World War One: Century on from a loss ‘beyond comprehension’

Today marks 100 years since one Ulster regiment suffered colossal losses in the opening stages of a little-known World War One battle.

One historian told the News Letter recent research revealing the scale of the death toll – 252 men – has forced his museum to literally rewrite its history of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers’ role in the conflict.

The Battle of Festubert began late on the night of May 15, 1915 to the north-east of Bethune; a small town in northern France, not far from the Belgian border.

Among those taking part were soldiers of the 2nd Battalion of the Inniskillings.

The regiment had been formed in 1881 by merging the historic 27th (Inniskilling) Regiment of Foot – which was created on the orders of King William of Orange in 1689, and went on to fight at the Battle of the Boyne the following year – with an Indian colonial outfit called the 108th Regiment of Foot.

Its 1st Battalion was a bigger, Indian-based grouping which went on to fight in Gallipoli. But a different fate awaited the 2nd Battalion.

Richard Bennett, trustee of the Inniskillings Museum in Fermanagh, said when war broke out the 2nd Battalion had only around 330 men.

“They were made up very quickly by reservists; men who had done their service, but when they left the Army were still ‘on reserve’ for five years,” he said.

“They were leaving Enniskillen within two to three days.”

He added that many of the reservists who subsequently joined were also members of the Irish Volunteers.

At the outbreak of war, the 2nd Battalion was stationed in Dover and by August 25 that year had reached the front lines.

By the end of April 2015, 292 of its men had died, with many more wounded or missing.

The following month, the Battalion was fighting in the area of Richebourg, a village in the Festubert region.

And at 11.30pm on May 15, it was part of a multi-regiment attack on German defences.

One group, called D Company, managed to hold the German line until the following night before being ordered to retreat.

Mr Bennett said that recent research by museum volunteer Robin Hogg has thrown up the fact from May 15 to May 16, a total of 252 soldiers died – a strikingly-high toll in such a short space of time.

By contrast, the greatest loss in any Inniskillings battalions on the notoriously-bloody first day of the Somme was 233.

The battle continued for more than a week. In total, 392 men died during the month of May.

“It’s just difficult to grasp the scale of this,” said Mr Bennett.

“It’s beyond our comprehension... We’re so many generations away from it all. It’s only when you see letters from families and so on that you get a sense.”

The museum runs an exhibition each year with plaques relating to the Inniskillings’ 1915 activities, and one of them had been amended as a result of the research.

“It had to be re-written in the context of giving a higher profile to Festubert,” he said.

“Because we hadn’t realised just the impact of it.

“I would have never heard of it myself; I’m a historian and know quite a bit about the First World War, and I’d never heard of it.”