Exactly 100 years ago, the 2nd Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers had a ferocious baptism of fire near the small town of Le Cateau in Northern France. Thirty six men were killed, twenty four of them from Ulster, two of them teenagers from East Belfast. 19 year olds Private John McKean Simms and Private Samuel Hoy lived only a few streets away from each other and died together in battle.
Three weeks earlier, the Inniskillings had been performing guard duty at Dover Castle but now, made up to active service strength with drafts of reservists, they found themselves in the front line only two days after arriving in France. Their position was on the very left of the British line, facing overwhelming odds from a buoyant German army. Trenches as we think of them now did not exist then, and the soldiers had to make do with what cover existed or could be hastily created.
The German Army pressed the retreating British and French armies following the battle of Mons on 23rd August. However, General Horace Smith-Dorrien, the Corps Commander ordered his troops to stand and fight at Le Cateau, as he believed a continued retreat would have led to a rout.
The attack began before dawn with a move by the German Jagers, to encircle the Inniskillings but they were driven back by accurate rifle fire. This set a pattern for the rest of the day, until an organised withdrawal was arranged.
Nine of those killed were from the greater Belfast area, including two Belfast teenagers.
Private John McKean Simms, 19 years old, was born in Carrickfergus. He came from a large family of ten brothers and sisters. His father Robert was a cattle dealer and at the outbreak of war, the family was living at 58 Portallo Street, Belfast. A message boy before enlisting, John was posted as missing after the battle, but his body was subsequently recovered and he was buried near where he fell in Esnes Communal Cemetery alongside seven of his comrades. John is commemorated on both the Cregagh Presbyterian Church and Strand-Sydenham Presbyterian Church Roll of Honour. Two of his brothers also served in the Great War. Thomas Simms had enlisted with Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers but was discharged as being under-age. He later served with Machine Gun Corps, achieving the rank of Sergeant and being awarded the Military Medal in 1918 whilst serving with MGC as part of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force. Robert James Simms served as a Shipwright with the Royal Navy.
A few streets away in Belfast at 82 Newcastle Street off the Newtownards Road was home to 19 year old Private Samuel Hoy. The eldest son of Samuel and Margaret Hoy, prior to the war he had followed his father’s trade as a carpenter. Samuel’s body, like the majority of those of his comrades killed that day, was never recovered and he is commemorated on the La Ferte-sous-Jouarre Memorial to the Missing. He is also commemorated on the Westbourne Presbyterian Church Roll Of Honour. Eight years after his death in 1922, Samuel’s mother received his medals.
An official communique published in the Belfast News Letter on 31 August stated:
“The battle on this day 26th August was of the most severe and desperate character. The troops offered a superb and most stubborn resistance to the tremendous odds with which they were confronted, and at length extricated themselves in good order, though with serious losses and under the heaviest artillery fire.”
A number of John and Samuel’s brothers-in-arms who died that day were not much older at only 20 and 21 years old. The 36 men killed that day were the first soldiers from the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers to be killed on active service in the Great War.
The 24 men from Ulster killed on 26 August were:
Private William Robert Elliott, Holywood, Co. Down
Private James Smyth, Louisa St, Belfast
L/Corporal Robert McCorkell, Clonleigh, Co. Donegal
Private Thomas Murray, Antrim
Private Charles O’Donnell, Glendermott, Co. Londonderry
Private John Rafferty, Butler St, Belfast
Private Samuel Ritchie, Manderson St, Belfast
Private William Ruddy, Ardgowan St, Belfast
Private Robert Scott, Seapatrick, Co. Down
Private Francis Joseph Quinn, Cappagh, Co. Tyrone
Private James Templeton, Cupar St, Belfast
Private William Warnock, Richmond St, Belfast
Serjeant Thomas Wilkinson, Cappagh, Co. Tyrone
Corporal George Ayer, Doagh, Co. Antrim
Private Robert Falls, Cookstown, Co.Tyrone
Private James Carr, Downpatrick, Co. Down
Private James Browne, Hillview St, Belfast
Private William Harvey, Convention St, Belfast
Private George Henning, Bessbrook, Co. Armagh
Private William Nixon, Portadown, Co. Armagh
Private Thomas Donnelly, Belfast
L/Corporal Joseph Willey, Christopher St, Belfast
History: The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers have a long and proud history and attachment with Ireland. The origins of the Regiment can be traced back to 1688 when citizens of Enniskillen organised to defend the town against the forces of King James. They were incorporated into the British army as the 27th Regiment of foot and fought with distinction at Waterloo. In 1881, as part of Army reforms, the 27th became the 1st and 2nd Battalions Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. Three further battalions, 3rd, 4th and 5th became militia or reserve battalions.
Battles Fought: In addition to le Cateau, the 2nd Inniskillings fought at the battles of Marne and the Aisne in 1914, at Festubert in 1915, the Somme in 1916 and at St Quentin during the German spring offensive of 1918. At le Cateau, the Inniskillings had a battle strength of around 1,000 officers and men. In addition to the thirty-six killed, many more were wounded and a number taken prisoner.
Research completed by Michael Nugent, Associate Member of History Hub Ulster https://historyhubulster.co.uk
Michael Nugent has recently launched a new research website for families hoping to find out more about their World War One ancestors at http://ww1researchireland.com
Pictures courtesy of History Hub Ulster Member, Nigel Henderson at http://www.greatwarbelfastclippings.com