A year after the Battle of the Somme, the 36th Ulster Division was a changed force. Whilst there was still a significant number of men from the north of Ireland, many had been wounded two or three times but when they returned to their regiments they found that many of their pals from the ‘volunteer’ days were gone forever.
Due to their record from Theipval in July 1916 they were regarded as a first class assault formation. At Messines Ridge in June 1917 they were paired with the 16th (Irish) Division. Together they were vital to securing the position the Germans had held overlooking the town of Ypres when they had besieged the Belgian army.
Prior to the Messiness attack there was a massive series of underground explosions. Casualties in the offensive were kept low by the standards of the Western Front. The two divisions captured Wyteschaete, their prime objective.They were to fight side by side again.
However, August 16, 1917 was to be a costly date in their histories.
Since the BEF stopped the German drive to the sea outside Ypres in 1914 the area had been subjected to constant warfare. Field Marshall Haig wanted to drive the Germans off the ridge they occupied which stretched from the east to the south of Ypres. By doing so the essential security Channel ports would be ensured. Success would also outflank the German position in Belgium and leave the industries of the Ruhr exposed.
Passchendaele was a village on the ridge which gave its name to the ensuing battle. A series of engagements would be fought to take this prize, and they would be fought in mud and rain. The battle commenced on 31/07/1917. It was not until November 12 that the Canadians entered what was left of the village.
The victory cost over half a million lives over three months. Britiain and the Commonwealth lost 300,000 of which 38,500 were Australian. 42,000 bodies were never recovered. They were either blown to fragments or drowned as the result of their tiredness when they slipped off such duck boards as there were. Men were drowned in stinking, cloying mud in a landscape in which trees had been blasted into oblivion.
Between their relatively easy victory on the Ridge in June 1917 and Passchendaele the Ulster Division were for 12 days stationed in the area of Merris for rest and training. There was summer sunshine. There were trout to be caught in the rivers. There were games of football. They were out of the trenches.
As always this time passed too soon. By July 30, 1917 they were deployed as the support troops of the 55th (Lancashire) Division who would go over the top on the first day of Haig’s intended break-through. The support role was not a cushy number. It involved road mending and the sickening, traumatic duties of casualty clearing.
All seemed to be going to plan and then the rains came. Torrential rain over a seemingly interminable time was made worse by the effects of thousands of shells churning up the ground. For two weeks the Ulster Division fulfilled two roles of holding the British front line and acting as labourers. And all the time there were German shells falling in a steady bombardment which constantly eroded the Division’s strength.
On August 16 with the men crammed into trenches the German artillery saturated the area with high explosive. Many men were blown to bits long before their officers blew their whistles to go over the top. When they did clamber on to the ground, they had to trudge forward in boots which got heavier and heavier due to clods of mud clinging to them.
A Division which had suffered heavily at the Somme, nevertheless had rightly been lauded for capturing all its objectives. At this battle for Langemarck, by 9.00 am the Division had been stopped in its tracks.
General Nugget later poured his heart out in a letter to his wife. He stated, “It has been a truly terrible day. Worse than 1st July, I am afraid. The whole division has been driven backwash terrible losses.Our failure has involved the failure of divisions on either side of us and that is so bitter a pill.
“In July last year, we did our work but failed because the divisions on either flank failed us. This time it is our Ulster Division which has failed the army… I am heart-broken over it”.
The harsh reality is that all divisions were also stopped in the attack of August 16.
Philip Gibbs, a correspondent, who observed the Ulster and irish Divisions that day was to write after the war, “The two Irish Divisions were broken to bits and their brigadiers called it murder. They were violent in their denunciation of the 5th Army for having put their men into the attack after 13 days of heavy shelling.”