Tyneside Irish Brigade History
By T McClemments
With the outbreak of war on the 4th August 1914 a call to arms for volunteers to the armed forces was answered across Britain and Ireland in the months following and nowhere as fervently as in the North East…only the London Regiment raised more battalions than the 51 raised by the Northumberland Fusiliers.
Leading Irish civic dignatories and businessmen came together to form an organising committee a month later to draw up plans to raise an Irish regiment on Tyneside, a ‘Pals’ regiment which would have “…such a distinctive character in which all would be comrades and friends.”
Financial costs were met by the committee, with help from a large donation by Joseph Cowen. Recruiting was brisk with eventually four battalions being formed, becoming the 24th, 25th, 26th and 27th Northumberland Fusiliers. Training in the early days was rudimentary with retired soldiers drilling the new recruits locally, physical exercises and long marches to the fore.
With land donated by the Duke of Northumberland, a purpose built camp was constructed opposite Alnwick Castle and training began in earnest. Further training took place on Salisbury Plain where many of the men handled a rifle for the first time. By January 1915 the first Tyneside Irish battalions were in France and after a short period of acclimatisation were manning the frontline.
The opposing armies faced each other with the killing power of a terrifying array of weaponry that drove the combatants underground for cover to create the troglodyte world of the trenches. Conditions were understandably difficult. The war became a stalemate with small gains in territory from either side often won at a terrible cost in lives.
The British Army sought to end the stalemate, break through the German lines and so bring the war to a quick conclusion. With this in mind, and to relieve the pressure on their French allies under siege at Verdun, the British plan was to attack a section of the frontline near the Somme River. The Tyneside Irish were pitched into the middle of the line at the heavily fortified village of La Boisselle, alongside the similarly raised Tyneside Scottish.
At 7.30am on Saturday morning July 1st 1916, after almost a week of continual shelling on the German defences, the whole of the British frontline rose from their trenches to attack. A prepared mine had exploded underneath German lines 10 minutes earlier alerting them to an expected British attack. A second, much bigger mine exploded at 7.29am. Those German soldiers not killed by the shelling and the mines, emerged from their deep dug outs to man their machine guns and proceeded to wipe out the advance along much of the British front including the area containing the Tyneside Irish.
As the men went over the top some later recalled hearing the sound of Irish pipes leading them onwards. The Tyneside Irish battalions were decimated in minutes. All along the line it was the same grim picture. In total the British Army lost 19,000 men killed, with 38,000 casualties in one day, the bloodiest day in their history.
Reinforcements were drafted in from regiments across Britain and the local nature of the Tyneside Irish changed. They had been so badly mauled that two battalions were amalgamated and one disbanded altogether. By the war’s end only one battalion remained in service. Over 1,200 men were killed during the war, countless others scarred, mentally and physically, for the rest of their lives. The toll on families is immeasurable.