Epilogue

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 grave of Captain Tom Shillington

The grave of Captain Tom Shillington

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.

The King's Colour of the 9th (North Irish Horse) Battalion, Princess Victoria's (Royal irish Fusiliers)

The King’s Colour of the 9th (North Irish Horse) Battalion, Princess Victoria’s (Royal Irish Fusiliers) showing the Battle Honours earned by the regular and service Battalions of the Regiment during the First World War.

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TUESDAY, MARCH 13th

Wire in that I am to proceed to England and report in writing to W.O. [War Office] Wonder what it means. Will see Battalion out of the line and leave Thursday or Friday. Am trying to wire you.

MONDAY, MARCH 12th

Such a rush; no time to write. Quiet night, but heavy rain and river in flood.

9.30 p.m. A mild day, heavy rain early and again in p.m., river flooding. At last got orders for move, very complicated but young Shill. such a clear head and great help. A quiet day. Water in one place in the trenches was waist deep. We managed, however, to drain it off. March 17th seems a probable date for another rising in S. and W. I’m sure Dillon will commit the Irish Parliamentary Party. They are fast losing all influence in Ireland, I think. Holt looked in this evening. Bob Maxwell away for a week at 2nd Army School. I was to have gone to Heavy Artillery group for a few days, but that is cancelled.

SUNDAY, MARCH 11th

Rumour strong here that there is a Rebellion on again in Ireland. If such be the case it will give the Government a grand opportunity to have Nat. Service in Ireland. Fine spring-like day and mild. Much mud about everywhere, and movement very fatiguing. According to latest we retire to back areas shortly. Wandered up the line last night and found everything very quiet, and the morning the same. A busy afternoon, all sorts to settle, and arrange about moves and temporary shifts, etc. I read your ration statement to H.Q. Mess, and they were astounded at the small amount, especially of bread, flour and sugar. We have numerous moves on in the next 10 days, so after Wednesday letters will be scrappy and irregular. I expect much aerial activity on both sides today, as the weather is fine. There is a good deal of wind about in the higher strata.


Footnote

In February 1917 voluntary food rationing was introduced in the United Kingdom.

Voluntary rationing explained.

Voluntary rationing explained.

SATURDAY, MARCH 10th

Foggy day, frost gone, mild, and spring-like. Fear the line is in a bad way, and will want a lot of work. Pleasant dinner last night with the gunners. Thomson, who commands this group, a very nice fellow. Wonderful the entente between us. All of his officers practically know all the officers of the two Battns., and are extremely pally with one another. Everyone at Bde. H.Q. impressed by pessimism of Friday’s London papers. I hope people at last are beginning to realise the seriousness of the outlook. The new Government are doing well, and judging from the proceedings of D. Comm. it was about time the old lot went. Such happy-go-lucky methods. Plumer told Nugent that this Div. was the best in the 2nd Army.

FRIDAY, MARCH 9th

Fine morning, now threatening snow again. March seems a snorter out here. Sorry to say there’s a move on, only a side step N., I believe, but it will entail more Transport lines and stores, and being rather crowded. However, we can’t complain—we’ve been eight months without a move. Another strafe about 4.00 a.m., and the 12th had a few casualties. They have had a bad time this tour. The trenches were knocked about rather.

THURSDAY, MARCH 8th

Snow early and continuing at intervals all a.m. Sun out now and melting it fast, but wind still N.E. and bitter. I had a reply from Nugent about Padre. “Thanks for your recommendation for Halahan. I quite agree. You may be sure he will not be overlooked.” So that’s satisfactory. Yes, so far Griffith has kept to my alterations. Of course, crabbed them [complained], but found all C.O.’s supporting me, so left it. They are all very nice about me, far more than, of course, I deserve.

I have no idea about big things in the future. This retirement of the Germans alters things somewhat. We are short-handed again. We had to send 50 men and an officer away for a fortnight’s duty in back areas, and have had 40 cases of scabies, who will be away for a similar period, reducing us by 100, just when men are wanted for work.

10.00 p.m. The p.m. turned out better, though cloudy. No snow fell and the glass is rising. The Bosche put up a heavy strafe on 12th front between 3.00 and 4.00 p.m. Caused some casualties. He also threw some shells about back areas, promiscuous like, but did no damage. We only go in for four days this time, and then out to another place further back, where the Battalion will be together again. To promote entente between Infantry and Heavy Artillery I am to be attached, on 14th and 15th, to a heavy group, about three miles off. As they can’t put me up I have to ride over each day from 10.00 a.m. to 4.00 p.m.—rather ridiculous.


Footnote

Reverend Halahan was duly awarded the Military Cross in the Birthday Honours of June 1917. This was the fist of two such awards; he was also twice mentioned in despatches.