For a dead English soldier it really doesn’t matter whether the foreign field in which you finally rest is in Flanders or in Dublin. At least it shouldn’t. But scattered across Dublin cemeteries lie the forgotten remains of the young men of the Sherwood Foresters Regiment who were slaughtered on Dublin’s Streets during the 1916 Easter Rising. Their story, like their scruffy and neglected graves, remains largely forgotten in the long and embarrassed history of the English in Ireland.
They were volunteers, recruited from the towns and villages of Nottinghamshire. From Newark and Bingham from Huthwaite and Hucknall, Robin Hood county, the English folk hero from which the regiment took it’s name. They had responded to Kitchener’s posters, to fight in the trenches of Belgium and France, but had been caught instead in a smaller cause and had been pulled out of basic training at Watford to be thrown into street fighting against the Irish Rebels in Dublin
They were so raw. Most had less than three months of military service. They were unfamiliar with their weapons and many of them had not yet had live firing practice. Young men with guns and little training are as much of a danger to themselves as they are to anyone else. On Dublin’s dockside their officers issued live ammunition but ensured that as the men charged their weapons they were pointing their rifles safely out to sea – just in case of accidents amongst such unskilled soldiers.
The officers, all volunteers from English public schools, breakfasted at St. George’s harbourside Yacht club while the men opened tins of bully beef and biscuits. Some of the men thought they had landed in France. They were excited, keen, anxious and apprehensive.
In the paneled rooms of the Yacht club the officers were briefed on the outbreak of Rebellion and given their orders. They were to divide their forces. Two of the battalions, Derbyshire men, would march round the city and enter from the west, making their way to Kilmainham hospital, now the Irish Museum of Modern Art, and thence to Dublin castle. They were to be heavily engaged in the rebellion but would suffer light causalities. Their most notable presence became known through the use of Guinness Company boilers mounted on the rear of lorries and deployed around the city centre as makeshift armoured cars.
The other two battalions, the Nottinghamshire men, faced a much graver fate. They were to march straight though the heart of Dublin. Many of the raw young Robin Hoods would never make it. They would never see Belgium or France and never see again the forests of their native Sherwood.
They marched towards their destiny armed only with lee-Enfield rifles and bayonets. There was not a hand grenade between them. At Watford they had left with Lewis machine guns, two to each battalion. A fearsome, drum fed weapon, capable of firing .303 calibre bullets at a rate of up to 600 rounds per minute. But at Liverpool a zealous and bureaucratic loading officer insisted they leave the Lewis guns behind. It was to be a costly error.
The Rebels towards which they now advanced were under the command of Eamon de Valera, the future Taoiseach and President of Ireland. He and his men had been training for this moment for years. They were on home ground, better trained and more experienced than the oncoming Sherwood Foresters, well armed and superbly positioned in buildings heavily reinforced with sandbags and makeshift barricades. Their task was to hold the Mount Street Canal Bridge and prevent troops entering the city centre to reinforce those already fighting around the General Post Office. They had to stop the oncoming Sherwood Foresters.
At Clanwilliam house, directly opposite the Mount Street bridge, De. Valera deployed some six men armed with a mix of Lee-Enfield’s, German mausers and Italian Martini rifles. The house was a large gracious three story Georgian end terrace, with long elegant windows which gave commanding views over the approaches to the Mount Street bridge. More men were deployed in a school on the south corner of the bridge. And on the approach road to the bridge, at No. 25 Northumberland Road, behind barricaded and looped firing positions were deployed the experienced rebel volunteers Lt. Grace and Lt. Malone. They were to inflict the first and the heaviest of the Sherwood’s casualties and the house, which still stands , bears a commemorative plaque to their efforts. In all some seventeen rebels held the chosen strongpoint’s around the Mount St. Bridge.
The Mount Street canal bridge area is one of the most opulent of Dublin’s suburbs. Graced by large substantial houses. It is in the most sought after residential quarter of the city. But only for the rich for the houses are splendid and today you would pay several million euros for a semi-detached house of the kind in which Grace and Malone now awaited the raw unskilled soldiers of the Sherwood Foresters.
They marched in the fine sunlight of a Dublin Spring. From Kingstown, where they landed (now known as Dun Laoghaire) though the wide tree lined streets towards the Canal bridge.
The Battalion adjutant Capt. Dietrichsen, a Nottingham barrister, was surprised and delighted to find his wife and children amongst those waving and welcoming the marching troops. She was an Irish girl, Beatrice Mitchell, from the noted Dublin wine merchants; she had left their home Nottingham, in fear of German Zeppelin raids, for the safety of her parent’s family home in Blackrock, Dublin. They embraced and hugged in the pure joy of the surprise.
Some harassing fire was directed at them as they neared the vicinity of the bridge but it was not of any great or determined effect. It was largely an enjoyable march, for the residents welcomed them and pressed tea and sandwiches upon the soldiers and offered gifts, including maps and field glasses. The battalion scouts riding ahead on bicycles were given detailed intelligence as to the Rebel positions towards which they now approached. Not all the intelligence was accurate.
Captain Dietrichsen was amongst the first of the Robin Hoods to die. Less than an hour after embracing his family in Blackrock, just 200 yards from the canal bridge, he, with the advance guard of the battalion, came under withering sustained fire from the rebels in 25 Northumberland Road. Ten Sherwood Foresters fell , amongst them the fatally wounded Captain Dietrichsen and his colleague Lt. Hawken. The soldiers fell back into the opposite side of the road not yet knowing from where the shots had come.
They deployed along Northumberland Road in the spring sunshine, returning fire when they could. But street fighting with rifles is an ineffective response to a well positioned urban enemy behind good and organised cover. What you need to get them out is light artillery, or tanks. The Lewis guns, left behind in Liverpool, would have kept the rebel heads down and reduced the now rapidly escalating casualties, but without a heavier and bettor weaponed response then it was always going to be wasteful slaughter. So it was to prove. Whatever these young raw Robin Hoods lacked in military experience and skills, they lacked nothing in bravery. Number 25 was identified as the source of their comrades sudden death and the remaining officers drew swords and led the men in a ferocious bayonet charge across the road and towards the rebel’s house.
As they charged towards Number 25 they were caught in a merciless crossfire as the rebels in Clanwilliam house now opened fire. Terrible casualties were inflicted and soldiers fell all across Northumberland Road. From No. 25, Grace and Malone were firing point blank into the desperate ranks of the Robin Hoods, Grace emptying his Mauser pistol in an orgy of violence in the quiet and gracious suburb.
Northumberland Road was wet with English Blood.
The British infantry had been trained to advance towards enemy lines on the sound of a whistle. It was the only tactic they knew. Now, every twenty minutes, on the sound of a British Army issue whistle, the Robin Hoods again charged their enemy. They charged No. 25 Northumberland Road. They charged the school at the corner of the bridge. They charged the bridge. They charged Clanwilliam House. They charged and charged, and were slaughtered. They were refused permission to flank the rebels with an attack from the right. Only frontal attacks were to be allowed. The attacks were to be pressed home “at all costs”. Frontal charges onto the guns of the rebels.
By late in the day, when the Dublin Military Garrison provided them with a Lewis gun and with hand grenades, they had already lost some 230 men in dead and wounded. They lay all over the quiet suburb, along the grassy canal banks, by the bridge, around the school, the parochial hall, and across the steps of the grand houses.
It was the hand bombs and the machine guns that turned the battle. No 25 was finally overwhelmed with bombs, and one of the rebels shot, the other escaping. The school was taken but no rebels found, only the dead caretaker and his equally dead wife, the bridge was crossed, Clanwilliam house was bombed and burned and here, in the words of the regiments historian, at least three rebels met their death at the hands of the Robin Hoods, the other rebels getting clean away.
From the perspective of the rebels this had been a magnificent victory. So many English dead at the hands of so few rebels. It was the Rorke’s Drift of the Rebellion. Seventeen men had held off two battalions of the British Army.
For the British it was a disaster. Within a twenty minute march of the bridge there were half a dozen other bridges that could have been crossed with little difficulty and which would have delayed the soldiers by no more than half an hour. Instead they had engaged in a full-scale struggle with untrained troops against an well-entrenched and highly motivated enemy. It was the classic example of how not to fight a street battle. Perhaps the first important lesson for the British Military in street fighting tactics.
For the raw dead teenage soldiers it was a tragedy. They must have known when they volunteered for the Great War, that death was a possibility, they knew that they might die in Belgium or in France. But Dublin. Death in Dublin would never have entered their minds.
Had they died in Flanders they would at least have merited a well-kept grave with a noble military headstone. They would be visited, and honoured on Remembrance Day. Capt. Dietrichsen, perhaps because his family were in Dublin, got a private marked grave, but unlike those of his comrades who lie in the military cemeteries of Belgium and France, his Dublin corner of a foreign field lies scruffy, neglected and forgotten, his name worn to nothing by the passage of time.
Some of the dead soldiers’ lie in decent graves well kept and tendered with proper care and respect by Irish cemetery staff. Military graves, listed in the records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, it is the way that military dead should be treated. Others lie in sad untidy plots, scattered around Dublin cemeteries, neglected by age, forgotten by history.
Perhaps the military performance of the Robin Hoods was considered so poor that they were not and are not recalled with the same degree of honour that we remember the dead from Flanders or the dead from World War II. That cannot be, for these raw young soldiers were as brave as lions. Their slaughter was not of their own making and any military deficiency in the Mount Street bridge battle came from the poor leadership and direction given by the Generals of the British High Command in Ireland, not from the performance or bravery of the Sherwood Foresters, men or officers.
These were young volunteers, as noble as any soldiers who ever died in military service. This November, this Remembrance Day, think of them when you wear your poppy.
They deserve nothing less.
(c)John McGuiggan email@example.com