100 years ago - ‘Ballymena’s Battalion’ arrives on the Western Front

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100 years ago this month, several hundred men from Ballymena and surrounding district along with others from throughout North and East Antrim, arrived on the Western Front.

They had joined the British army in the heady days of 1914 and had been badged together as a ‘service’ battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles in the 36th (Ulster) Division.

Known collectively as the CAV’s or Central Antrim Volunteers, they were essentially a ‘pals’ unit of citizen soldiers.

Ballymena and Antrim Times editor, Des Blackadder has been researching and writing about the role played by men drawn from all creeds and political convictions during World War One. The 12th Royal Irish Rifles was the single unit which contained the greatest number of men from this area.

This is their story through the factual accounts of the time.

After a year of training and preparation, the men of the Central Antrim Volunteers arrived on the Western Front in early October 1915.

The 12th (s) Bn. Royal Irish Rifles were to serve continuously in France and Flanders for the rest of the war.

Through their active service war diary, we can follow their path from billets to battles throughout this period.

Like so many other units before them, the 12th R Ir Rifles moved from Bordon, their final training and transit camp in England, to the port of Folkestone where they embarked for the continent.

On arrival at the bustling docks at Boulougne on October 5, the battalion marched to the Ostrohove Rest Camp. For the vast majority of the soldiers it was the first time they had set foot on foreign soil.

Few had been to England before enlistment. Now they found themselves on a continent at war. Back home they had been the ‘local lads’, after a short sea journey they had become a small cog in the increasingly vast wheel which the British army had become.

Over the next few days, the battalion drilled and trained while billeted at Pierregot.

On October 9, the Commander of the 3rd Army, Lt. General Sir C. Munro inspected 108th Infantry Brigade en masse.

Brigade and Divisional tactical exercises were undertaken on October 16 and 17 prior to the departure, via route march, to the Somme sector where the Battalion arrived at Hedauville, a staging area just behind the front lines which they would come to know so well in coming months.

Like all newly arrived formations, the 12th R. Ir Rifles were attached to an experienced unit for instruction in the art of trench warfare.

Their hosts for this ‘sharpening up’ were the 11th Infantry Bde (4th Division).

The war diary records that on October 18 … ‘A coy went into the trenches attached to the Somerset L.I. and B coy to the East Lancs.’

During this period, the men were taught many ‘tricks of trade’ which no exercise in peaceful Englandcould possibly achieve.

On the morning of October 20, for instance, Lt. McCluggage notched up the first ‘score’ for the Central Antrims. The diary records that he shot a German while ‘on patrol.’

It seems that ‘A’ coy emerged from their period of attachment without casualties but on October 21st, the battalion suffered its first ‘active service’ losses.

“On the morning of the 21st, B coy sustained the following casualties from shell fire-:

“6111 Pte. J. McCahon (McCabe?). 19557 Pte. S. Hill (died of wounds on 22nd, shrapnel in the head), 887 Pte. D. McNeilly.

The next day, now undoubtedly aware of the mortal reality of their situation, it was the turn of ‘C’ and ‘D’ companies to enter the strange world of the front line.

‘C’ coy went to the Hants and ‘D’ coy to the Rifle Brigade. It was not long before the casualty list was added to with the wounding of 18623 Pte. H. Patton and 2749 Pte. A. McCaughan on October 23.

Training was also a requirement for the senior ranks of the battalion and on October 24, the commanding officer, Lt. Col. R. McCalmont and his adjutant were attached to the HQ of the Hants. Regt. at Hamel, a once sleepy village which was now only a matter of yards from the front lines.

The war diary recorded: “All ranks profited greatly by the lessons learned during the time spent in the trenches and acquitted themselves highly creditably. Lts. Furness and Campbell went out with patrols from the Hants. Trenches.”

After this short period of acclimatisation, the Bn. moved to billets at Puchevillers and then to Bernaville. There they remained for the rest of the month.