When ‘The Derrys’ veterans recalled their ‘Baptism of Fire’

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The 10th Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers was created in August 1914.

Unionists in County Londonderry had been preparing to fight a civil war against Home Rule in the summer of that year.

The previous year they had begun organising themselves into units of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF).

When World War 1 began they swiftly showed how loyal they were to Britain, and many men enlisted in the armed forces. Many of these enlisted UVF men became the 10th Inniskillings, which formed part of the larger 36th (Ulster) Division.

The 10th received their ‘Baptism of Fire,’ or their first real experience of warfare, on March 10, 1916, at Thiepval Wood in France. In Gardiner Mitchell’s excellent book, ‘Three Cheers For The Derrys,’ World War 1 veterans Jim Donaghy and Leslie Bell vividly recount their experiences of that night’s fighting.

Recently, however, whilst delving through the Londonderry Sentinel archives, I discovered additional memories of the bloody March 10 encounter.

Nineteen years after the event, in March 1935, the Sentinel sent a representative to interview 10th Inniskilling veterans who came through the ordeal that night.

Captain Glover Austin, who at the time was a lieutenant, when spoken to, said ‘Yes, it was very bad that night. The enemy sent up their full circus and gave a good strafing to our bit of line. It was fairly bad all day, but near midnight it became worse for a few hours.’

Andrew White, a winner of the Military Medal and Military Cross in the Great War, recalled that on that night the battalion lost one soldier at ‘stand to’ when the men got on the firing step of the trenches to await orders. The soldier referred to was William Braid.

A Mr McClements, superintendent of Londonderry City Cemetery, and Wesley Goodman, recalled the entry of the 10th Inniskillings into the War.

‘Our battalion was then at full strength,’ they said, ‘but we could only reply to their heavy artillery with machine gun and rifle fire. It was a cold dry night, something like the present weather in Londonderry. The enemy were bent on raiding our bit of line, but they did not advance, although they did get into the British trenches on our right. We used about 22,000 rounds of ammunition that night. The bombardment lasted about four hours.’

William McGarvey, a well known North West cricketer, was at his clerical duties at the Midland Railway Station when the Sentinel representative approached him.

‘What was it like?’ he said. ‘I remember it well. A nice, quiet spring evening up to about six o’clock. There was some firing during the day, but everything was peaceful for a front line trench. We could hear the Germans playing a gramophone in their trenches opposite where we were. Then about seven o’clock the Germans’ travelling circus – or armoured train armoured cars and artillery, etc., which went from place to place along their front – came up behind their front line and gave us a great strafing until about ten o’clock. They sent out a large raiding party, but they could not get into our bit of line. They got in on the right into the line occupied by the Lancashire Fusiliers and gave them a touch up. As far as I remember, we lost half a dozen men, and about a dozen were wounded. It started again near midnight and lasted until the early hours of the morning. We had a job the next morning fixing up the trenches, which were battered in every way.’

Harry Bennett, Thornhill, Culmore Road, an official of the Londonderry Harbour Board, was sitting before a fire in his slippered feet and enjoying a book when the Sentinel representative called on him.

Bennett, who was then a youth in his teens, later becoming a quarter master sergeant, was on orderly duty and did not get into the thick of it. ‘There was intermittent shell fire during the day, the idea being to keep back our reserves from coming up,’ he said. ‘We had 850 in the battalion at this time. We had only come out a few months previously, and we had gone into this front line on the previous day for a spell of a few days. The German front line was two or three hundred yards away, but they never gained anything at our expense. At about six o’clock I was attending to a soldier who was shell shocked, and I went to the dug out of Colonel Ross Smyth for some whiskey, and just as I was approaching it I saw a shell exploding at the door about fifty yards from the front line. The Colonel poured out the whiskey I wanted, and he was perfectly cool after what must have been a tremendous shock...

‘The Germans got into the trenches of the Lancashire Fusiliers. The Germans had more shells and machine guns, and we replied mainly with rifle and Lewis gun fire. Our fellows put up such a strong barrage with the rifle, bomb, and machine gun that the German raiding party could not get near our line. At sundown the barrage was terrific, but our fellows stood on the firing step and kept up a steady reply, and the Germans never got a foot in the 10th’s line...’

Limavady resident and Military Medal winner, Ben Hunter, who lost a leg in the War, said his experiences on the night of 10th March, 1916, were so horrible that he never liked to speak about them. He would always remember that night, although he had previous experience in the War.

Robert McCarter, Secretary of the Londonderry City and County Infirmary, when interviewed said: ‘I was in charge of sixteen Lewis guns and machine guns, and as far as I can remember it was a very pleasant morning. In the evening, however, the enemy started sending up very heavy trench mortars. We could see them coming through the air and have time to dodge them. These, I believe, were merely sent out to find distances in preparation for the heavy bombardment which came on that night. I believe it was due to the steady reply of the rifles and machine guns that the enemy never got into our trenches and not the support from our artillery, which was not as strong as theirs. Our bit of front line took us over an hour and a half to patrol from end to end.’

J. H. Wilson recalled that on the night of the 10th he saw the Germans coming over the top to get at them, but the steady reply of the 10ths kept them back.

‘The next morning,’ he said, ‘the Brigadier-Commander came round and complimented us, but humorously suggested that we had lost as much ammunition (22,000 rounds) as they had hoped to win the war with. We had a lot of extra work that morning building up the parapets.’

Among those killed were Private Jim Boyd; Lance Corporal William Arnold Braid; Lance Corporal Ernest William (Eddie) Donnelly; Private Robert John McFadden; Private George Simms; and Private George Stirling.

Private Jim Boyd was aged 20, and a member of Second Derry (Strand Road) Presbyterian Church. After completing a course of training, he was granted a short furlough to see his friends, and a short time afterwards was transferred with his comrades to France.

The following sentiments were contained in a letter written by an officer to Private Boyd’s father after his son’s death – ‘Dear Sir – You will have heard of the death of your son, J. Boyd, and I write to offer you my deep sympathy, which is also felt by all the company. He died bravely doing his duty for his country, and was one of a company which behaved like old soldiers in their first big test. During that night it might have been anyone’s lot, and all were ready to die for their country. He is buried along with his brave comrades in a pretty valley behind the company’s lines, and when we pass we will all think of him.’

Referring to the death of Jim Boyd, the chaplain, Reverend Jackson Wright, in a letter to Reverend J. Carson Greer, Strand Road Presbyterian Church, said – ‘ I am sorry to say that J. Boyd 15339 was killed on Friday, 10th March, by shrapnel in a very hard artillery attack. He was killed in a second, and so far as is known his death was painless. We are very sorry to lose him, as he was not only a good soldier but a favourite of his comrades, and his officer bears willing testimony to his good qualities and willingness to undertake duty. We had a simple funeral service on Saturday evening in a cemetery specially reserved for British soldiers. I will be grateful if you offer my sincere sympathy to his relatives and assure them how much we regret this loss. The grave is marked by a cross, with his name and rank, erected by his comrades, and, in addition, the position is carefully marked on a map and a duplicate registration made at General Headquarters. We lost another fine lad named Braid, and if you tell his brother of our sorrow I will be grateful.’

The above letter caused some initial confusion, as the Reverend Wright gave J. Boyd’s regimental number as 15339, a number that actually belonged to a Private E. Boyd, who was reported at the time as wounded. Several other letters gave the name of Private J. Boyd killed, and described his death as instantaneous. It was quickly concluded back in Londonderry that the chaplain had made a mistake in regard to the regimental number.

Corporal William Arnold Braid was a married man, and left a wife and only child. He was about twenty-nine years of age, and assisted his brother in the window cleaning business.

A comrade writing home said a high explosive shell killed him. In a letter to Braid’s widow an officer of the battalion said – ‘Dear Madam – It is with a sad heart that I write to you about the death of your husband, Lance Corporal Braid. He was the cheeriest soul in the company, and always ready for any work or play. His end was, I am glad to say, sudden, and death was instantaneous, so that he cannot have had any pain. In fact, he cannot have known anything about it. He was most popular in the company, and we will miss his cheery jokes and songs with which he helped the men on our long marches. He was the first man in our company to lay down his life for the great cause, and I feel his death more than I can tell you.’

Lance Corporal Ernest William (Eddie) Donnelly was formerly employed with Messrs Glenn and Hay, wholesale grocers, Derry, and was a member of Carlisle Road Presbyterian Church. In ‘Three Cheers For The Derrys,’ Jim Donaghy recalled his death: ‘Lance Corporal Eddie Donnelly was shouting to me, Hey Jim! Oh God Jim, come on quick! When I got over to him I saw that he had a great big hole in his leg. Nearly half of it had been ripped away. I got Eddie my emergency field dressing from my tunic and started to fix him up as best I could...Eddie Donnelly died a short time later.’

Private Robert John McFadden was the younger of two brothers who perished with the 10th Battalion at the Front. Before joining he was employed in one of the city’s factories. He was a member of Ebrington Presbyterian Church, and the son of Archibald and Margaret McFadden, Enagh Lough.

Forty year old, Private George Simms, was a resident of Major’s Row, in the Fountain district of Londonderry. He was a widower, with several children. He was formerly in the Royal Irish Rifles, and served in the South African campaign. When the First World War broke out he was in the employment of the Derry Corporation. His brother, William, who was formerly in the Dublin Fusiliers and served in South Africa, also served at the Front with the 10th Inniskillings.

Private George Stirling was the son of Jane Stirling, who resided in George’s Street in the Fountain district of Londonderry. He was a member of Waterside Presbyterian Church, and the Murray Parent Club of Apprentice Boys of Derry.

On the outbreak of the First World War, he was employed in the Londonderry shipyard. In ‘Three Cheers for The Derrys’ the agonising death of George Stirling is recounted – ‘His whole back was riddled with shrapnel. We couldn’t get him to the rear for proper medical attention as the communication trench had been blocked with trees felled by the barrage. He had to stay with us in the trenches and endure the rest of the shelling which ended around 1.30 a.m. He had three medics with him all night. During that time he endured a living Hell. He screamed, writhed in agony – said prayers, sang hymns, laughed in delirium and called for his mother. He died around 7 a.m. Both of us had been in the same infant school. We knew each other so well. It was hard to believe he was dead. He was only twenty.’

The men are buried in Authuile Military Cemetery. Authuile is a village 5 kilometres north of Albert. The Cemetery is on the south side of the village. This village was held by British troops from the summer of 1915 to March, 1918, when it was captured in the German Offensive on the Somme; it was ruined by shell fire even before that date.

The following special order issued on March 14, 1916, the day after the 10th’s came out of the front line trenches, showed the high opinion earned by the Derrys in their first engagement:

‘By Major General O. S. W. Nugent, D.S.O., commanding 36th (Ulster) Division.

‘The divisional commander has now received reports on the nature of the German bombardment on the trenches held by the 10th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers under command of Lieut.-Colonel Ross Smyth, on the night of 10th/11th March.

‘There seems no reason to doubt that the German bombardment was intended to cover a raid on our lines similar to the raid which actually took place elsewhere the same night.

‘The divisional commander has read with great satisfaction of the steadiness with which the 10th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers kept up a steady fire from their front trenches throughout the bombardment and of their coolness and gallantry.

‘The steadiness as shown by this battalion, as also of the 9th Royal Irish Rifles, under Lieut.-Colonel Crozier, on the occasion of the bombardment of the Redan on the 19th February, under similar circumstances, reflects credit on officers, N.C.O.’s, and men of both battalions.

‘The divisional commander regrets the comparatively heavy casualties sustained in the last bombardment.’

The following is an extract from the Commander-in-Chief’s despatch, dated General Headquarters, 19th May, 1916:

‘While many other units have done excellent work during the period under review, the following have been specially brought to my notice for good work in carrying out or repelling local attacks and raids:

‘B Battery, 153rd Brigade, R.F.A

‘9th (Service) Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers

‘10th (Service) Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers

‘9th (Service) Battalion Royal Irish Rifles’

‘The Divisional Commander congratulates the above units on having been mentioned in the Commander-in-Chief’s despatch.’

Even a song was written about the valour of the Derrys in their first experience of real warfare. It was composed by Lieut. Monard, of the 14th Battalion the Royal Irish Rifles, and sung by him at a camp fire concert given by the 10th Battalion the Inniskillings at Lealvillers shortly afterwards.

The tune is ‘The Mountains of Mourne,’ and the last verse ran:

‘Three cheers for the Derrys, who took all the starch

From the Germans at Thiepval on the tenth day of March;

During all the bombardment their feelings were blithe,

Quite right, when commanded by Colonel Ross Smyth.

And when in the future you fight the bold Hun

He’ll lead you to glory and give you some fun;

And when that is over you’ll go back like me

To the sweet Irish maid that you’re wishful to see.’