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Deneys Reitz in WWI/ The Irish battalion. April 3, 2010

Posted by Jenny in military history, World War One.
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Royal Irish Rifles ration party, Somme, July 1916

This is the ninth part of a series that starts here and alternates with other posts.

Reitz spent two quiet months  (Sept. – Oct. 1917) with the 7th Royal Irish Rifles.  It was an incongruous pairing: the fellow from South Africa with no experience of the trenches and the tattered band of Redmondites who were soon to be merged into a division of Orangemen.  Although Reitz never mentions it in his account, the 7th had just come from Passchendaele, where they had experienced terrific losses August 16-17 on the Frezenberg Ridge.  In fact, their division, the 16th, had been active from Loos to Hulloch to the Somme to Messines.

Reitz himself would go into the heart of the storm during Germany’s great March 1918 offensive and again in the Allied counterattack in September.  But in the meantime, life in a “quiet sector” of the front line boiled down to a daily round of inspections, repairs to the trenches, and dodging the shells and pineapple bombs that continually glided over from enemy lines with a hum or a whirr or a buzz.  Even in the absence of battle, this routine seemed to call for a few casualties every day, and Reitz was to become one himself before very long.

His attitude in the surroundings was deliberately matter-of-fact.  He looked for diversion or humor in whatever odd corners it might be found, never allowing melancholy to take root in his thoughts.  He’d bemoaned the horror of war long before—at age 17, after the battle of Spionkop.

Spionkop, January 25, 1900

Now he was 35 years old, with years of combat experience—the trenches in France were only a new and different setting.  At times, in his writings, he seems nearly impervious to human suffering.  For instance, one day as he was coming through the trench, a pineapple bomb fell among a fatigue party just a moment after Reitz had passed them.

“When the smoke and dust had cleared, there lay four men dead, and five wounded, all piled in a blood-spattered heap.  I attended the burial at one of the cemeteries behind the line.  After the interment the bearers and the firing party tramped back along the communication trench quite cheerfully, but next morning the whole Battalion sat around in gloomy silence.  The Irish are a temperamental race, and the incident of the bomb had thrown them into a state of melancholy that an outsider like myself found hard to understand.  However, by the following day the psychic wave had passed, and everyone was in good spirits once more.”*

One might accuse Reitz of hypocrisy were it not that he maintained his own good humor with astonishing consistency in the face of appalling hardship throughout the whole of his fighting career.

He looked for the gentler side of life in the trenches, as when one night he heard the mewing of kittens in no-man’s-land and crawled out with a flashlight to an abandoned British tank (quite a risky endeavor), where he found “a tabby comfortably installed with a litter of six.” On another occasion, as the officer presiding over minor cases of military discipline, he was relieved to find a way to have a shell-shocked boy sent home for psychiatric treatment rather than seeing him court-martialed for desertion, a charge which would have led to the boy’s execution.

One day there was a brawl among his men.  They had recently been shifted to a camp behind the lines that was located near the headquarters of the 36th Division—all Ulstermen.  Reitz sent a fatigue party to bring supplies, and when they returned with bottles of “Boyne water,” the men of the 7th started hurling the bottles against the walls “with threats and curses against the bloody Orangemen.” They set off to the Ulster camp “to avenge what they considered a mortal insult.” Reitz was a bit puzzled by this frenzy over soda water, but he telephoned ahead with a warning, and a potentially serious conflict was defused.

William III (William of Orange)

The Boyne water commemorated the hugely symbolic defeat of the Catholic King James by the Protestant William of Orange on the River Boyne in July 1690.  The incident leads one to wonder what the men of the 7th might have thought if they had realized that Reitz was the son of a former president of the Orange Free State and had grown up near the Orange River.  (In reality, the common cause of republicanism outweighed the Protestant-Catholic differences, and many Irish volunteers had aided the Free Staters in the Boer War.)

On October 14, the 7th Irish Rifles were broken up, and regimental histories indicate that they were merged into the 36th Division, their differences notwithstanding.  Reitz said, “I heard it said that there were too many Sinn Feiners among us.”  But, strangely enough, the 16th Division did not actually consist of the most fervent Irish nationalists.  It’s worth a brief look at the curious story of the intertwining of the Irish struggles with the First World War.

In May 1914, a Home Rule bill for Ireland had finally passed in British parliament, lacking only the “royal assent.”  The bill was supported by moderates, led by Irish Parliamentary Party leader John Redmond, who saw the future Ireland as a quasi-independent nation within the commonwealth—similar to Australia, Canada, or for that matter South Africa.  It was opposed by the Ulsterites, who feared becoming a minority voice in a Dublin-based parliament, and on the other side by those who wanted an independent republic and no part of the commonwealth.  Two large private armies were raised, the Ulster Volunteers and the Irish Volunteers, and many anticipated civil war.

John Edward Redmond

But war in Europe loomed up before a civil war could get going, and British government decided to postpone enactment of Home Rule until the conflict was over (surely it would last no more than a year).  Many in Ireland felt they had common cause in fighting the Germans—except for those republicans who simply could not picture themselves aiding Britain.  When Kitchener called for volunteers for his New Army, the 10th (Irish) Division steadily gained recruits; the 36th (Ulster) Division recruited successfully among the Ulster Volunteers and actually required a pledge to oppose Home Rule; and Redmond pushed for recruitment of the Irish Volunteers in the 16th (Irish) Division.  Redmond saw the division as a purely defensive force staying in Ireland; Kitchener would have no part of this.  If Redmond and his followers did not support the British war effort, they stood to lose Home Rule.  Not only that, but the Ulster Volunteers would be gaining valuable military experience and the Irish Volunteers none.

And so the Redmondites, now known as the National Volunteers, became the core of the 16th, who went over to France and Flanders: the name “Irish Volunteers” was now reserved for those dedicated republicans who stayed home, refusing to fight alongside the British.  And it was those of the strongest republican convictions who in April 1916 seized advantage of Britain’s preoccupations to stage the Easter Rising in Dublin.  Nevertheless, the rebels were defeated after five days of battle, and nearly 100 men were executed for their role.

"Birth of the Irish Republic" by Walter Paget

This of course radicalized the republican movement, and the Sinn Fein party, though not actually the specific instigators of the Rising, won widespread popular support.  In 1918, Sinn Fein gained further adherents when it opposed conscription by Britain to fill the trenches.

Meanwhile, some historians argue, British generals over in France were careless in their disposition of Irish manpower.  It is said that during the Passchendaele battle Hubert Gough, commander of the 5th Army, pushed exhausted men of the 16th and the 36th alike toward heavily fortified German positions.  The 16th suffered 4,200 casualties and the 36th 3,600, or more than 50% of their combined numbers.  General Douglas Haig is said to have noted, based on Gough’s report, that “the men are Irish and apparently did not like the enemy’s shelling.”  General Gough would eventually meet his downfall during the German spring offensive, when Reitz and others of the 3rd Army were left in the lurch by Gough’s 5th, which led to Gough’s dismissal.

In late October 1917, Reitz was transferred from the disbanded 7th Irish Rifles to the 6/7th Royal Scots Fusiliers near Arras.  Much to his surprise, he discovered a couple of South Africans among the battalion’s officers, which likely made him feel more at home than he had among the Irish.  As had earlier been the case, he found himself in a “quiet sector.”  But it turned out not to be quiet enough, as one day in November, as he was travelling on horseback along the River Scarpe, a shell fragment found him.  When he regained consciousness, he was receiving medical assistance for wounds to the leg, arms, and head.  He was evacuated to Rouen and eventually transferred to hospital in London.  It would be three months before he returned to France, just in time for the German offensive.

*All quotes from Trekking On.  In The Trilogy of Deneys Reitz, Wolfe Publishing, Prescott AZ, 1994.

Machine gun corps at Arras


1. a loyal reader - April 12, 2010

Thanks for this sensitive account of the cross-currents facing both of the two major Irish ethnic groups in WWI.

Both sides contributed more than their share of the current troubles (I know that does not add up, but we are talking about Ireland here). I used to like to blame one side more than the other, but I realize that is foolish — it is only “the Patriot’s Game.”

It appears that finally peace is emerging — two steps forward and one step back. Two genetically-identical people separated by religion and culturally-created differences fighting like lunatics over the little green island they are bound to live in together.

I always thought the story of Ireland was a morality tale that sheds light on the current problems in the middle east.

Anyway, as always, a nice article.

Jenny - April 12, 2010

That conflict seems to be one of the most persistent and intractable around the world. Things are getting better, though, and perhaps in another generation the memories of hostilities will fade.

2. Deneys Reitz in WWI/ The Irish battalion. | The Big Board - February 26, 2013

[…] Deneys Reitz in WWI/ The Irish battalion.. […]

3. mark marsay - editor 'the great war magazine' - June 28, 2014

hi jenny, i came across this article (part 9) while looking up some info on deneys reitz and would like to ask if you’d consider making the whole seris available to the great war magazine for printed publication? (www.greatnorthernpublishing.co.uk/the-great-war.html) i am sure our readers would find it as interesting as i have – all the best

Jenny - June 28, 2014

I visited your website—it looks great! If you will give me a subscription I will be happy to make the series available to you.

4. mark marsay - June 28, 2014

hi jenny, no problem, can you contact me using the email on our website (see under contact details for the magazine) as i am having problems sending email to you through this site – and i will respond in full with all the details

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