemingly impossible.”
In fact the newspapers of the day were unable to report the actual causes of the days terrible events. In truth the bombardment that had preceded the charge of the Ulster Division, and was meant to clear a path, had failed to cut wire and destroy dugouts. The battlefield had been far too difficult to negotiate and the Germans had been quick to man their guns immediately following the bombardment. Guns that on this field were easily more superior. The eagerness and speed that the Battalion reacted on the signal to charge, was perhaps the only reason that the few that did survive managed to remain unscathed. Folklore even tells of some soldiers crawling out of the trenches before the allied mortar fire had ceased.
Despite the massive losses and great suffering endured, amazingly the surviving Soldiers still did not make excuses or apportion blame elsewhere. A Portadown Sergeant in the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers, wrote the following to his parents on the 10 of July:
“ I suppose by now you have read a description of the bombardments and the battle afterwards, also of how the Ulster Division faced the music, hence I need not go into details. Suffice to say that it was grand, but awful while it lasted. Our casualties have been very heavy, but it is all in the game.”
Over the coming few weeks the lists of casualties in the local papers filled several pages. The casualty columns listed the killed and wounded however many of the wounded would graduate to the ‘killed’ section, some in a very short time. Familiar names appeared in the columns. Not one town or district of the County was unaffected. Lurgan in particular suffered very heavy losses. One Lurgan Orangeman wrote to a friend in late July that:
There is hardly a house in Hill St in which at least one member of the family has been killed or wounded. It is terrible, terrible hard news to bear..
The Ulster Division had advanced further than any other Division, but no others were able to follow to back them up. For four miles on either side of them there was no advance to distract the German machine guns and artillery, and the enemy was able to gather its reserves and prepare its counter-attacks. The advance was over.
In the coming weeks many stories of heroism and triumph against terrible odds became know. None more so than the story of Lieutenant Geoffrey Cathars Shillington of the Battalion, the son of an English man and a Portadown mother. For most conspicuous bravery near Hamel, France, on 1st July, 1916 he was awarded the Victoria Cross. From 7pm on the evening of the 1st July Cathars searched no-mans land and brought 3 wounded men back to the trenches. The following morning morning, at 8 am, he continued his search, brought in another wounded man, and gave water to others, arranging for their rescue. Then later that morning when taking water to another wounded man he was himself killed by German machine gun fire. The entire time he had been in the full view of the enemy.
County Armagh was plunged in grief for the many who had fallen. Other battalions of the County regiment had sustained heavy casualties in the past, but for the most part these casualties were from many different areas outside Armagh. This time the entire County was affected. Parents mourned the loss of their only sons, some mourned the loss of several. Fathers, Mothers, wives and children grieved for their loved ones. The Armagh Guardian summed up the entire event as follows-
We will hear no more of the taunting ridicule which was so freely cast on the Ulster Volunteers. Those men who laughed at the movement are the slackers who now shirk at home, but the Ulstermen have shown their loyalty to the Empire was not merely of the lips. When the Country called they went, and when the opportunity was given them, they raced through an inferno of shell and bullets to meet the enemy of freedom. Even the Prime Minister who has for so long tried to strangle the liberty which we all enjoy, was forced to admit: “They have covered themselves with undying fame”. In days to come it will be a proud heritage to say that an ancestor not only stood up for liberty, but travelled to fight for it, and died in doing so, the true Irish patriot.
Article Copyright Quincey Dougan 2013
Not to be copied or reproduced without permission
(extract from ‘The Armagh Brigade’ 2002)