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Royal Munster Fusiliers

The Royal Munster Fusiliers was a regular Irish Infantry Regiment of the British Army. One of eight Irish regiments raised and garrisoned in Ireland, it was originally formed in 1881 by the amalagamation of two regiments of the former East India Company. It served in India and the Great War until disbanded in 1922 under the Anglo-Irish Treaty. In its history it had more Victoria Crosses to its name (eight) than any other Irish regiment.

History

Its historic background goes back as far as 1652 , before it was reformed as part of a reorganization of the Army in 1881, from the 101st Regiment of Foot (Royal Bengal Fusiliers) and 104th Regiment of Foot (Bengal Fusiliers) and the Militia of Munster. Both the Fusilier regiments had originated as "European" regiments of the East India Company (also known as "John Company") and transferred to the British Army in 1861 when the British Crown had taken control of the Company's private army after the Indian rebellion of 1857. Five of the European infantry battalions were given Irish territorial titles. The first and second RMF battalions were the former Bengal Fusilier regiments, the higher number battalions were the militia units.

The Childers Reforms linked regiments to recruiting areas - in this case the counties of Clare, Cork, Kerry, and Limerick. Militarily, the whole of Ireland was administered as a separate command with Command Headquarters at Parkgate (Phoenix Park) Dublin, directly under the War Office in London. The regimental/HQ depot located at Tralee, co. Kerry.

20th century

It consisted of two regular service and two reserve battalions prior to World War I. In August 1914 the need for further divisions resulted in the creation of a New Army. Subsequently the Munsters had a total of 11 raised battalions. The Regiment was awarded 51 battle honours and three Victoria Crosses. It suffered a total of 3,070 lost casualties.

In common with the other five Irish territorial regiments of the British Army located in former Southern Ireland, the remaining battalions of the Royal Munster Fusiliers were disbanded in July 1922 under the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty with the founding of the Irish Free State. Many of its ex-servicemen and officers helped in establishing the newly formed Free State Force at the outbreak of the Irish Civil War.

1st (Regular Service) Battalion

At the outbreak of war the 1st Munster’s (1RMF) battalion was acting as a regular garrison in Rangoon, Burma. Their last home station had been Fermoy in 1899. They arrived back at Avonmouth, UK in January 1915, and were entrained for Coventry where it was assigned to the 86th Brigade of the British 29th Division. In March it sailed for the Dardanelles, Turkey, when it numbered 28 officers and 1,002 other ranks.

Turkey had joined the Central Powers's side in November 1914, the object of the landing on the Dardanelles peninsula was to open the Dardanelles Strait in the Battle of Gallipoli to enable Allied relief convoys reach Russia. Aboard the SS River Clyde , a converted collier with a capacity for over 2,000 men, they arrived on 25 April together with the 1st Battalion The Royal Dublin Fusiliers and some companies of the Royal Hampshires.

Gallipoli

The ship ran gently ashore, its exit bows facing the beach, for what was to be the grossly mismanaged British "V" beach landing at Cape Helles. Small boats first carried companies of Dubliners to the beach, when four hidden Turkish machine gun posts opened fire and decimated them. Lighters to the shore were roped together, two companies of Munsters pouring out on to the bow’s gangway also to be 'literally slaughted like rats in a trap'. Those who jumped to one side, drowned under their heavy equipment. The mutilation of these brave men continued until all boats and lighters were filled with dead and the bay a red sea of blood. The ship’s commanding officer on being informed that they were not succeeding, replied "in British military tradition, offensives once begun are never called off". That day the Munsters lost many of their longest serving veterans.

At daybreak next day just three companies of Munsters, two of Hampshires and one company Dubliners had made it to the shelter of some dunes. On the 26th they took fort Sedd-el-Bahr overlooking the bay, charging and taking the village behind. It was in this attack that the heroic actions of William Cosgrove won the battalion’s first Victoria Cross (VC). Turkish counter-attacks were held off. The 28th saw a renewed attack in the Battle for Krithia village, but by the 29th withdrawn due to heavy losses and amalgamated with the surviving Dublin Fusiliers, to form the "Dubsters" battalion of 8 officers and 770 men.

On the night of 1 May the Turks, almost out of munition but sporned by the then young Ataturk carried out a tremendous attack "before we knew it began" . Bayoneting on both sides was terrible. At dawn the Turks were mowed down, mounds of bodies and streams of blood remaining everywhere. The battalion was reduced to 4 officers and 430 men, who attempted further attacks the following days, but by the 11th were down to 372 men. Receiving new drafts on 29 May, the Munsters and Dubliners were separate units again, the Munsters by 4 June numbering 40 officers and 500 other ranks, though handicapped by the new recruits being much too young and inexperienced. Shelling absolutely demoralised them. They withheld a further attack on 17 June killing 300 Turks. New drafts replenished officers to 23, other ranks to 588. They took part in the Divisions assault on 28 June securing five trench lines. This provoked a general attack by the Turkish side along the Cape Helles front on 5 July, the Turks losing heavily.

Withdrawal

Into the middle of July, taking trenches, losing and retaking them again, continued on both sides. More new drafts arrived to replace casualties, but this did not relieve the intense hunger, thirst and exhaustion suffered much of the time. A month’s rest was promised on 15 July, but by 22 July they were back in action, their strength around 500 of whom only 3 officers and 314 men remained from those who first landed on 25 April. The climax came with the Sulva attack on 21 August in the Battle of Scimitar Hill, the last great battle of the campaign, the Turks inflicting severe casualties, the scrub bushes then catching fire killing many wounded and others taking cover. The unsuccessful attack cost the Munsters 79 men and three officers that day alone.

There was little further action other than holding front lines from September through November, when the weather worsened. Late in the month gales swept over the peninsula, hundreds were drowned in the flooded trenches or from exposure or frostbite, followed on 28 November by a blizzard. The Battalion was evacuated as it arrived, on the River Clyde sailing 2 January 1916 for Alexandria. From there it sailed with the rest of the 29th Division arriving in France on 22 March. Three years of warfare still remained for the battalion in France and Flanders on the Western Front. It had already suffered 45% of its total losses for the entire war, and numbered 24 officers and 287 men when disembarking.

Ginchy captured

The 1RMF were in the front lines again on 23 April at the Somme sector, slowly building up strength to 26 officers and 476 men. On 29 May it was assigned to the 48th Brigade of the 16th (Irish) Division at Béthune and were reinforced by members from the disbanded 9th RMF, bringing the Battalion up to full strength. They remained in the area of the Loos salient into August with some intermittent casualties. The 16th Irish Division was ordered south of the Somme battlefield, the 1RMF entering the line facing the strategic town of Ginchy on 5 September having suffered 200 previous casualties by gas-shelling on the way. It took part in the ensuing attack and triumphant capture of Ginchy by the 16th Division but at a high cost for its battalions, the 1RMF reduced to 5 officers and 305 other ranks. A London newspaper headlined How the Irish took Ginchy - Spendid daring of the Irish troops

The battalion was then moved northwards to the South of Ypres in Belgium and absorbed the 8th RMF on 23. November to bring it up to a strength of 48 officers and 1,069 men by 1 December. Christmas 1916 was spent in the trenches, but as the New Year arrived, an official report relates "as if by mutual consent both sides ceased fire a minute or two before the close of the old year. On the stroke of midnight the pipers tuned up and gave us The Old Year out and the New Year in , A Nation Once Again ,God Save Ireland , and a few more songs of the old country, N.C.O.s and men joining lustily in the choruses".

Messines

Up to the middle of March rotating routine trench duties continued with light casualties (2 officers and 20 men killed). The battalion rehearsed special training during April and May for the assault on the strategic Messines Ridge. The begin of the Flanders offensive began at 3.10am on 7 June 1917 with the detonation of nineteen huge mines previously burrowed under the German lines. There followed the advance of the 16th Irish Division opposite the village of Wytschaete, to the right the 36th (Ulster) Division opposite the village of Messines, the largest ever concentration of Irish soldiers on a battlefield. Their advance across awful county has been reported by all who saw it as a sight never to be forgotten, a captured German officer stated that they moved as if on parade.

The 1RMF took all its objectives on schedule despite the loss of nearly all of its supporting tanks. The subsequent battle was a complete success militarily, the two divisions showing great fortitude -- the Germans no match for them as they mopped up all resistance, advancing over two miles in a few days with minimal losses, incredible by Western Front standards. Casualties were low in an action which was one of the most successful of the battalion’s actions, resulting from thorough planning, training and good leadership. It was then relieved, and returned to the Ypres salient front section in August. Continuous rain turned the battlefront into a sea of mud causing a multitude of casualties and failure to take specific positions reducing it to 37 officers and 701 men. Suffering less than other battalions, the battalion was moved with its Division back south into France where it built up to 1,089 all ranks.

Cambrai

The 16th (Irish) Division took up positions north of the main attack in the first Battle of Cambrai which opened on 21 November with the use of over 450 British tanks. The 1RMF advanced with such speed that only one enemy machine gun post was manned in time to open fire, which was taken with one loss. Considering the capture of a difficult object without tank support and taking 170 prisoners, losses were light, and followed previously unsuccessful attempts by other units during the Summer. The 1RMF’s final front tour ended on 2 December when the Division was moved south to take over a French section. From January through to March the battalion was involved in various engagements with snow, frost and mud. By St. Patrick’s day it became clear that the Germans were gaining the initiative and their forecast “Big Move” was awaited.

Kaiserschlacht

On 21 March 1918 the German Army launched its largest offensive of the war, the devastating Spring Offensive or Kaiserschlacht, with 65 divisions along 54 miles of the British front. The 1RMF was fortunate to be in reserve as the Germans opened with a gas-bombardment. By next day the battalion was heavily engaged, the enemy using a new zigzag attack strategy. The battalion retaliated but was forced to withdraw and were quickly down to 7 officers and 450 men. There was then a general withdrawal across the Somme at Peronne where it reorganised itself into two companies of 170 men. The German offensive had decimated the 1RMF to a shadow of its previous strength. The 16th (Irish) Division was reduced to cadre having suffered the heaviest losses of any British division in the March retreat. The 1RMF was transferred to the 57th (2nd W.Lancs) Division which had not seen action since its arrival in February 1917.

The battalion was glad to leave the 16th Div., due to “rotten staffwork”, entering the lines again in May at Gommecourt , a quiet sector during the Summer. On 27. August it again entered the line for an attack near Croisilles taking enemy support trenches on the Hindenburg Line in half an hour with some losses. Then came the assault of 2 September when Martin Doyle won the battalion’s second VC on the Drocourt-Queant Line south of the river Scarpe, suffering 350 casualties. The battalion was relieved and received replacements and was trained in preparation for the assault on the Cambrai to St. Quentin line. With a 3,000 yard advance on 27 September Graincourt was captured. The Germans counter-attacked recapturing many positions. The battalion remained under shellfire even behind the lines and was reduced to 7 officers and 261 men by 3 October.

Lille Armistice

The battalion supported the attack of 8 October on Cambrai, which was found to be evacuated the following day. The Germans were in disorganised retreat. The 57th Division was then sent North to Armentieres, the battalion entering the line on 17 October, with no resistance. The following day Lille was captured. The battalion provided a guard of honour for the French President’s visit to Lille on 21 October. The 1RMF was billeted in Lille until the Armistice of 11 November 1918.

The 1st Battalion RMF remained a predominantly Irish battalion to the end, composed of many Dublin Fusiliers from May 1918. During the war at least 43 officers and 869 other ranks died in action with the battalion. It was demobilised in December reducing it to 13 officers and 89 others. In May 1919 after returning to England it absorbed the 3rd RMF at Plymouth. It left for Silesia in September 1921, returning the following April to be disbanded in July 1922, ending a history going back 250 years.

2nd (Regular Service) Battalion

The share of the battalion in the campaign on the Western Front is in many respects unique. Landing with the British Expeditionary Force, it was never out of earshot of the front line during the fifty-one months the war lasted. Thirteen times in the campaign it went into battle up to strength, or nearly so (+/- 1000); ten times it came out of action with less than 6 officers and 300 men all ranks. On five occasions it was surrounded by the enemy and cut off from all support; on four of these it cut its way through and joined up again; on the fifth it engaged an entire Army Corps of the enemy for over twelve hours. On seven different occasions it captured the objectives of adjacent units, as well as its own. (H.S. Jervis, The 2nd RMF in France, 1922).

The battalion had been stationed at Aldershot , England since 1912 having been previously stationed in Ireland. It was part of the 1st Army Brigade of the British 1st Division , and provided mainly their best trained men for the 1st Battalion RMF, a situation they were not happy with. At the outbreak of war it was under strength, reservists travelling from the regimental depots at Tralee and Fermoy amid much local cheering, 485 out of 703, to join the battalion at Aldershot bringing it up to a strength of 27 officers and 971 other ranks for its departure to France on the 13 August 1914.

Mons stand

The Germans were pushing their advance when on 27 August the 2RMF was chosen for the arduous task of forming the rearguard to cover the retreat of the 1st Division during the Battle of Mons. The Munsters were only to retreat if ordered. They made an epic stand losing 9 officers and 87 other ranks holding out in a renouned action at the village of Etreux, many others surrounded and taken prisoner. They stemmed the Germans who were five or six times their strength for over a day, allowing their division to escape. When the scattered battalion reassembled on 29 August it was down to a disastrous 5 officers and 196 others. These were withdrawn, seeing action most notably at Langemarck , Belgium on 22 October. By 5 November, recruits from home brought its strength up to over 800 men.

They next saw action near Zillebeke , Belgium on 12 November and helped to defend against the last great German effort in the First Battle of Ypres. From 15 November as snows began they drove off further attacks, trench warfare now becoming dominant. Early December they aided in the evacuation of the Ypres Benedictine Convent, whose occupants subsequently established Kylemore Abbey in Connemara, Ireland.

Givenchy 1914

The battalion was moved south to the Festubert sector in France, after a 36 hour march were ordered on 22 November to fill a gap by taking two lines of trenches. There were 200 casualties in the first 10 minutes of heavy fire. Withdrawing in total exhaustion on the next day, many wounded drowned in water-filled shell holes. Throughout Christmas and New Year they were fully occupied maintaining the trenches. On 25 January, the Kaiser’s birthday the Germans tried unsuccessfully to break through with terrific shellfire. There then followed three months of rebuilding and training the battalion when it numbered 28 officers and 700 other ranks in May. Only four of the officers were pre-war.

Aubers Ridge

The 2RMF next role was participating in the Franco-British Battle of Aubers Ridge, in the area of the March attack at Neuve Chapelle. The day before the attack of 9 May 1915 the battalion received Absolution from their chaplain (depicted in the famous Matania painting). The British bombardment began at 5 a.m., the Munsters then pressing forward with extraordinary bravery, German fire sweeping No-Mans-Land, some Munsters audaciously charging ahead through the German lines , briefly waving a green flag on its breastwork, then moving beyond until cut off by the British artillery bombardment that followed, which killed many sheltering in shell craters.

By 11 a.m. the 2RMF was withdrawn forming 3 officers and 200 men having lost 19 and 370 respectively. It was one of only two battalions to reach the German lines. But suffered the regiments highest loss of any one day of the war, 11 officers and 140 men killed in action. It was an unsuccessful day for the British forces overall, casualties exceeding 11,000, the devastating losses exposing the British forces weakness in artillery. Morale was subsequently at a low ebb.

Loos salient

The summer was relatively quiet after the battalion moved in June to the Loos sector. Various tours and shell attacks brought some casualties in July and August. Other battalions were being withdrawn to reinforce the Gallipoli campaign, no reinforcements or recruits arriving, keeping the battalion weak as the Loos offensive began on 25 September 1915. At first in reserve they then had to hold the line with over 200 casualties, leaving the 2RMF with around 350 all ranks, reduced to 250 by the time the battle died down on 13 October. A month later on 15 November John Redmond M.P., the Irish leader, visited the lines, promising to fill the depleted 2RMF with Irish recruits.

There followed three months of bitter winter in appalling trench conditions, spades, shovels and picks more in use than weapons. New young recruits began arriving, but in the relative inactivity, sixty five men were hit by harassing random fire. Forty went down with frost bite and trench fever in the Arctic weather. In May the 2RMF received many of the personnel from the disbanded 9RMF, bringing it up to strength for the summer campaign. The first noteworthy operation was the Night raid by the Royal Munster Fusiliers on 25 June into which much preparation had been put, a VC. being awarded to Lieutenant Arthur Batten-Pooll, though losses were heavy with 5 officers and 60 other ranks (2 and 12 resp. killed).

Somme 1916

The battalion was transferred with its Division down to the Somme in July for the opening of the Battle of the Somme, entering the lines on 14 July capturing its objectives two days later, and repulsing the German counter attack on 18 July, in all with an officer and 26 men killed, 127 wounded and 50 gassed. They were in reserve until 20 August, when they entered the lines again for steady fighting but ran into heavy off-target and ineffective British bombardment, killing 4 officers and 29 other ranks. A continual toll of casualties made September a costly month. After a months break in October, the 2RMF returned to the Somme for maintenance duties, then into front-line trenches full of mud from 27 November onwards, with steady frost bite and raids continuing to the end of December.

Throughout the Somme campaign the 2RMF retained its local and Irish character. They were in the front trenches again in February at Barleux when a thaw turned everything into a sea of mud. In March the first major event was the German withdrawal from the old Somme battlefield to their new Hindenburg Line. The battalion followed across the Somme, but was held up removing mines and booby-traps and repairing communications into May. They then moved to near Nieuwpoort in Flanders for an intended amphibious landing with an impressive 43 officers and 1,070 men which was aborted by a surprise German attack on 10. July. They went through severe shelling and gas. The division was moved to Dunkirk for another attempt near Zeebrugge to link with a land offensive through Passchendaele, also cancelled when not gaining enough footing.

Passchendaele

By 6 November 1917 the 2RMF now numbered 20 officers and 630 other ranks when it arrived at Irish Farm in the Ypres salient. The ground was a quagmire full of water-logged shell-holes after four months of battle. It was to be the last British effort of the Passchendaele campaign. The 2RMF was to be one of two battalions leading the 1st Division’s attack at 6 a.m. on 10 November. Weighed down with equipment they waded waist deep through mud and water, initially taking all objectives within 45 minutes. Seeing the progress by the Canadians on the right they pressed on. The artillery support requested to break up the enemy landed as so often on the battalion's extended positions. The South Welch Borders advance had left a gap the Germans made use of to cut off most of the 2RMF. Three hours later saw only 7 officers and 240 other ranks present. 12 and 393 having become casualties. The battalion was railed out to Brielleu for the rest of the year.

Crushing offensive

By the end of January 1918 the 2RMF numbered up 44 officers and 823 men O.R.s., and was transferred to the 48th Brigade of the 16th (Irish) Division on 3 February near Peronne where it entered the lines a week later, the Division now under the inadequate command of General Hubert Gough. The next great initiative was expected from the Germans after their victory on the eastern front giving them a superiority of numbers in the west. The British front was at its lengthiest when the German March "Spring Offensive" (Kaiserschlacht) opened with a devastating bombardment early on 21 March from 4.15am until noon after which a fierce attack by fresh troops was launched. The battalion suffered badly from the shelling but held the Germans up all night, before they broke through and overwhelmed the Munsters who dashed to retreat, some few making it to a high ridge trench, there driven out and retiring to Epehy by dark, fog having allowed the Germans to infiltrate easily. Next day the battalion was withdrawn to Tincourt where the depleted 16th (Irish) Division was concentrated, the 2RMF now numbering only 290 other ranks, from 629 the day before. On 22 March the battalion crossed back over the Somme at Péronne.

Annihilation

By 25 March the battalion had lost 27 officers and 550 men, as the rest tried to reform, holding off several attacks and near encirlements, they formed a 400 man column and attempted a night retreat, half reaching friendly positions next morning at Hamel. Undergoing further bombardment they attempted to retake positions lost, which reduced them further until the remaining 3 officers and 93 men had to be withdrawn into a reserve position. Merely 2 officers and 42 O.R. reinforcements joined them on 3 April. The 2RMF was largely destroyed by the German offensive losing 36 officers and 796 O.R.s since 21 March. It moved northwards to amalgamate with the equally hard hit 1RMF at Inghem on 14 April when the resulting unit numbered 28 officers and 896 O.R.s. The 2RMF was reduced to a training cadre of 11 officers who left the 16th (Irish) Division to provide instruction for newly arrived American units.

Restructuring

The battalion began reconstruction on 7 June 1918 when most of the 6RMF who had returned from Palestine were transferred to the 2RMF. The battalion made its last transfer to the 150th Brigade of the 50th Division at Arras for the beginning of the Hundred Days Offensive and were largely made up of other men back from Salonika and Palestine, most hardened by malaria and more resistant to the now apparent deadly influenza epidemic.

The battalion was finally transported on 1 October to Épehy, scene of its March experiences where it was again ordered into the lines on 4 October, to capture La Chatelet. Largely gaining their objective, they had to retire encountering heavy counter attacks and failures elsewhere on the line, losing many 6RMF pre-war veterans who had survived Gallipoli. The 50th Division’s advance was resumed on 10 October, and the battalion was reduced to 13 officers and 411 men by 16 October.

The Battle of Épehy began on 18 October to drive the Germans behind the river, the Munsters going in next day in fog surprising the Germans, taking many prisoner as well the objectives. The Munsters overran their objectives and were caught in another Division’s barrage, losses again were heavy. They were then withdrawn and reorganised for what to be their final operation of the war, successfully taking a large area around Haute Noyelles on 4 November, the number of prisoners taken indicative of the low state of German morale. After a counter-bombardment on 7 November the battalion was withdrawn for the remaining days up until the Armistice.

Disbandment

Last reassembled in December before demobilisation the 2RMF numbered 25 officers and 581 other ranks. After demobilisation by February, the last cadre of 14 officers and 54 O.R.s left France in June 1919 and was reabsorbed into the reformed battalion on the Isle of Wight numbering 900, of these a high 500 with war service. The 2RMF served in Egypt from November 1919 to May 1922 returning for demobilisation and disbandment in July 1922. Their last commander wrote “Its losses amounted to 179 officers and 4,088 rank and file killed, wounded or missing. There were twenty-eight changes in the battalion’s command during the war. The battalion retained its essentially Irish character to the end of the war, and was first to last composed of voluntarily enlisted soldiers. During the war 346 officers and over 8,000 O.R.s passed through its ranks”.

New Army (Service ) Battalions

History of 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th (Service) Battalions related under

Reserve and Garrison Battalions

History of 3rd, 4th and 5th (Reserve) Battalions and
History of 1st and 2nd (Garrison) Battalions related under

Victoria Cross recipients

Great War Memorials

Notes

References and reading

  • Martin Staunton: The Royal Munster Fusiliers (1914-1919) MA thesis UCD (1986).
  • Thomas P. Dooley: Irishmen or English Soldiers ? The Times and World of a Southern Catholic Irish Man (1876-1916) enlisting in the
    9th Battalion Royal Munster Fusiliers, during the First World War
    Liverpool Press (1995), ISBN 0853236003.
  • Bryan Cooper (1918): The 10th (Irish) Division in Gallipoli Irish Academic Press (1993), (2003), ISBN 0-7165-2517-8.
  • Terence Denman: Ireland's unknown Soldiers The 16th (Irish) Division in the Great War, 1914-1918 Irish Academic Press (1992), (2003), ISBN 0-7165-2495-3.
  • Desmond & Jean Bowen: Heroic Option: The Irish in the British Army Pen & Sword BooKs (2005), ISBN 1-84415-152-2.
  • Steven Moore: The Irish on the Somme (2005), ISBN 0-9549715-1-5.
  • Peter Hart: The Somme Weidenfeld & Nicolson (2005), ISBN 0-297-84705-8.

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