We have just entered the key year in what has become known as the ‘decade of centenaries’ across the island of Ireland.
At Easter, the dramatic events of the ‘rising’ in Dublin will be the subject of many newspaper articles and television programmes.
A couple of months later, the focus will switch to the events which took place on a blazing hot summer day in the fields and valleys around the French village of Thiepval - the opening day of the Battle of the Somme.
That terrible day of slaughter still resonates down through the years in the Mid-Antrim area due to the large number of men from towns and villages right across the county who were killed or wounded on that date.
In this article we look back at the ‘war diary’ of the 12th Btn Royal Irish Rifles - the Central Antrim Volunteers. They were the Northern Irish equivalent of the English, Scottish and Welsh ‘Pals Battalions’, men who had lived in the same area, serving in the same unit and developing intense links of comradeship.
The men had arrived in France during October of 1915 and were now well into their first winter in the trenches.
December: Christmas at the front. Location: Vauchelles Les Quesnoy
“Last night, No. 18914 Rfn. T. Colville of ‘C’ Coy and No. 19162 Rfn. A.Orr of ‘A’ Coy were accidentally wounded by the bursting of a shell.
“A court of inquiry was held this morning whereat it transpired that Rfn. Orr was working at a piece of shell with his entrenching tool when it exploded and wounded the above named two men.
“Orr’s injuries are considered by the medical officer to be of a serious nature but Colville’s are slight. The court were of the opinion that the injuries were caused accidentally. They were both sent to hospital after temporary treatment by the medical officer.”
Newspaper record: Rifleman Alexander Orr, 12th Btn. RIR who belongs to Glenarm, has been severely injured in France. He was trying to separate the two parts of the nosecap of a shell which he had found in the trenches and which he had brought to his billet as a souvenir. There was an unexploded fuse on the cap and it went off with the result that he was injured in the had, leg and hands. He was immediately removed to hospital. Ballymena Observer December 1915
On December 5, the Bn. was visited by Brig. General Hacket Pain who was relinquishing command of 108 Brig.
The diary records that his leaving was a matter of ‘profound regret’ for all ranks.
The following day, Brig. General C.R.J. Griffiths CMG,DSO assumed command of the brigade. Lt. Col. Bull left for Ireland on leave.
Another court of inquiry was held on December 10, when it was found that wounds received by 2420 Rfn. J Stevenson of C coy. had been sustained by accident and were of a slight nature.
Rfn. Stevenson will have heaved a huge sigh of relief. If there had been any suspicion that he had deliberately inflicted his wounds he would almost certainly have faced a Court Martial and, potentially, a death sentence.
The 12th Rifles enjoyed a relatively peaceful, if busy, month. Route marches, drills and training kept the men on their toes.
On Christmas Day, services were held and a band promenade was held in the afternoon with the other ranks sitting down for dinner at 5pm. The contents of this meal are unfortunately not recorded for posterity!
The officers dined at 7.30pm. Lt. Adamson and Capt. Hon. H. O’Neill were the only officers absent.
On Boxing Day, there was a flurry of excitement when a French soldier was ‘arrested on suspicion’ and detained pending enquiries. The Frenchman was released the following day.
Major General O.S.W. Nugent DSO, ADC inspected the 12th Bn. billets on December 28.
Nugent, a thorough regular, pronounced himself pleased with the general conditions and urged the establishment of a Bn. laundry and baths.
Football was on the menu the following day when the 12th Bn. team were beaten 4-2 by the Lancashire Fusiliers in a match at Buigny L’Abbe.
On New Year’s Eve, the officers took on the NCOs and men of the battalion in a game of rugby. The officers won by ‘1 goal and one try, to one try’
Football and fighting
A new year began with the 12th Royal Irish Rifles still stationed in billets in Vauchelles Les Quesnoy.
In the afternoon of New Year’s day the finals of the Bn. football tournament featured Nos. 3 and 9 platoons.
“The match was very exciting and ended in favour of No.9 platoon with a score of two goals to nil.”
While most modern visions of the Western Front consist of mud, blood and barbed wire, the recorded memories of veterans often hark back to days like these when men, out of the line and relieved from work parties, enjoyed a game of football at any and every opportunity.
Matches took place in remarkable circumstances and often within shelling distance of the front line.
One of the most famous paintings of the First World War is the huge canvas by John Singer Sargent which hangs in the Imperial War Museum.
‘Gassed’ depicts a line of blinded soldiers helping each other towards a casualty clearing station. If you look beyond the main ‘frame’ of the painting you will see a football match taking place in the background. A subtle nod to the role which the humble football played in maintaining morale during the war.
And between football matches … there were more route marches .. and more inspections .. and yet more drill.
On January 6, the ‘other ranks’ turned the tables on the battalion officers by beating them by one try to nil in a ‘very exciting rugby match’.
Two days later, the Bn. marched the 14 miles from Vauchelles to Ribeaucourt and the war diary noted proudly: “Not a single man fell out.”
The 14 miles were covered in six hours which must be considered as ‘good going’ in the depths of winter and with roads little better than country tracks to walk on.
From 9-14 January, the Bn. was engaged in cleaning billets and their general surroundings. Perhaps the senior officers knew that an important visit was in the offing for on the 14th the Bn. played host to the commander of 14th Corps., Major General The Earl of Cavan, CB. MVO. Apparently the Earl was pleased with the battalion drill.
The following days saw D coy. attached to the 16th (pioneers) Royal Irish Rifles for railway work at Arqueves while the other companies built huts at Ribeaucourt, Domesmont and Lanches/Barlette.
January 22 witnessed a high scoring game of football when the officers of the 12th Rifles played their counterparts from the 11th Bn. The final result was 5-5.
Four days later, on January 26, the diary records that the first leave party under the ‘Convoy Scheme’ had left for Candas.
The lucky few were Major C. G. Cole-Hamilton (2nd in command), CSM Morcom (A coy), Sergt. McAlister (B coy) and Rfn. Blair also of ‘C’ coy.
After more practical exercises as part of 108th Brigade, the Bn. received orders at 4pm to proceed to trenches on January 30. At 10.55pm, the orders were cancelled.
The month ended with the first performance of the ‘Merry Mauve Melody Makers’. This took place in the new recreation hut which had been built by the men of the 12th Rifles at the suggestion of their CO.
Most Divisions had their own concert parties which rejoiced in all manner of names. The ‘Merry Mauves’ put on a programme of singing, music and comedy to entertain the men.