From Messines to Passchendaele 1917: Kildare men at war
The very name Passchendaele evokes the senseless, murderous slaughter on the Western Front in 1917. It was here in the remorseless rain and sucking mud that the combat power of the Irish divisions was virtually destroyed. From the beginning of the offensive on 31 July to its bitter end on 10 November the British army suffered 260,000 casualties for a useless acreage of ground. The Battle of Passchendaele, or the Third Battle of Ypres, finally exposed the British general Haig as a truly stubborn, incompetent and outdated leader.
When the horrific 142-day ordeal of the Somme was finally over, the feeling in the British government was ‘no more Sommes’. The politicians, it seemed, had learned something. British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, opposed the offensive, as did General Ferdinand Foch , the French Chief of the General Staff. But Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, commanding the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), had not learned any lessons from the disaster of the Somme. He wanted to fight another battle, very much like the Somme, only bigger, and on terrain that was even less well suited for the offensive. This time, at the notorious Ypres salient in Flanders, he believed he would get it right and win the war. The cavalry, exploiting the breakthrough, would carry the day.
In the summer of 1917 the British Army was the strongest on the Western Front. General Nivelle’s failed offensive in April and May of 1917 had plunged France into despair; the French army was on the verge of mutiny and would remain unfit for major operations for some time. For the rest of the year the burden would fall to the BEF, but instead of waiting for the arrival of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in France, which would tilt the balance of power to the Allies, Haig planned for a series of offensives in Flanders during the remainder of the year.
The British finally got what they had wanted since 1914: the opportunity to attack at Ypres and break out of the confines of the salient of trenches around it. The object was a breakout, to clear the Belgian coast of the enemy, neutralise the U-boat bases there and begin the process of forcing the German army back to the Rhine. But before any British offensive could begin, the Wijtschate-Messines ridge at the southern end of the salient had to be taken first. The offensive was preceded by the detonation of a series of underground mines collectively containing more than 600 tons of explosives. Their detonation created one of the largest ever non-nuclear explosions, which sent a shock wave as far as Dublin.
Jesuit Fr. Willie Doyle, the divisional chaplain, wrote: ‘Even now I can scarcely think of the scene which followed without trembling with horror. Punctually to the second at 3.10am there was a deep muffled roar; the ground in front of where I stood rose up as if some giant had wakened from his sleep and was bursting his way through the earth’s crust, and then I saw seven huge columns of smoke and flames shoot hundreds of feet in the air, while masses of clay and stone, tons in weight, were hurled about like pebbles. I never before realised what an earthquake was like, for not only did the ground quiver and shake, but actually rocked backwards and forwards so that I kept on my feet with difficulty.’
The Battle of Messines opened on 7 June 1917 and saw the involvement of both the 16th Irish Division and the 36th Ulster Division operating side-by-side in a successful advance. It was a complete success and British casualties, by First World War standards, were ‘comparatively light’: 17,000 men killed and wounded. The 16th Irish Division lost 1,183 killed, wounded and missing; the 36th Ulster Division a total of 1,119. One of the most famous casualties was Major Willie Redmond, brother of the nationalist leader, John Redmond, and MP for East Clare. He died of wounds received on 7 June 1917 and his death in battle made more international impact than the death of any other British soldier in the Great War, except for Lord Kitchener. The Pope sent a message of condolence, as did King George V and Unionist MP Edward Carson.
Two Kildaremen also that week: Second Lieutenant James Roche, from Monasterevin, and Private James McGrath, from Naas. Although born in Cahirciveen, Co. Kerry, Lt. Roche lived in Monasterevin with his parents, Stephen and Elsie. Stephen Roche was a Customs officer and his children had been born in Kerry, Kildare, Laois and Scotland. James Roche had followed his father into the Customs and Excise Department, then became a barrister, but on the outbreak of war in Europe, along with three of his brothers, had enlisted in the British army. Lieutenant Roche, of the 47th Trench Mortar Battery, was killed by a shell explosion on 7 June, the first day of the battle.
Although not directly involved in the Messines battle James McGrath, 9th Royal Dublin Fusiliers, was killed in action on 9 June 1917. He was born in Naas on 6 December 1895, the son of James McGrath and Ellen Anderson, The Green, Naas. James McGrath had enlisted at Naas Barracks, which was the Depot of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers.
The front line advanced three kilometres east in the push and heavy as the casualties were at Messines they paled in significance compared to the slaughter that would come in the following months at the unmitigated disaster of Passchendaele