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War in the Mud: The Irish soldier in Belgium in the summer of 1917


In 1917, two Irish Divisions fought side-by-side, in victory and then in defeat. 

In June 1917, the 36th (Ulster) and 16th (Irish) Divisions benefited from careful preparation and good luck to eject well-entrenched German forces from the important Messines Ridge. The preliminary artillery bombardment was unprecedented in its intensity - three shells exploded on the German lines every second for 12 days.  This was followed by the exploding of 19 mines under the German lines killing 10,000 German soldiers.

Two months later, the same two divisions suffered terrible casualties in assaulting concrete fortifications amid the mud of an unusually wet autumn at the Battle of Langemarck.   Despite warnings from his officers, the army commander, Irishman Hubert Gough, insisted the attacks go ahead.   An observer later wrote: “The two Irish divisions were broken to bits, and their brigadiers called it murder”. Gough later tried to blame the 16th Division for the failure of the attack. 

On display in the exhibition are the following stories:

Dublin born Fr William Doyle volunteered in 1915 and proved very popular with the Irish soldiers while experiencing the horrors of the Battle of the Somme, and later at Messines and Passchendaele where he died on 16th August.  His body was never recovered.  General Hickie recommended Fr Doyle for the Victoria Cross to be added to the Military Medal that he had already won.  However it was argued after his death that he was denied a Victoria Cross due to the “triple disqualification of being an Irishman, a Catholic and a Jesuit”.   By late 1917, after the loss of so many soldiers, there were fewer Irish replacements in the 16th Division and the gaps were filled with English conscripts, while Hickie himself was replaced in February 1918 due to ill health. 

For the Irish soldier on the western front the large number of deaths meant many soldiers were rapidly promoted to officers of which there are many Irish examples. 

Samuel Morgan was a professional soldier from Belfast, a sergeant in the Royal Irish Rifles. When the First World War broke out, his military experience saw him promoted to the rank of second lieutenant and kept in Ireland until 1917,  when he joined his regiment  on the Western Front. On July 19th 1917 Samuel sent a souvenir French bank note to his son Leo, back in Ireland. Three weeks later he was shot through the head and killed, leaving Leo Morgan without a father.  

John Patrick Hunt was born in Ringsend, Dublin,  fought as a young man in the South African War (1899-1901) and retired in 1913, finishing his career with the Officer Training Corp in Trinity College, Dublin.  However he re-joined the army with the outbreak of war in the summer of 1914 and was quickly commissioned as a officer.  By the time of the Battle of Messines he was a Major serving in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and was lucky to survive the war joining the Irish Army in 1920’s.
The Battle of Messines and Langemarck were one of 10 smaller battles that make up the Flanders Offensive of  1917 otherwise known to history as Third Battle of Ypres or simply  Passchendaele.   By end of this offensive the Canadians, Belgium, Australian and New Zealand, British, South African and French Armies had lost 320,000 casualties, estimates on German casualties vary from 200,000 to 300,000.  The battle is remembered for  trench foot, the appalling conditions, the mud, the constant rain and  being the last of attritional battle of the Western Front.


War in the Mud: The Irish soldier in Belgium in the summer of 1917 is located at:
Collins Barracks ,
Benburb St,
Dublin 7
D07 XKV4

This new exhibition explains what happened to the Irish soldier on the Western Front in the summer of 1917

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Decorative Arts & History

Collins Barracks ,
Benburb St,
Dublin 7,
D07 XKV4

+353 1 677 7444