Private Robert Hamilton was in action with the 9th Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers at the Battle of the Somme in France.
THE BATTLE OF THE SOMME July 1st 1916
Des Blackadder from Ballymena has written a very moving account of the role played by the 12th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles who fought alongside the 9th Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers. Hellfire Corner describes how the two units manned a line of trench which stretched between two strongpoints. These two battalions of 108 Brigade were separated from the remainder of their comrades in the Ulster Division by the marshy valley of the River Ancre – a zone deemed impossible for troops to operate in because of the nature of the ground.
Their objective on 1st July was to clear the German trenches which protected the approaches to Beaucourt Railway Station, a main supply and communications centre of the German army in the Thiepval area. No-man’s land was about 400 yards deep, about the length of four football pitches, and about half way across was a seventy yards wide ravine with twenty feet deep, steeply sloping sides.
At zero hour the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers (Armagh, Monaghan and Cavan Volunteers) attacked ‘in fine style’. In fact, the first wave got away with few casualties but succeeding waves were advancing onto ground which was now a cross-fire zone for the elite German machine gun teams who had raced to their emplacements the moment the British bombardment had ceased.
Despite their losses, the Fusiliers charged on, by this time ignoring all previous orders to advance at a walking pace, and swept over the German front line.
Some men did get into the German lines – most of those who did were next to the 9th Fusiliers and a few small groups fought (alongside) the Armagh men during their harrowing struggle towards Beaucourt Station. Others attempted to clear a breach for their comrades who were hampered by the uncut wire but the fight was unequal and the battalion’s war diary makes it plain that the attack was now doomed to failure.
Philip Orr, in ‘The Road to the Somme’ records how those men who had breached the enemy line came back, retreating one by one, or paying the price as the enemy attack swept over them. (The attack had) been a military failure. The bombardment had failed to cut the wire properly and had not destroyed the deep German dug outs. In 1916, officers could not request artillery support to deal with a particular problem. The barrage was totally inflexible and the gunners themselves inexperienced. Even the ground was against the two battalions. The ravine had been far too difficult to negotiate and its steep sides slowed the advance allowing the Germans to win the race to mount and fire their machine guns.
Many casualties occurred when men had to leave the cover they had sought to ‘fall back’. It could be argued that those who made their way back to the British lines despite wounds and trauma on July 1 were amongst the bravest of the brave. While in the trenches they were at least sheltered from the hail of machine gun fire and shrapnel which swept the open ground. But going ‘above ground’ almost guaranteed a wound of some kind. (DES BLACKADDER)
(to be continued)
The talk was made possible with the assistance of a team. The vestry of the church (especially Ronnie), Ruby Heasty, a distant relative who gave the introduction, Heather Stirrat, another Hamilton connection, and Marie McKenna, who provided the encouragement and also the technical support. I thank them all, and Jonathan Maguire of the Royal Irish Fusiliers Museum in Armagh, who provided details of Robert Hamilton’s military service. He also suggested the excellent book by Nick Metcalfe, Blacker’s Boys, in which you will find the name of Robert.