Neuve Chapelle is a rural village, with many enclosed gardens and orchards, four miles to the north of La Bassée, and on the road between Bethune and Armentières. Fierce engagements for its possession were fought in October and November, 1914. The Germans were driven out of it on October 16th. It was retaken by them at the beginning of November; and though strongly entrenched and barricaded by the enemy it was finally captured by the British on March 11th and 12th, 1915.
The 2nd Royal Irish Rifles took part in the severe fighting around the village at the end of October, 1914, and, as I have already stated, were highly praised by Smith-Dorrien for their valiancy in holding up a big German attack. They lost heavily on that occasion, but their dead were avenged by the help the battalion gave in inflicting so serious a defeat upon the enemy as the victorious reoccupation of Neuve Chapelle. The first glimpse we got of the Royal Irish Rifles in the battle is in a letter written by an officer of a battalion which was closely co-operating with them, Captain and Adjutant E.H. Impey, of the 2nd Lincoln Regiment. "The Irish Rifles came through us," he says, referring to proceedings on March 10th, "and we cheered them lustily. Lieutenant Graham was rallying his men round him with a French newsboy's horn, giving a 'view-hallo' occasionally just as a master collects his pack."
Captain Impey states that on the next day, March 11th, the Lincolns were ordered to support the Irish Rifles, "Owing to some mistake," he says, "the Irish Rifles attacked before their time, and so got no artillery support. They lost very heavily in officers and men." It was on this day that the battalion suffered the grievous loss of their commanding officer, Lieut.-Colonel George Brenton Laurie. On the first day Colonel Laurie seemed to have had a charmed life. "He deliberately walked up and down, giving orders and cheering the men on amid a flood of fire," says Sergeant-Major Miller of the battalion. "He seemed unconscious of the fact that a great bombardment was taking place. It was a wonderful sight to see him there, his big military figure standing out boldly in presence of his soldiers." Colonel Laurie was killed by the terrific shell fire which the Germans poured on the advancing British. "It was brutal. We were lying in a wood. The bullets were whistling over us in millions, and the screeching of the shells was terrific," says Bugler Jack Leathem in a letter to his mother at Downpatrick. "The trees were flying about like chaff and the fellows getting blown to pieces. I do not know how some of us escaped. Someone must have been praying for us. You know I am not very nervous, but I was not sorry when it was over. It was four very hard days, fighting both day and night, with no sleep and no trenches to protect us, only the ones we dug ourselves with our entrenching tools. They saved us from the bullets, but it was impossible to get out of shell-fire."
"You would hardly credit it," adds Bugler Leathem, "but every time we lay down to take cover out came our pipes and 'fags.' You would have thought we were on a manœuvre parade at home instead of in one of the fiercest of battles." This was the spirit that brought the battalion to Neuve Chapelle. About one o'clock in the afternoon of March 11th the 2nd Lincolns proceeded up the road into the village, or, as Captain Impey says, "the ruins of what was once a very pretty village," and found the Irish Rifles there before them. "We lay in support in this village," Captain Impey writes, "while the Irish Rifles fought the enemy in front. A company was sent in close support just behind them along a hedge."
One of the most interesting documents relating to the Irish regiments in the war is a letter written by Father Francis Gleeson, chaplain of the 2nd Munster Fusiliers. In it he states that each of the four companies of the 2nd Munsters carries a green flag with a golden harp in the corner, the Royal Tiger in the centre, and "Munster" inscribed underneath. "The Irish flags are being highly honoured," he says. "The French people are awfully kind to and fond of the Munsters, because they are so Irish and Catholic. It is really true to say that in us, the 'Munsters,' they recognise the children of the men who fought for them at Fontenoy and Landen. They know that we are old, old friends, indeed. Their histories tell of Ireland's brave sons having died for their country here." Moved by these memories of the Irish Catholic Brigade in the service of France from the fall of the Stuarts in England until the fall of the Bourbons in France—and regularly recruited for a hundred years from Ireland—the French people recognise the distinct and separate nationality of the Irish regiments. "We are 'Les Irlandais,' and not 'Les Anglais'" says Father Gleeson. "Our flags have done that." "The French priests are very fond of us," he goes on to relate, "and give us the use of their beautiful chapels. The people wept after the Munsters the other day when we left a village where we were billeted for a rest." He proudly adds, "On all sides the Munsters are being congratulated for their magnificent behaviour. This is due to the men's faith! They are the best conducted battalion of all the Armies engaged in this world-war, because they are the most Irish, the most Catholic, and the most pure."
The 2nd Munsters have been in the thick of the fighting ever since the outbreak of war. Of the men who landed in France in August, 1914, there are but few survivors. The bones of many are mouldering in the soil of France and Flanders. Others are prisoners at Limburg-an-Lahn in Germany, captured in the rearguard actions during the retreat from Mons. The gaps in the ranks have been filled up by other lads from Limerick, Cork, Kerry and Clare. Always uncertain are the chances of life, but how strange and fantastic they sometimes appear! Who of these boys ever imagined in 1914 that within a year they would be serving in the British Army, much less fighting against Germany on the Continent? Fresh from the towns and villages of Munster, and new to soldiering and warfare, their racial qualities were put to the test at Rue de Bois, close to Neuve Chapelle, on Sunday, May 9th, 1915, when the Third Infantry Brigade were ordered to attack the trenches that had been held by the Germans since October. The story of the fight brings out the services of the chaplain of the battalion; and the sustaining courage which the men derive from their religious observances and their green flags, the embodiment of that ancient Irish inspiration—"Faith and Fatherland." I have compiled my narrative from the accounts written by Mrs. Victor Rickard, widow of Colonel Rickard, the officer in command of the regiment, who was killed gallantly leading his men on that memorable day; and Sergeant-Major T.J. Leahy, of Monkstown, Co. Cork, who took part in the engagement. It is worthy of note that Sergeant-Major Leahy, in an earlier letter, mentions that he served Mass for the chaplain, and was known to Father Gleeson as his "altar boy." He corroborates what Father Gleeson has written of the high moral conduct of the battalion by saying, "Prayers more than anything else console me, and every fellow is the same, so the war has been the cause of making us almost an army of saints."
In his description of the battle, Sergeant-Major Leahy states that on the preceding day, Saturday, May 8th, close on 800 men received Holy Communion at the hands of Father Gleeson, and wrote their names and home addresses in their hymn books. When evening came the regiment moved up to take their places in the trenches in front of Rue de Bois. "At the entrance to Rue de Bois," writes Mrs. Rickard, "there stands a broken shrine, and within the shrine a crucifix. When the Munsters came up the road, Major Rickard halted the battalion. The men were ranged in three sides of a square, their green flags—a gift from Lady Gordon—placed before each company. Father Gleeson mounted, Colonel Rickard and Captain Filgate, the Adjutant, on their chargers, were in the centre, and in that wonderful twilight Father Gleeson gave a General Absolution." Sergeant-Major Leahy supplies other particulars of that moving scene. "On the lonely, dark roadside," he says, "lit up now and then by flashes from our own or German flares, rose to heaven the voices of 800 men, singing that glorious hymn, 'Hail, Queen of Heaven.' There were no ribald jests or courage buoyed up with alcohol; none of the fanciful pictures which imagination conjures up of soldiers going to a desperate charge. No, there were brave hearts without fear; only hoping that God would bring them through, and if the end—well, only a little shortened of the allotted span. Every man had his rosary out, reciting the prayers, in response to Father Gleeson, just as if at the Confraternity at home, instead of having to face death in a thousand hideous forms the following morning." He mentions also that after the religious service Father Gleeson went down the ranks, saying words of comfort; bidding good-bye to the officers, and telling the men to keep up the honour of the regiment.
At dawn the German position was bombarded for seven minutes in order to cut gaps in the barbed-wire entanglements through which the Munsters might pass to the enemy's trenches. Then, as Sergeant-Major Leahy relates, the order was given by the officers—"Are you ready, lads?" "Yes," came the response. "Then over the parapet, like one man, leaped 800 forms, the four green company flags leading." The intervening plain measured three hundred yards. It was swept by the close-range fire of the Germans, like rain from thunder-clouds. Hundreds of the Munsters fell in the charge; but "The green flag was raised on the parapet of the main German trench, and in they went," says Sergeant-Major Leahy. Mrs. Rickard states that the regiments on the left and right, being unable to get near the line where the Munsters were fighting, the position became that of a forlorn hope; and the battalion was ordered to retire. "You were the only battalion attacking to penetrate and storm the German trenches, although under a hellish fire," said the Commander of the Brigade, subsequently addressing the Munsters. "You have added another laurel to your noble deeds during the present campaign. I am proud to command such a gallant regiment." "So the Munsters came back after their day's work," writes Mrs. Rickard; "they formed up in the Rue de Bois, numbering 200 men and three officers." "It seems almost superfluous to make any further comment," she adds. Father Gleeson was in the trenches during the answering bombardment by the Germans. "It was terrible," said Private Danaher; "houses, trees, and bodies flying in the air. Still, Father Gleeson stuck to his post attending to the dying Munsters, and shells dropping all around him. Indeed, if anyone has earned the V.C., Father Gleeson has. He is a credit to the country he hails from, and has brought luck to the Munsters since he joined them."