A Brief History of the 16th 'Irish' Division

By Kieron Punch

John Redmond addressing a recruiting meeting in Wexford. Above his head was a banner reading "Ireland a Nation."

The British army's 16th "Irish" Division was raised September 11, 1914, part of the second wave of Field Marshal Kitchener's volunteer "New Army" divisions designed to augment Britain's six professional divisions. Kaiser Wilhelm II had described them as a "Contemptible Little Army."

Formed in southern Ireland under the command of Lieutenant-General Sir Lawrence Parsons, himself an Irish Protestant, the division was the embodiment of Nationalist and Catholic Ireland. Indeed, Parsons received orders to clear the division's 47th Brigade of its earlier recruits in order to receive men from the paramilitary National Volunteers who were encouraged to join this "Irish Brigade" by Nationalist MP John Redmond.

After completing training in England, the division sailed to France in December 1915 and was soon put into a battle-worthy state by its new, experienced commander Major-General William Hickie. The division suffered its baptism of fire in April 1916, at Hulluch, where the Germans unleashed one of the most concentrated gas attacks of the war. Although the Irish troops repulsed the enemy, the Division suffered 1,980 casualties, of whom 1,260 were the victims of gas.

British troops going over the top on the first day of the Somme.

By September, the Division was to be found fighting at the Somme, where it achieved great success by capturing the villages of Guillemont and Ginchy, although incurring heavy losses. The fighting ability of 16th Division did not go unnoticed, and it was selected to participate in the successful assault upon Messines Ridge in June 1917, alongside the Unionist Irishmen of 36th "Ulster" Division.

A severe reverse was suffered, however, at the Battle of Langemarck in August, where the division was hurled against impregnable German defences. Between August 2-18, 4,231 men became casualties in the muddy Flanders killing fields. Three months later, on firmer ground, at Cambrai, the division again took 805 casualties in successfully seizing 3,000 yards of German trench, and capturing 635 prisoners. (Read WGT's"Tunnel Trench: The 16th (Irish Division) at Cambrai")

Worse was to follow when the Germans launched their Spring Offensive on March 21st, 1918, and the depleted Irish battalions were assaulted by no less than three divisions of German storm-troopers. By the time 16th Division was relieved on April 3rd, it had suffered 7,149 killed, wounded, and missing, the highest casualties of any division engaged in the battle. In the words of Captain Staniforth, "The Division has ceased to exist, wiped off the map."

From that time onwards, 16th Division lost its Irish identity. Due to the rebirth of Irish republicanism caused by the Easter Rising, no more Irish recruits were forthcoming, and so the Irish battalions were disbanded or reduced to training cadres. The Division was eventually brought up to strength by the transfer of British battalions and thus participated in the final British offensive in Artois in autumn 1918.

By an uncanny coincidence, when the guns fell silent on November 11th, the 16th "Irish" Division was halted upon the battlefield of Fontenoy where, in 1745, the Irish Brigade of France helped Marshall Saxe win a memorable victory over the English. Unfortunately, only one Irish battalion remained within the division to enjoy the irony.

The Composition of the British Army's Irish Regiments

When at full strength a British infantry battalion had just over 1,000 officers and men. They were divided into four companies of 227 men, each company had 4 platoons, and each platoon had 4 sections. The battalion also had a machine gun section, signallers, a horse-drawn ammunition train, medics, and stretcher bearers (usually drawn from the battalion band).

During the first three years of World War 1, 12 infantry battalions were grouped into a Division, divided into three brigades. By the end of 1917 through early 1918, though, the severe losses incurred by the British army, and a chronic lack of replacements, meant that the strength of each division was reduced to nine infantry battalions.

In addition to the 12,000 or so men of the infantry battalions, a British division circa 1914-15 also included a Pioneer battalion (for labour purposes), Field Engineer companies, three brigades of field artillery, one brigade of howitzers, and a battery of heavy guns (some 72 guns in total), a divisional transport train, a cavalry squadron, some 230 medics, and a veterinary detachment to tend to the division's 5,000 horses! In the 16th (Irish) Division, these support formations were not Irish.

The battalions raised by a certain regiment were never grouped together in a single division. This was almost achieved in the 36th (Ulster) Division, where, at one time, seven or eight of the division's 12 battalions were drawn from "The Royal Irish Rifles" (mostly recruited from the unionist Ulster Volunteer Force). The remaining battalions of that division were formed from the two other Ulster-based regiments, The Royal Irish Fusiliers and The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers.

By contrast, the 16th Division was assigned battalions drawn from the five southern Irish-based regiments (in addition to non-sectarian battalions of the Royal Irish Fusiliers and the Inniskillings), so there were never more than two or three battalions from the same regiment within the division.

The 1st and 2nd battalions of the various Irish regiments were Regular army formations, and so, for most of the war, were attached to Regular army divisions rather than Territorial Divisions, or Kitchener's "New Army" divisions (to which the three Irish divisions belonged). Thus, 1st Battalion Royal Munster Fusiliers and 1st Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers took part in the heroic landings from "The River Clyde" at Gallipoli as part of 29th Division. (This Division was formed from Regular battalions recalled from overseas pre-war colonial service). When Irish recruitment dried up in the wake of the Easter Rising and Irish battalions were forced to disband, or amalgamate, several of the Regular Irish battalions were transfered into the 16th Division to fill in the gaps. —K.C. Punch

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Tags: Freedom, Irish, Struggle

Comment by James Francis Smith on February 28, 2013 at 12:30pm


Just read your article on the 16th. Great job. I included the 16th as well as the 10th (Gallipoli) in my narrative-history eBook, The Last of the Fenians.  You can see a bit on it on my blog "www.theirish-americanstory.com.

James Francis Smith

Comment by Gerry Regan on February 28, 2013 at 3:22pm

James, how would you describe the relationships between the men of the 10th and those of the 16th? Did they serve together in combat?


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