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Webmatters : Home rule and the forming of the new Irish Divisions

The Irish Volunteers

The Three Irish Divisions

This is not intended to be a complete history, rather a quick outline as to how the Divisions were formed.

The Irish Regiments within the British Army had highly illustrious histories, one Regiment or another having served during the Napoleonic Wars and in all of the Empire’s conflicts since.

Thus when the British Expeditionary Force left for Belgium the Irish were already well represented within the ranks of the regular divisions.

10th (Irish) Division

The 10th were within the first batch of the New Army Divisions formed by Kitchener’s call for manpower.

They were drawn from all classes and creeds and whilst Carson dithered over letting the UVF go, many Protestants decided that joining the 10th was the best way of making sure that they were in on the action. Men returned to the army from all walks of life, many of them with experience from fighting in the Boer War.

The New Army battalions were made up by adding Service Battalions to the regular Regiments.

Thus was formed the 7th (S) Royal Dublin Fusiliers who counted amongst them a full company of middle class rugby players and supporters.

Many British Catholics also found themselves serving within the ranks of one of the Irish Regiments.

The Pioneer Battalion of the Division would be the 10th Bn Hampshire Regiment.

Their training began at once and as the number of recruits in Ireland never threatened to swamp the system as it had done in Britain most of the men were soon kitted out.

On moving to England for the final part of their formation and training they made a very good impression on everyone including the King and Kitchener.

In June 1915 they would be re-kitted and made ready for service in the Dardenelles.

16th (Irish) Division

Following on from the first demand for men to serve their country in August 1914, a second call was made in September. This would form the second of Kitchener’s New Armies.

By the end of the month, the formation of the 16th had already started to take shape.

Within the ranks of the 6th Battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment could be found a Company of the Guernsey Militia who had been very impressed by the 2nd Battalion during a posting on their island.

Within the same Battalion could be found Captain William Redmond MP, heartfelt Irish Nationalist and brother of John Redmond their leader. He would be killed leading his men forward on 7th June 1917.

This time the Divisional Pioneers were provided by the 11th Bn Hampshire Regiment.

Recruiting for the Division was found to be difficult. The pool of available manpower was not as great as in Britain and many of the best candidates had already joined the 10th Division.

The Division missed out on the chance to get the Tyneside Irish owing to General Parson’s distrust of Irish riff-raff from the industrial north. The Tynesiders went to the 34th Division and immortality at La Boisselle on the Somme on the 1st July 1916.

In early February 1916 after a lot of extra training in England the Division was deemed fit for active service and sailed for France. Their first posting being in the Loos Sector.

36th (Ulster) Division

The formation of a Division in Ulster was delayed until October 1914 due to political wrangling. When it did form it was based solidly on the UVF Battalions already in existence.

One thing that the 36th never had however, was its own artillery. It was thought that trying to raise artillery within Ulster would simply take too long and the Divisional gunners were found in the London boroughs.

It could also be suggested that the idea of giving the UVF artillery of their own was not thought by those in charge to be a good one.

Another area in which the 36th faced difficulties as an all Protestant force (Soldiers had to sign the Covenant) was in the area of NCOs. As the vast majority of Irish soldiers had always been Catholic so had the experienced NCOs. For a while the Division was forced to look elsewhere on the mainland.

One advantage that the 36th had over its predecessors was the fact that its men were already well drilled and knew how to use firearms (Well, smuggled German ones anyway!).

In October 1915, its training finished, the Division set sail for France. They would be looking after a quiet sector on the Somme astride the Ancre River.

In March 1918 the Division would fight it’s last battle as an identifiably Ulster formation as it valiantly tried to hold the front line during the opening days of the German Spring offensive at St Quentin in France.

The Battle of Messines 1917

Having served in various parts of the line the 16th (Irish) and 36th (Ulster) Divisions would find themselves opposite Wijtschate near Mesen (as it is now) in time for the largest detonation of mines the war would see.

A model of organisation, the Battle of Messines on 7th June 1917 would be the first time that the two Divisions had fought alongside each other.

For that reason an Irish Peace Park was created near where they fought.