The Irish in the Great War

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AT the outbreak of the First World War, there were a number of Irish 'regular' regiments of cavalry and infantry, which had served with great distinction. some for centuries, in the British Army. In the Boer War at the turn of the century they had enhanced their reputation for bravery and dash and in recognition of this, Queen Victoria ordered the distribution of the Shamrock to all Irish units on St. Patrick's Day and, of course, the formation of a new Irish regiment - the Irish Guards.

The regiments were as follows:-


4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards

5th Royal Irish Lancers

6th Inniskilling Dragoons

8th King's Royal Irish Hussars


4th Regt. of Foot Guards, 1st Btn. The Irish Guards

18th Foot, 1st and 2nd Btns. Royal Irish Regiment

27th/108th Foot, 1st and 2nd Btns. Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers

83rd/86th Foot, 1st and 2nd Btns. Royal Irish Rifles

(See 'History of the 1st to 7th Btns. below)

87th/89th Foot, 1st and 2nd Btns. Royal Irish Fusiliers

88th/94th Foot, 1st and 2nd Btns. The Connaught Rangers

100th/104th Foot 1st and 2nd Btns. The Leinster Regiment

101st/104th Foot 1st and 2nd Btns. Royal Munster Fusiliers

102nd/103rd Foot 1st and 2nd Btns. Royal Dublin Fusiliers

As a supplement to the regulars there existed a reserve of two regiments of yeomanry cavalry and 20 battalions of militia infantry.

In the long history of the British army, the Irish units served with honour in almost every campaign. Officered, mainly, by the Anglo-Irish ascenancy, its rank and file were predominantly catholic 'old Irish' sprinkled with the 'Cromwellian dourness' of protestants. The first catholic to achieve the rank of general in the British army since the reign of James II was the Irishman Sir William Francis Butler whose wife Elizabeth was a famous military artist. Many field marshals and generals of this class were to become household names.

Less well known to popular history are the plethora of ordinary regimental officers who led their units with distinction, enjoying 'being Irish and being different'.


All Irish Regiments were represented in the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) either by their first or second battalions. In fact the BEF was commanded by FM Sir John French, Regimental Colonel, the Royal Irish Regiment.

Cavalry Division - Maj. Gen. E.H.H. Allenby - 4th R. Ir. Dragoon Guards; 5th R. Ir. Lancers; 8th King's R. Ir. Hussars; The North Irish Horse/South Irish Horse (composite regt. based on the yeomanry element).

1st Corps - Lt. Gen. Sir Douglas Haig -

1st Division: 1 (Guards) Brigade 2nd Royal Munster Fusiliers

 2nd Division: 4 (Guards) Brigade 1st Irish Guards; 5 Infantry Brigade 2nd Connaught Rangers.

2nd Corps - Lt. Gen. Sir H. Smith Dorrien

3rd Division: 7 Infantry Brigade: 2nd R. Ir. Rifles; 8 Infantry Brigade 2nd R. Ir. Regiment.

3rd Corps - Maj. Gen. W. P. Pulteney

4th Division: 10 Infantry Brigade: 1st R. Ir. Fusiliers and 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers; 12 Infantry Brigade: 2nd R. Innis. Fusiliers.

6th Division: 17 Infantry Brigade: 2nd Leinster Regt.

The initial BEF numbered some 70,000 'all arms' and, with the inclusion of the artillery, engineers, medical and logistic services, the Irish contingent numbered no less than 15,000 officers and men. More were to follow as the regualrs who had formed overseas garrisons were relieved by the Territorial Force units and came home to form five new regular Divisions.

Irish units rerturned from overseas, December 1914

8th Division, 25 Brigade: 1st R. Ir. Rifles (from Aden)

27th Division, 82 Brigade: 1st R. ir. Regt.; 2nd R. Ir. Fusiliers; 1st Leinster Regt. (all from India)

29th Division, 86 Brigade: 1st R. Munster Fusiliers; 1st R. Dub. Fusiliers (both from India); 87 Brigade: 1st R. Innis. Fusiliers (from India).

In October 1914, an army corps of the Indian army arrived in France. Within its European element was 1st Conn Rangers as part of the Lahore Division.


When war broke out, the 'Special Reserve' Btns. of the Irish regiments were called up. All their men and officers went to France as replacements for the terrible casualties incurred by the regular battalions. Within three months, some 40,000 Irishmen were, or had been, in action on the Western Front - not including those Irish serving in other British regiments, of which there were many.

To meet these manpower demands, the 20 Reserve and Special Reserve Militia battalions of irish Regiments, unlike the Territorial Force in Britain, were retained in Ireland to provide basic training and reinforcement 'holding' units. While this role was accepted, it was a blow to many volunteer officers and soldiers at not being able to go into the fray under their own unit's identity.

Throughout the war, these historic formations - the Royal Meath, South Cork, Monaghan and Sligo militia battalions (and all the others!) - proved invaluable, especially in training and despatching drafts to the fighting line. Some also formed Garrison battalions of 'B' category men which served in Italy, India, Gallipoli, Salonika and Egypt. Many of these men were unfit for front-line duty by virtue of previous line service. All garrison battalions performed an invaulable service by releasing 'battle infantry' battalions for the fighting front.

The Royal Munster Fusiliers

The iconic painting 'Last Absolution of the Munsters'

Perhaps the definitive website devoted to the Royal Munster Fusiliers is owned and edited by 'exiled' Irishman, James O' Sullivan, now living in Australia.

His ongoing work in recording the history of this long disbanded regiment should be applauded by all who have an interest in Irish AND British military history.

By following the steps outlined on James's site, researchers and enthusiats will be able to follow in the footsteps of this famous regiment in the period of the Great War. A superb collection of action accounts, blended with details of officers and men makes this a highly recommended website.

Many thanks to James O'Sullivan for his support.

The 5th Royal Irish Lancers


A hugely detailed and richly illustrated site by Ciaran Byrne.

Ciaran has recently completed a book on this famous cavalry regiment. This is a highly recommended site and the section on the critical period of the so-called 'Curragh Mutiny' is exceptionally well researched.

The Royal Dublin Fusiliers


Gallipoli - the River Clyde and the landing

Conor Dodd has produced a superb website dedicated to the famous 'Dubs'. This has truly been a labour of love and it shows. Wealth of detail, sub-forum and chat room make this an essential site for anyone interested in the RDF in particular and a definite 'favourite' to add to any World War One researcher's menu.

The Royal Irish Rifles

Under construction - a new linked site based on Cyril Falls history of the Battalions numbered 1-7 of the Royal irish Rifles will appear here soon. Apologies for inconvenience.


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