Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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Above: A letter from Eileen Fitzgibbon regarding Edward Bellingham, written in response to this article.


‘Steady boys’, urged Edward Bellingham, commanding officer of the 8th Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. It was 5:40 a.m. on the Loos salient and approximately 946 men under his command were packed tight into the frontline trenches that ran alongside the Hulluch chalk pit in northern France. For the past 40 minutes they had been contending with an intense bombardment of incendiary shells and tea-gas bombs that smashed into the parapets and duckboards all around them. Bellingham’s orders were to hold the line but the German gunners had found their mark. Scores of his men had already been killed and wounded.

In between the explosions, Bellingham desperately scanned the desecrated lowlands to see what else the Germans were up to. And then, with mounting horror, the 37-year-old from County Louth espied what all soldiers feared most: ‘a dense cloud of black gas and smoke between us and the sun’.

The Germans had directed the contents of 3,800 cylinders of Grünkreuz gas, a deadly mix of phosgene and chlorine, at the Irish lines. The black cloud was, in fact, a deceptive cover for a second cloud of the killer gas, which was ‘greenish’ or ‘yellowish creamy’ in colour. And now it wafted westwards towards the Irish-held trenches, carried on the early morning springtime breeze, with several thousand soldiers of the 4th Bavarian Division advancing cautiously behind it.

British air patrols would later observe how the gas had killed all the vegetation it passed over, ‘down to the last blade of grass’.

When the gas alarm was raised, most of the Dubs quickly pulled their canvas masks over their heads. However, many of their respirators were broken and many more were missing.

Further up the line, the 7th Inniskilling Fusiliers were in precisely the same predicament. Private Tom Cassidy of Irvinestown, Co. Fermanagh, had not even had time to put on his socks. He accidentally put his sack-mask on the wrong way around and spent several precious minutes bumping around the trench in his bare feet. ‘I wish I could find the bloody windows!’ he yelled.

Meanwhile, as the gas rolled ever closer, the men could do nothing but hope that it would somehow drift over their heads and leave them in peace.

It didn’t.

The poisonous gas engulfed the trenches and in mere moments those Irish without effective gasmasks were engaged in a desperate battle for their lives. Some were instantly blinded, others hideously choked and suffocated. The trenches were soon full of retching and dying men, their faces a pallid green. Those who survived were all too soon faced with an equally horrible sight – the German troops, bayonets out-stretched, who now poured into their trenches to engage the bloodshot Irishmen in brutal hand-to-hand combat.

The gas attack on the Irish trenches at Hulluch, which began on 27 April 1916, marked one of the many low-points of the Great War in which the warring sides broke the terms of the 1907 Hague Convention and used ‘asphyxiating or deleterious gases’ to try and overwhelm the enemy.

It is perhaps not without foundation that as the toxic gas cloud approached, one Irish soldier reputedly said, 'I wish Casement would get a taste of this'. The timing was certainly bitterly ironic, coming as it did during the same Easter week that several thousand other Irishmen and Irishwomen were attempting to establish an Irish Republic in Dublin – with the support of their ‘gallant allies in Europe’ (aka the Germans).

By the close of the Easter Rising, approximately 488 men, women and children lay dead in Ireland, most of them civilians. The gas attacks on the western front, and the synchronized shelling and bayonet charges, would result in the deaths of 570 soldiers from the 16th (Irish) Division and a further 1,410 wounded. At least 500 Germans are also thought to have died.

Another bitter incongruity of the attack was that most of the German dead hailed from the predominantly Catholic state of Bavaria for the men of the 16th (Irish) were likewise drawn from a largely Catholic and nationalist working class background. Most had been in the Irish Volunteers before the war but answered John Redmond’s call to arms when the Great War erupted.

The gas attack on 27th April was not an isolated incident. The Germans kept up the bombing for three days and, as Bellingham grimly observed, a second gas attack on 29th April was even ‘more severe’ than the first, ‘owing presumably to the gas clouds meeting and remaining stationary and concentrated over the trenches.’

The Germans briefly broke through the Allied line and took an unspecified number of prisoners but it appears the German gas actually blew back into their faces at this point and forced them to retreat.

‘Nearly all our men were killed or wounded’, wrote Bellingham, who was himself badly injured. Among the dead was John Naylor, a private who had served as a porter at a grocery shop in Dublin before the war. In an astonishing twist, it would later emerge that his wife, Margaret, had been shot while crossing Ringsend drawbridge in Dublin during the Easter Rising that very same day. Margaret, who died two days later, had been on a mission to fetch bread for their three, now so cruelly orphaned, small daughters.

Further up the line, the 7th Inniskilling Fusiliers, known as the “Skins”, were also engaged in vicious hand-to-hand combat with the Germans and, while they held the line, they had lost another 66 men by nightfall. ‘You have proved yourselves good men of your country’, declared their brigadier general, Philip Leveson-Gower. ‘Ireland can be proud of you.’

The sockless Tom Cassidy was among the fallen Skins. So too was Private Jack Weafer, a bricklayer and swimming enthusiast from Glasthule. The Weafer family would also have to grapple with the death of Jack’s cousin Tom Weafer that week; he was shot dead on Dublin’s Lower Abbey Street on 26th April while wearing the uniform of the rebel Volunteers.

Ultimately the 16th Irish held firm and the Germans were obliged to withdraw. As war correspondent Philip Gibbs remarked, ‘It was the first time this Irish division had been in action, but the young soldiers were magnificently cool." Over a third of Bellingham’s battalion were killed, maimed or lost but, as he wrote in his journal, the Germans ‘were put out again and the line held for the rest of the day by the remnants.’

Their ‘unconquerable bravery’, as Redmond hailed it, came at a horrible cost. The following days would be spent burying the dead– the 338 men killed by the gas, the 232 torn apart by shells and bayonets – many of whom were impossible to identify.

Michael Ridge, a Limerick-born private in the 8th Royal Munster Fusiliers, was among the first on the scene. ‘ I saw hundreds dying all round me,’ he wrote. ‘I was practically walking on dead bodies all the way. You take no notice of dead bodies out here.’ Private Ridge was fated to be killed the following year by a pineapple bomb near Arras.

A unit from the 7th Leinsters were detailed to oversee some of the burials. ‘I thought I was accustomed to war and all its frightfulness, yet this fairly staggers me’, wrote Captain Charles Weld in the battalion diary. One of his lieutenants, Wallace Lyon, a 24-year-old rector’s son from near Bayllymahon, County Longford, was utterly haunted by the grotesque sights he beheld. Some of the dead men, recalled Lyon, were ‘holding hands like children in the dark’.

Fr Willie Doyle, the celebrated Jesuit chaplain, was on hand to perform the last rites and oversee the burials for many. ‘There they lay,’ he recounted in a letter to his father, ‘scores of them … in the bottom of the trench, in every conceivable posture of human agony; the clothes torn off their bodies in a vain effort to breathe, while from end to end of that valley of death came one low unceasing moan from the lips of brave men fighting and struggling for life. I don’t think you will blame me when I tell you that, more than once, the words of Absolution stuck in my throat, and the tears splashed down on the patient, suffering faces of my poor boys, as I leant down to anoint them.’

On the very same weekend that Patrick Pearse surrendered in Dublin, over a thousand injured Irishmen either walked or were stretchered back to the Red Cross tents behind the lines at Hulluch amid the acrid stench of chorine, death and fire-smoke.

Henry Wilson, the overall commander of British troops at the Loos, once wrote off the 16th Irish Division as ‘Johnnie Redmond’s pets … at least 50% are quite useless, old whiskey-sodden militiamen … very bad musketry, rotten boots, and altogether a very poor show’.

Their courage at Hulluch was to utterly undermine Wilson’s view and would continue to stand them credit through the ensuing battles of the Somme, Messines and Passchendaele. The events of Hulluch also form the backdrop for one of the most vivid scenes in Sebastian Barry’s epic ‘A Long, Long Way,’ which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2005.