The Royal Irish Rifles in the Great War

The First Attack on Bellewaarde

On June 1st Major G.M. Morris, Devonshire Regiment, took over command from Captain Becher. Two days later it was relieved and returned once more to the Salient, of which, indeed, it was to see all too much in the course of its career.

The Battalion marched to bivouacs south of the Poperinge – Vlamertinghe road, and for the next week sent parties varying from 200 to 400 to carry forward barbed wire for the defence of the Salient. On June 5th the 7th Brigade relieved the 3rd

Cavalry Division in the line at Hooge, with three battalions, the 4th South Lancashire, the Worcestershire, and the 1st Wiltshire, in line from right to left; with the Honourable Artillery Company, which had for some time been attached, in support of the Ramparts; and the 2nd Royal Irish Rifles in reserve. On the 9th the Battalion relieved the Worcestershire west of Hooge.

The British line at this period was in a curious position. From Hooge it followed the Menin Road to near the Birr crossroads, then turned off at right-angles, running north, in front of Cambridge Road, to the Ypres-Roulers railway. The German position, though a salient within a salient, was strong, naturally as well artificially, rising to a slight ridge, which in that flat country was dignified by the name of the Bellewaarde Spur, which name it took from the Bellewaarde Lake, a sheet of water some twelve acres in extent, with two large wooded islands upon it, lying south of the high ground. The British command decided that an attempt to nip off this minor salient, establishing a line which would run generally from Hooge, along the western side of the lake, across the Bellewaarde Spur, to a point in the Ypres-Roulers railway a little in advance of the old position, would be worth while.

The main attack was to be carried out by the 9th Infantry Brigade, which was to assault the German trenches from the south corner of Y Wood to the Menin Road, and cover its right flank. The other four battalions then in the 7th Brigade, 4th South Lancashire, 3rd Worcestershire, 2nd Royal Irish Rifles and H.A.C. (its own battalion, the 2nd South Lancashire being detached at this time) were to be in reserve west of Cambridge Road, to move forward as soon as the attack was launched and occupy the British front line trenches. The preliminary bombardment was to be considerable, as it was easy in those days of scarcity to mass a formidable concentration upon a front so relatively small. It was to last from 2:50 a.m. on 16th June till 4:15 a.m., with three short pauses. At the latter hour the infantry was to attack.

On June 11th The Battalion had a troublesome relief at Hooge, being forced to leave behind “B” Company and some men of “C”, who were unable to get clear by daylight. Then, after three nights’ rest in bivouac, it paraded at 5:30 p.m., on the 15th and marched up to assembly trenches between Wittepoort Farm and the Ypres-Roulers railway. It’s strength going into action was 21 officers and 630 other ranks. Our bombardment had been most effective, and when it lifted off the first objective, the 9th Brigade, with the 1st Wiltshires on the right, easily took it, the latter capturing 60 prisoners. All the reports agree that the advance was very much quicker than in previous actions of this nature, and that the organisation was caught unawares by the speed with which the men moved and the breakdown of the defence. Our troops were shelled by our own artillery upon the second objective and had to be withdrawn, which caused confusion. Owing to a thick mist, the forward observing officers of the artillery could see nothing. Finally, the line of the German front trench, through Y Wood and Railway Wood, was taken up, though several small bodies held on farther forward, one in the neighbourhood of Bellewaarde Farm.

The 2nd Royal Irish Rifles had been ordered to support the left flank of the 9th Brigade and consolidate the German first line south of the Ypres-Roulers railway. Unfortunately, two companies, “C” and “D”, carried away by their enthusiasm, advanced to the 3rd line, and had to be reorganised and brought back to their proper position. “B” Company never got up. As it moved forward it was very heavily shelled in enfilade, lost forty of its leading ranks, and had to be withdrawn, somewhat shaken.

At about 11:00 a.m. the General Officer Commanding 7th Brigade came up to the front to attempt to reorganisation. He found in the German front trench portions of no less than nine battalions of the 7th and 9th Brigades, mixed up and crowded, the communication trenches leading to it choked with dead and wounded, and all telephone wires cut. The Germans were bombarding our front line heavily. While sorting out the various units, he received orders to launch a new attack to take the final objective at 3:30 p.m. He pointed out that it was impossible for commanding officers to reach their units, and that owing to the mist no detailed objectives for close support could be given to the artillery. The orders for attack were repeated, and the assault was allotted to the 3rd Worcestershire and 2nd Royal Irish Rifles. At 3:35 p.m., five minutes after the hour fixed, there came a message postponing it till 3:50., this certainly never reached the troops, who had only the lifting of the bombardment, not easy to distinguish on the instant, to tell them when to advance. Only those who have experienced it can realise how confusing and demoralising are last moment postponements of this nature. Men before an attack are taut-strung, strung to nigh breaking point, and if the waiting period be unduly prolonged, a slackening is the lesser of two evils. A rupture is the more serious.

Nevertheless this attack was launched with the greatest dash and pressed with the greatest devotion by “C” and “ D” Companies, led by Captain Farran and Lieutenant Eales. In this almost hopeless affair the men showed courage equalling their record in any of their actions before or afterwards. Pounded all day by heavy artillery, they had remained cool, steady and unshaken. Now they went forward with unimpaired vigour, after thirty hours without sleep and twelve under fire. But the odds were too great. They might have passed through the frontal fire; that from the flank, from the railway line, swept away the advance, and the survivors, weary, dazed and angry, fell back to the German front trench. “A” Company meanwhile, on the extreme left flank, worked hard at consolidation. Their bombers kept the Germans in check, and at midnight they handed over their trench intact to the Royal Scots, of the 8th Brigade. 

The Battalion was not clear till 2:00 a.m. on the 17th

Text extracted from the book 'The Royal Irish Rifles in The Great War', Vol. II. By Cyril Falls and Printed by Gale & Polden Ltd in 1925. Printed for private circulation only. This copy was the property of  Sergeant Jackson Clarke, 2nd Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles.

By permission of Stephen Kerr - SK Photo