Australians are preparing to commemorate the centenary of the fateful Gallipoli campaign. Most of us, brought up on stories of bravery, mateship, hardship and loss, can be forgiven for thinking that the battle for the Gallipoli peninsula was exclusively an Australian and New Zealand affair. At least, that is the way it is portrayed in the many TV productions being released to coincide with the centenary.
Gallipoli has been seen by many as the coming of age of a young nation and the citizen army that fought there [and later in France and Palestine] an example of a brave and vital people.
To the extent that we imagine that other nations were involved, this often appears limited to the role played by the English generals in charge of the ill-fated campaign whose leadership has been considered ineffective and unimaginative at best and, at worst, incompetent.
The author of the well-known Irish nationalist song, The Foggy Dew, had no such misconceptions. The song contains the powerful line: ‘Twas better to die ‘neath an Irish sky than at Suvla or Sud-El-Bar’. These two place names are to be found on a map of the Gallipoli peninsula and represent places of battle in the campaign where thousands of Irish soldiers died.
The Foggy Dew
As down the glen one Easter morn to a city fair rode I
There armed lines of marching men in squadrons passed me by
No pipe did hum, no battle drum did sound its loud tattoo
But the Angelus Bell o’er the Liffey’s swell rang out in the foggy dew
Right proudly high over Dublin Town they hung out the flag of war
Twas better to die ‘neath an Irish sky than at Suvla or Sud-El-Bar
And from the plains of Royal Meath strong men came hurrying through
While Britannia’s Huns, with their long range guns sailed in through the foggy dew.
(Extract from The Foggy Dew, written by Canon Charles O’Neill.)
More than 200,000 Irish men served in the British Army during the First World War and about 35,000 were killed, an estimated 2,100-2,700 of whom died at Gallipoli, with many more wounded. Ireland’s casualty figures were almost as great as those of New Zealand.
Following the Easter Rising in 1916 and the War of Independence in 1920-21, the role of Irish soldiers in the First World War was largely forgotten, being considered the work of men who fought in the wrong place and in the wrong army despite the fact that many of them had joined the British colours under Redmond’s assurance that their support would ensure that ‘..small nations might be free..’, as The Foggy Dew continues.
Unlike Australia [and Northern Ireland], the Republic of Ireland does not have war memorials in each town and city commemorating losses of men enrolled in the British Army in WW1, although on a per capita basis these losses were severe.
Recognition of the role of Irish soldiers in the Great War has been slowly increasing, helped in part by the activities of an Australian, Dr Jeff Kildea, author of ANZACS and Ireland [UNSW Press, 2007] from which much of the material in this article is drawn. Jeff Kildea has also played a major role in recognising and commemorating the role of Australian ANZACS of Irish origin, of which there were an estimated 6,600, nearly a thousand of whom died.
The contribution of Irish soldiers to the Gallipoli campaign is considerable and Australians might be surprised to know that they were involved in the campaign from April 25th 1915 until the last days. Moreover, they fought alongside Australian soldiers, including at the famous battle for Lone Pine, but also at the Second Krithia battle, at Chunuk Bair, Hill 60 and Quinn’s Post. .
Who were these Irish soldiers? At the beginning of WW1, Britain sought to raise a new force, known as Kitchener’s New Army consisting of 59 divisions. Three divisions of the New Army were raised in Ireland: the 10th (Irish) Division, the 16th (Irish) Division, both raised largely in the south, and the 36th (Ulster) Division from the north.
While these divisions were being raised and trained, regular Irish units of the British Army were recalled from overseas postings for service. These included the 1st Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers and the 1st Battalion Royal Munster Fusiliers which were posted to the 29th Division of the New Army which also included the 1st Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers.
These units were involved in the landings at Gallipoli on 25th April 1915. The Gallipoli landings took place not only at the beach now known as ANZAC Cove [halfway up the western side of the peninsula] but also at its southern tip. A combined force of British and French forces stormed a series of beaches in the south, while the Australians and New Zealanders landed at ANZAC Cove.
At 6.25 am on the 25th April, three companies of the 1st Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers, 700 men in total, landed near the Turkish town of Sud-El-Bar as part of the attack on V Beach.
‘Alongside them, the River Clyde steamed towards the beach carrying about 2100 men, comprising the 1st Battalion Royal Munster Fusiliers, two companies of the 2nd Battalion Hampshire Regiment, the remaining company of the Dublin Fusiliers and additional support troops’. (ANZACS and Ireland, p21).
So heavy were the Irish losses, that for three weeks after the landing the Dublins and the Munsters ceased to exist as separate units, being amalgamated into a composite battalion attached to the 87th brigade and nicknamed the ‘Dubsters’ (ANZACS and Ireland, p28).
In early May the 2nd Australian Infantry Brigade under Irish born Colonel McCay and a New Zealand unit were sent south to assist the British 29th Division to attempt to take the town of Krithia. The two initial attacks failed and a third assault was launched, using the 87th Brigade which included the two Irish battalions, the 1st Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and the survivors of V Beach, the Dubsters. The attack again failed as did two further attempts before the ANZACs were withdrawn. The battle in the south bogged down (as it had at ANZAC Cove).
In July and August 1915, the focus of operations shifted further north, to ANZAC Cove and beyond, as the British command sought to break the stalemate. Around ANZAC Cove, there were to be a series attempted breakouts and feints, partly to draw Turkish attention away from a genuine planned attack further north at Suvla Bay. The attempted breakouts from ANZAC Cove read as a roll call of well-known Australian and New Zealand battles. Irish troops fought alongside ANZAC troops in most of these fierce and bloody battles:
- Chunuk Bair/Hill 971: ANZAC forces were supported by other units including the 29th Brigade of the 10th (Irish) Division which had now arrived. Citizen soldiers like their ANZAC comrades this brigade included the 6th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles, the 6th Battalion Leinster Regiment and the 5th Battalion Connaught Rangers
- Lone Pine: a fiercely fought battle, meant to be only a diversion but which saw the Australian 1st Division achieve and hold their objective – they were supported by the 5th Battalion Connaught Rangers who saw their first action of the war in this brutal encounter
- Sari Bair: a New Zealand operation initially into which Irish reserves were quickly thrown, including the 6th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles, the 6th Battalion Leinster Regiment and the Connaught Rangers
- Hill 60: in which the Connaught Rangers were involved until they were reduced to 164 men and had to be replaced.
Irish losses from these battles were high particularly among officer ranks, which was typical of first world war battles. The Royal Irish Rifles, for example, lost 21 of 25 officers (84%) and 354 out of about 750 other ranks (47%) and was unable to continue as a fighting unit (ANZACS and Ireland, p400).
The actions above were designed to draw the attention of the Turkish forces from a British attack at Suvla Bay on the 7th August. This was carried out by units of the 10th (Irish) Division not occupied elsewhere. The performance of the British commander of this operation has been much criticised and he was replaced in the field. The Irish citizen soldiers performed well, the fresh troops taking a feature known as Chocolate Hill, re-named Dublin Hill. Late in August, regular Irish troops of the 29th Division were sent up from the south to assist but ultimately the attack was a failure, with a third of the mostly Irish force being killed or wounded.
Jeff Kildea quotes Major Bryan Cooper, whose 10th (Irish) Division had been formed a year earlier in the opening days of the war as later writing: ‘The 10th Division had been shattered, the work of a year had been destroyed in a week, and nothing material had been gained’ (ANZACS and Ireland, p43).
Following the failure of the Gallipoli campaign and the decision to withdraw from the peninsula, the reprieve of the 10th (Irish) Division was brief. In December 1915, they were sent to Salonika to fight the Bulgarians who had entered the war on the side of Turkey. In September 1917 they were transferred to Palestine and fought alongside the Australian Light Horse in battles such as Beersheba. Kildea notes that during its time there the Irish component was steadily diluted due to declining enlistments until by the end of the war it was effectively an Indian division.
While the disaster at Gallipoli fueled the spirit of nationalism in Australia without weakening the ties of Empire, in Ireland it hardened attitudes towards the British.
Keith Harvey has worked in the Australian labour movement for many years. He is currently editor of The Debate, the journal of the Australian Institute of Employment Rights and is a trustee director of an industry superannuation fund.
Articles and speeches by Dr Jeff Kildea can be found on his website: http://jeffkildea.com
The History Hub at the University College Dublin has published a series of podcasts by Jeff Kildea on the Irish at Gallipoli which can be accessed here: http://historyhub.ie/the-irish-at-gallipoli-background-jeff-kildea
ANZCAS and Ireland, was published by UNSW Press in 2007 and deals not only with the Irish at Gallipoli but with a number of other Irish/Australian World War 1 connections
The Irish ANZACS database which seeks to record the fate of all Irish born ANZACS fighting in the Australian Army can be accessed via a UNSW Arts and Social Sciences website here.
Major General Bryan Cooper’s account of the 10th (Irish) Division in Gallipoli can be downloaded for free from the Internet Archive: https://archive.org
Beneath a Turkish Sky – The Royal Dublin Fusiliers and the Battle of Gallipoli, by Philip Lecane will be published in June by The History Press Ireland: details here: http://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/index.php/thp-ireland/beneath-a-turkish-sky-pb.html