With its men recruited initially from counties Armagh, Cavan and Monaghan, the 9th (Service) Battalion, Princess Victoria’s (Royal Irish Fusiliers) (County Armagh) was one of thirteen infantry battalions raised for service with 36th (Ulster) Division in September 1914. Its story is told in extraordinary detail for the first time in Blacker’s Boys, a new book by Nick Metcalfe.
“When it was raised the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers was wholly Protestant and Unionist, manned by men of the Ulster Volunteers and led by officers well known and influential in Unionist circles,” explains Nick.
“The ferocious battles fought in France and Flanders took their toll, however, and by the end of the war the Battalion was a complex mix of Protestant and Roman Catholic Irishmen, Englishmen from Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and London, regular soldiers, war-time volunteers and conscripts.”
Blacker’s Boys begins by explaining the situation in 1914 when pre-partition Ireland was on the verge of civil war between the opponents and supporters of Home Rule - the self-government of Ireland from a parliament in Dublin.
The outbreak of the First World War narrowly averted conflict in Ireland and Blacker’s Boys goes on to describe the raising and training of the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers. Having arrived in France in October 1915, it attacked at Hamel on 1st July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
Due to the scale of the casualties, this attack is seen by many in Ulster to be the culmination of the Battalion’s history, but it was really only the beginning. The story of the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers continues with the arrival of the first drafts of English soldiers in the autumn of 1916 and its next major actions at Messines in June 1917 and at Ypres on 16th August 1917, in which it was nearly destroyed again.
After its amalgamation with the 2nd North Irish Horse in September, when it was renamed the 9th (North Irish Horse) Battalion, it took part in the Cambrai offensive in November 1917. In 1918 the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers fought some of its finest actions.
The first was the valiant rear-guard in the long retreat from St Quentin in March, followed immediately by the bitter fighting south of Ypres in April; again it was left little more than a cadre. After its third reconstitution, it took part in the Advance to Victory; it was in action almost continuously from 24th August to 26th October 1918.
“Blacker’s Boy is not just a chronological description of the battalion’s actions,” explained Nick, “it’s a memorial to all of the men who served in its ranks, which is why that over half of the book’s 914 pages make up eight detailed appendices.
“These include a short history of the Royal Irish Fusiliers; a Roll of Honour (notably it identifies men who were previously not commemorated); details of 293 honours and awards, many with citations; biographical summaries of 249 officers and details of over 3,400 men who served with the battalion; an analysis of discipline and courts martial and a summary of the performance of the consistently victorious football team. The response by the relatives of those who served has been unbelievable and Blacker’s Boys includes their contribution – extracts from letters and diaries and over 350 photographs, most previously unseen. The text is supported by 20 full-colour maps.”
In the foreword, Lieutenant General Sir Philip Trousdell KBE CB, writes: “This exceptional book falls firmly into the telling of history. This is how those soldiers, whose names are inscribed on the Menin Gate and the Thiepval Memorial who have no known grave or those who lie in the hundreds of cemeteries, would have told you about what happened. This is the voice of reality impeccably researched.”
Blacker’s Boys: 9th (Service) Battalion, Princess Victoria’s (Royal Irish Fusiliers) (County Armagh), 1914-1919 by Nicholas Paul Metcalfe. Published privately, Hardback, priced £34.99. Available from Amazon or Waterstones. The official website for the book is www.9thirishfusiliers.co.uk.