On 14 March the Battalion left the line and moved into billets around Neuve Eglise and the next day marched farther to the rear to billets in Caestre. That evening Lieutenant Colonel Blacker was dined out by the officers in the Café Francais. At 8.30 a.m. the following morning the Battalion paraded for Lieutenant Colonel Blacker for the last time. He addressed everyone before the men lined the streets and the Battalion band led his car out of the village.
The only explanation for Blacker’s order to leave France was his age. It is evident that there was a general policy to reduce the age of commanding officers. Indeed, the Official History records that an order issued in 1917 stated that the age of commanding officers on appointment was not to exceed 35. Given his success in command, and the high regard in which he was held, this is also the only explanation for him not being offered an operational brigade.
Lieutenant Colonel Blacker returned home and, on 18 April 1917, took command of 20th (Reserve) Battalion, The Royal Irish Rifles at Newtownards. Like all of the reserve battalions of the Royal Irish Rifles it moved to England in April 1918 and was absorbed by the 3rd (Reserve) Battalion. Blacker then left command and retired on 16 May 1918; he was made Brevet Lieutenant Colonel in the Birthday Honours that year.
The new commanding officer of 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers in France was Lieutenant Colonel Stafford James Somerville, a regular officer of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, who led the Battalion through the attack at Messines in June (when it played a reserve role) and in the attack on the first day of the Battle of Langemarck on 16 August, when he was killed in action. Of those who have featured regularly in the letters, the Transport Officer, Lieutenant James Stronge, was also killed that day; the gallant young ‘Shill’, Captain Tom Shillington, was wounded severely while leading his company—he died on 18 August, aged just 19; and Lieutenant Colonel Audley Pratt was killed as his battalion’s advance began. Sergeant Dick Wolfe MM was one of 141 men killed or who died of wounds; a further nine officers and 271 men were wounded.
The Battalion was brought up to strength by an amalgamation with 2nd North Irish Horse in September 1917. With these men making up the majority of the Battalion, it was renamed 9th (North Irish Horse) Battalion, Princess Victoria’s (Royal Irish Fusiliers). It was next in action during the German offensive in March and April 1918 when it fought rearguard actions at St Quentin and west of Messines; the latter fighting was over the ground where it had manned the trenches described in these letters. Finally, it took part in the Advance to Victory between August and 27 October, when it was pulled out of the line for the final time. By the end of its last day in action it had a strength of less than 300 all ranks and it was a very different Battalion from that which had landed in France just over three years before. It was now a mix of Protestant and Roman Catholic Irishmen, Englishmen from Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and London, regular soldiers, war-time volunteers and conscripts.
‘Fergie’ and the padre, the Reverend Halahan, survived the war. ‘Fergie’ was decorated with the Military Cross, mentioned in despatches and ended the war as a Major. Halahan earned a Bar to his Military Cross on 16 August 1917, the day that claimed so many of his friends, and was twice mentioned in despatches.
When the Armistice went into effect the Battalion was billeted at Mouscron in Belgium, near the scenes of its final actions, and where it remained until the last men left for Ireland in March 1919. The Battalion was disbanded formally on 29 June 1919.