A more mortal enemy, June 1918
From mid-June 1918, after three hard and dangerous months, matters were beginning to look up for the Allies. The Germans were not yet defeated and they struck again at the French in the Battle of the Matz advancing 12 kilometres up the Matz river valley. This battle lasted five days but by 11 June the German advance had been halted. General Mangin, commanding the French 10th Army, then struck back with the American 1st and 2nd Divisions leading his attack. From then on the balance of the battles began to turn the Allied way, and slowly they began to push the Germans back.
Seven Kildaremen died in the month of June 1918, five of them as infantrymen and one, Thomas Walsh, of Milltown, as a deckhand onboard Motor Launch 136, an anti-submarine boat operating in the North Sea. Guardsman Matthew Sherry, of Leixlip, died of endodontitis at 19 Mountjoy Square, Dublin, on 17 June 1918 and was buried at Grangewilliam Cemetery, near Maynooth. All of the infantrymen, Joseph Dunne (Allen), Walter Galligan (Prosperous), Daniel Hannigan (Brownstown), John Reilly (Kilmeague) and Tom Mansbridge were professional soldiers with several years of service. By this stage in the war many of the Kildaremen who had enlisted in the initial days of the conflict were either dead or wounded and no longer serving at the front.
Private Tom Mansbridge was killed in action, in France, on 3 June 1918, serving with the 44th Battalion, Australian Infantry Force. Thomas Franklin Mansbridge was born at the Curragh, Co. Kildare, on 18 September 1878 according to his baptism record (which took place on 7 March 1881 at Nowshera, Bengal). He was the son of William Henry Mansbridge, a pay sergeant with the 2/14th Regiment and Margaret Griffin, who had married in Australia. Tom Mansbridge enlisted in Perth, on 12 July 1916, in the 44th Battalion, which was raised at Claremont, Western Australia, in February 1916. The commanding officer of the 44th Battalion was Tom’s brother, Lt.-Col. William Owen Mansbridge, who had been awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) at Gallipoli in 1915. Many of the officers and men of the 44th Battalion were convalescents from the Gallipoli campaign. William Owen Mansbridge was born at Chester, England, so it is obvious that the family, due to their father’s military involvement, moved around quite a bit.
Tom Mansbridge’s enlistment papers recorded that he had previous military experience with Thorneycroft’s Mounted Infantry, in the South African (or Boer) War. He was married to Isabel Margaret Mansbridge when he enlisted aged thirty-seven and lived at Caxton Road, Claremont, WA. The 44th Battalion arrived in France in November 1916 and the following month entered the front line for the first time. Throughout the winter of 1916–17, the battalion rotated between manning the front line, and conducting training or manual labour in the rear areas. Henry Mansbridge was deemed medically unfit in June 1917 and relinquished command of the battalion. His brother, Tom, continued in the line and was there when the Germans launched their Spring Offensive. After the German offensive was blunted, a lull period followed during which the Allies slowly sought to gain the initiative, undertaking several ‘Peaceful Penetration’ operations.
The term came directly from the pre-war British press’s description of the advancing penetration of German trade into the British Empire as ‘peaceful penetration’. The tactic was a cross between trench raiding and patrolling, with the aim to gather prisoners, conduct reconnaissance, and to dominate no man’s land. There was also the additional purpose of occupying the enemy’s outpost line and so capture ground. In mid-1918, with the ending of the German offensives, the Australian troops started to conduct offensive patrols into no man’s land. As the front lines after the Spring Offensive lacked fortifications and were non-continuous, it was discovered that the patrols could infiltrate the German outpost line and approach the outposts from behind. In this manner, the outposts could be taken quickly, and with minimal force. Tom Mansbridge lost his life during one of these operations on 3 June 1918.
However, it was not only combat that was killing soldiers at the front in June 1918. It was then that the first news stories announcing the arrival of a mysterious new illness began to circulate. The illness was swiftly dubbed ‘the Spanish influenza’, as Spain, which was then neutral, gave it its first publicity with news cables from Madrid announcing that a ‘strange form of disease of epidemic character’ had appeared in the Spanish capital infecting among others, their king, Alfonso XIII, though he was among those fortunate to survive.
The disease’s first outbreak had occurred in the United States in March 1918, at an army base, Camp Funston, in Kansas. American troops then brought it to Europe when they embarked for the Western Front. Soon troop losses from the epidemic exceeded combat casualties, especially weakening the hard-pressed German army. Before June was out the new mortal enemy was making its presence felt on the Western Front, though wartime censorship prevented its broadcast in newsprint as neither side wanted to alert the other to its weakness. The ‘Great Flu’ hit Ireland in June 1918 and the first recorded instance in Co. Kildare was in Athy on 13 July 1918. A dark spectre stalked Ireland from then until May 1919 and the influenza pandemic was responsible for at least 20,051 deaths, with Co. Kildare suffering one of the highest fatality rates in the country.