Royal Dublin Fusiliers

Interview with Seán Connolly, Secretary of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers Association, conducted by Gordon O’Sullivan, 8 April 2012

Royal Dublin Fusiliers Crest
(Image courtesy of Royal Dublin Fusiliers Association)

Charles Martin served in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, what was the regiment’s standing both in the British Army and in Ireland? Did they have a proud history?  
The Royal Dublin Fusiliers Regiment had its roots in the garrison established by the East India Company at Fort St. George, Madras, India, in 1648. Following the Indian Mutiny of 1857, the Crown took over the East India Company’s private army.

In the major Army reform of 1881, the Royal Madras Fusiliers and the Royal Bengal Fusiliers became the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. The recruiting area comprised the counties of Dublin, Kildare, Wicklow and Carlow. The regimental depot was at Naas, Co. Kildare. Three reserve battalions were added to the two regular battalions.

The Regiment became quite famous as a result of its actions in the Boer War. One of its members, a boy soldier known as the “Bugler” Dunne, was presented with a silver bugle by Queen Victoria to replace the one that was lost in the battle at Tugela River. He was famous throughout the British Empire. The 2nd Battalion was the first to march into Mafeking after the siege was broken. A memorial Arch, now a well-known Dublin landmark, was raised in St Stephen’s Green. One of the bronze figures at the base of the Queen Victoria statue that once stood in front of Leinster House was a dying Dublin Fusilier being comforted by Hibernia. It is now in the garden at Dublin Castle.

Statue of Queen Victoria
(Image courtesy of Royal Dublin Fusiliers Association)

Charles fought in the 6th Battalion of the RDF, where was their home barracks and in what theatres of war did they serve in during the First World War?
The 6th Battalion was one of the six additional battalions that were raised for service during the First World War. The Regimental Depot was at Naas. The 6th and 7th Battalions were assigned to the 10th (Irish) Division. They trained on the Curragh before moving to the Royal, now Collins Barracks, Dublin. Further training took place in the Phoenix Park and on the firing range at Bull Island before the Division moved to Basingstoke in Hampshire in May 1915. It landed at Suvla Bay in Gallipoli on 7 August 1915. The campaign failed to break through the Turkish defences and the Division moved to Salonika in October 1915 to take part in the campaign against the Bulgarians.

Could you give the reader a short account of the RDF’s Salonika campaign in which Charles goes missing?
In September 1915, Serbia appealed for support from the Allies and Greece to defend itself against a threatened attack by the armies of Austria-Hungry and Germany. Two previous attempted invasions had been repulsed but its army was weakened by its losses and by typhoid. The failure of the Gallipoli campaign and the promise of territorial gains had induced Bulgaria to join the Central Powers. The Allies hoped that the deployment of troops in Serbia would prevent an attack. The 10th (Irish) Division and the French 156th Division were directed to move to Serbia via Salonika (modern Thessaloniki). The Austro-Hungarian army moved against Serbia on 6 October and the Serbian Army was defeated before the support could arrive. The urgent transfer did not allow proper preparation by the 10th (Irish) Division which had lost over 2,000 soldiers in Gallipoli. The men were not equipped for a winter campaign in very difficult terrain which was subject to extreme weather and the risk of malaria. There were no proper roads.

On 31 October, the 6th Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers arrived in Salonika and marched to the front line in an area northwest of Lake Doiran, just across the Greek border. The Bulgarian attack on 7 December forced the allies to retreat to a defensive line around Salonika.

As in Gallipoli, the Allies underestimated the capacity of the opposing troops.

This diary is written to Charles at a time when he is reported wounded and missing and his mother is trying all means possible to discover more information on his whereabouts. What sort of support networks did relatives of the RDF soldiers have? Where they organised in sending out parcels to the front for example?
There were a number of voluntary organisations which collected socks, scarves, tobacco, food, etc. for the soldiers. One example was the group managed by Miss Monica Roberts, a young woman who lived quite close to the Martins. According to the Dublin City Archives “At the time of the First World War, Monica Roberts was a young woman living in Stillorgan, Co. Dublin. She set up a voluntary organization, ‘The Band of Helpers to the Soldiers’ to provide gifts for Irish troops at the front, particularly those serving with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and the Royal Flying Corps. Many soldiers wrote to thank Monica Roberts and a correspondence then developed.”  A collection of the soldiers’ letters of appreciation to her is held in Dublin City Archives here.

Mary’s other son, Thomas, fought in the Connaught Rangers. What sort of rivalry would there have been between Irish regiments serving in the British Army? Also how ‘Irish’ were the Irish Regiments during this period?  

I have not seen any references to particular rivalry between the Irish regiments. Each regiment had its own tradition. The regiment did not serve as a unit. Battalions served in various brigades and divisions. Divisional and Battalion loyalty was strong.

Officers came from a different class to the men and many were English. English, Welsh and Scots joined Irish regiments before 1914. Volunteers and conscripts were assigned to Irish regiments to bring the numbers up to strength and to replace losses. The 10th (Irish) Division was largely Irish in 1915 but it also had Artillery and Engineer components which were not. By the end of the war, the Irish component was down to about 50%. The 16th (Irish) Division was disbanded in April 1918 as had the 8th, 9th, and 10th Battalions of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers previously due to lack of recruits to replace the losses.

The Royal Dublin Fusiliers in the First World War

When the First World War began in August 1914, the 1st Battalion was in Madras. The 2nd Battalion was sent to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force. The 6th, 7th, 8th,  9th, 10th,  and 11th  Battalions were formed from the volunteers who enlisted after the outbreak of the war.  The 1st, 6th and 7th were sent to Gallipoli, the 6th and 7th subsequently fighting at Salonika. The 1st and 2nd were at the opening of the Battle of the Somme. The 8th, 9th and 10th fought at Loos and later at the Somme in 1916. The 1st, 2nd, 8th, 9th and 10th were all involved in the 3rd Battle of Ypres, also known as Passchendaele. The 8th and 9th were merged and later disbanded, along with the 10th Battalion, in February 1918. The 1st and 2nd Battalions suffered heavily in the major German attack in March 1918.  By the end of the Great War, 4,777 Royal Dublin Fusiliers had been killed.

Further reading

The Cross and the Sword: Marie, Tommy and Charlie Martin in the First World War by Philip Lecane in The Blue Cap –  the journal of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers Association. (Reproduced below with kind permission of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers Association).