London Irish at War


THE LONDON IRISH RIFLES was founded during the great days of the Volunteer Movement in the middle of the last century when the threat of a French invasion roused the country to arms.  In 1859 a group of prominent Irishmen resident in London met in the rooms of Mr. JT Dempsey, an Irish journalist, and they formed the nucleus of “THE CORPS OF IRISH GENTLEMEN-AT-ARMS.”

Later, there was a larger and more representative gathering under the chairmanship of the third Marquess of Donegall, Captain of the Yeoman of the Guard, an A.D.C. to Queen Victoria, Lieutenant of the County of Antrim, and Colonel of the Antrim Militia.  It was decided to organise a rifle volunteer force under the title of the London Irish Volunteers.

In due course it was accorded official recognition and the Marquess of Donegall became its first Commandant.

One of the first recruits to the Regiment was Lord Palmerston, and another was Samuel Lover, the Irish novelist, who wrote a marching-song for the Regiment, and also designed badges for the cross-belts of the officers.

The first Colonel-in-Chief was Field-Marshal Viscount Gough, and Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught, became Honorary Colonel from 1872 until his death in 1942.


In spite of early difficulties the London Irish progressed steadily until, in the South African War, it was able to provide a contingent for the City of London Imperial Volunteers, and also a service company for the Royal Irish Rifles and men for the Middlesex Yeomanry.  In the campaign one officer won the D.S.O., and another was awarded seven clasps to his South African medal.

Throughout the South African War the London Irish distinguished themselves for their fighting qualities and gained their first battle honours: South Africa, 1900-02.

Back from South Africa, the Regiment settled down to several years of routine peacetime training, but more realistic and strenuous than ever before.  New ideas and methods were coming into the Army.

Those years of growth and training were destined to prepare the Regiment for its part in the First Great War. In 1904 the Regiment was known as the 16th Middlesex Rifle Volunteers, with headquarters in Duke Street, Adelphi.  So great was the interest in the Volunteer Movement at that time that it was at full strength and had a waiting list.  The Commanding Officer was Colonel Sir Howland Roberts, and Captain Grylls, of the Connaught Rangers, the Adjutant.

April 1908 marked the end of the old Volunteers and the formation of the Territorial Army.  The battalion became the 18th Battalion County of London Regiment (London Irish Rifles), and was posted to the 5th Infantry Brigade, 2nd London Division.  The new Territorial Army came under the direct control of the War Office, and a bounty of £5 was granted to all other ranks who proved themselves efficient during the training year, performed forty drills in their first year, and twenty in each succeeding year.  The musketry course had to be passed, and to earn the bounty summer camp was compulsory.

The London Irish Rifles endured many dark days from 1908 to 1912.  Following removal to the Duke of York’s Headquarters, Chelsea, recruiting improved, and under the Command of Lieut.-Colonel Concanon, D.S.O., there was by early 1914 the nucleus of a grand battalion.

The momentous August of that year saw them in camp on Salisbury Plain, and they were recalled to London and mobilised for active service when war suddenly broke out.

THE GREAT WAR, 1914-1918

The 1st Battalion arrived in France in March 1915, and one of the first actions in which it distinguished itself was at Festubert in the following May.   In September it took part in the Battle of Loos, and it was in that action that a rifleman kicked a football over the top as the London Irish attacked the German lines, and dribbled it across “no man’s land,” scoring a “goal” in the enemy trenches.  This incident is commemorated by a statuette, “The Footballer of Loos,” which stands in the officers’ mess, and a football preserved in the sergeants’ mess.

As part of the 47th Division, the 1st Battalion fought in the Battle of the Somme, and from October 1916 to September 1917 it served in the Ypres Salient under terrible conditions of weather and warfare.  In March 1918 the London Irish took part in the great retreat of the Anglo-French forces, and had its share of the responsibilities of the rearguard actions.

By August the same year the 47th Division was ready to take its part in the Allied counter-offensive which in due time brought the war to an end.  The division arrived forward, first in the Somme Valley and then in the Béthune area, and eventually into Lille, which up to then had been in German occupation throughout the war.


The 2nd Battalion, which was formed at the end of August 1914, eventually became part of the 60th Division.  Early months were spent in training and home-defence duties.  The battalion landed in France in June 1916, and took over part of the front line under Vimy Ridge, holding that sector until early in November 1916.  It was then transferred to Salonika, the London Irish landing on December 1 of the same year and marching to a line between the River Vardar and Lake Doiran, perhaps the hardest march the battalion had encountered up to that time.

The division went to Egypt in June 1917, and joined in the war against the Turks in Palestine.  It took over in front of Beersheba, the extreme right of the line and the most remote infantry posts in the desert.

The historic advance of Allenby’s Army began on October 28 of that year, after the defeat of the Turks at Beersheba.  The 60th were in heavy fighting in November, and the following month Jerusalem fell.  It was entered on the morning of December 9, the surrender being made to the Commander of the 180th Infantry Brigade, of which the 2nd Battalion London Irish Rifles was part.

The 60th Division remained in the line north of Jerusalem until February 10, having pushed on about ten miles through the mountains.  The London Irish suffered very heavy casualties on December 23, 1917, at Khurbet Adaseh, when the battalion attack unexpectedly met the main Turkish concentration for a counter offensive.  That was the 2nd Battalion’s worst knock of the war, and only one second lieutenant and one sergeant were left of the officers and senior non-commissioned officers.

Fighting continued during the spring months, and in June 1918 the 2nd Battalion was disbanded.  The reason was that after the German break-through in France in March of that year, the Palestine Army was called upon for all troops who could be spared.  In each brigade the strongest battalion was retained, and the weakest disbanded to provide reinforcements for the others.  Unfortunately, the London Irish was numerically the weakest in 180 Brigade, owing to the heavy fighting of the previous seven months.  Most of the men left were sent to reinforce the 10th (Irish) Division, and the battalion ceased as an entity.


Festubert, 1915                           Albert, 1918


Somme, 1916,                   1918 Pursuit to Mons

Flers-Courcelette                       France, Flanders, 1915-18

Morval                                       Doiran, 1917

Le Transloy                                 Macedonia, 1916-17

Messines, 1917                           Gaza

Ypres, 1917                                El Mughar

Langemarck, 1917                       Nebi Samwil

Cambrai, 1917                            Jerusalem

St. Quentin                                Jericho

Bapaume, 1918                          Jordan

Ancre, 1918                               Palestine, 1917-18


After the bitterness and suffering of 1914-18 the nation was war weary, and with the economic depression that followed there came a demand for national economy.  Drastic cuts were made in the expenditure on the fighting services, and the Territorial Army, in particular, encountered difficult days.

There were important changes in Ireland, and with the creation of the Free State five famous Irish infantry regiments were disbanded. They were the Dublin Fusiliers, the Munsters, the Connaught Rangers, the Royal Irish Regiment, and the Leinsters. These regiments all had proud records, and to perpetuate their memory each company of the London Irish Rifles has a pipe banner bearing the crest of one of them. Headquarters Company has a banner commemorating the Connaught Rangers, A Company the Royal Irish Regiment, B Company the Leinster Regiment, C Company the Munsters, and D Company the Dublin Fusiliers.

Despite the handicap of those years, the London Irish were sustained by a fine band of men who were strong in their determination that the traditions of the Regiment must never be allowed to lapse or be forgotten.  When the whole of the Territorial Army was at a low ebb in the middle ‘thirties, and the name of Hitler was beginning to become known outside Germany, there came to the battalion a young subaltern, Jack Macnamara. His enthusiasm and cheery comradeship with all ranks helped to put a new zest and energy into the battalion.

As the world situation gradually deteriorated, Jack Macnamara, who became Member of Parliament for Chelmsford, realised the dangers that would befall an unarmed Britain.  He did all within his power to revive not only public, but official, interest in the Territorial Army, and under his leadership the London Irish Rifles grew in strength and activity.  In 1937 it became the Territorial battalion of the Royal Ulster Rifles.

The traditional headdress of the Regiment, the caubeen with green hackle, was seen at many State ceremonials, including the King George Jubilee celebrations, and State processions connected with the visits of foreign monarchs and rulers to this country.

Lieut.-Colonel JRJ  Macnamara, MP, was appointed Commanding Officer of the battalion in 1938, when Europe found itself in the middle of a crisis which a year later burst into the fury of the Second World War.

In April 1939 the order came to double the Territorial Forces, and the London Irish was one of the first units to reach full strength and then to complete its second line.  That effort was made possible in so short a time by the keenness of the recruits themselves, together with the hard work of the members of the Regiment, past and present, who gave up much of their time to enrol the recruits, and later to train them.  Excellent work, too, was done by the women of the 15th County of London A.T.S., who were attached to the battalion, and included wives, sisters, and sweethearts of men of the Regiment.  Those women did magnificent work in a thousand ways, and when in due time the two units were directed to their respective war stations, the Pipe Band of the London Irish Rifles proudly played the members of the A.T.S. on their way.  It was a gracious and well-deserved tribute.

The 2nd Battalion was brought to strength rapidly, and Lieut.-Colonel Sir WR Starkey, Second-in-Command of the 1st Battalion, became its Commanding Officer.  The new battalion had about half the officers and non-commissioned officers of the 1st Battalion, so that ability and experience were blended between the two.  Training continued during the spring and summer of 1939 at the Duke of York’s Headquarters in rather crowded conditions.  The battalions went to camp together at Burley, Hants.

A week after their return to London and the men had dispersed to their homes and resumed their various occupations, war appeared imminent.  Key parties of officers and senior sergeants and corporals had already been nominated, and they were warned to stand by.  At that time, August 20, 1939, the officers and warrant officers of the two battalions were:

First Battalion

Commanding Officer: Lieut-Colonel JRJ Macnamara, MP.

Second-in-Command:  Major JJD Reidy.

Adjutant: Captain CHB. Allen.

Quartermaster:  Captain PJ Toal.

R.S.M:  Mr H Hynds.

A Company Captain (later Major) the Viscount Stopford; C.S.M. JD Duggan.

B Company:  Captain DDP Cantrell; C.S.M. F Allen.

C Company:  Captain AD Cowdy; C.S.M. CW North.

D Company:  Captain RA O’Brien; C.S.M. FA Bernard.

Headquarters Company Captain P McMahon Mahon; C.S.M. F Keegan.

Major Reidy broke his ankle while on training, and after several months in hospital was posted and did not return to the battalion.  Captain Allen was promoted Major and became Second-in-Command and his place as Adjutant was taken by Captain WE. Brooks.

Second Battalion

Commanding Officer:  Lieut.-Colonel Sir William Starkey, Bt.

Second-in-Command:  Major J Morris.

Adjutant:  Captain CAF Gibbs.

Quartermaster:  Captain WL Clarke, D.C.M.

R.S.M Mr. H Phillips.

E Company:  Major J McCann; C.S.M. DD Long.

F Company: Captain G Phillips; C.S.M. P Susands..

G Company . Captain GG Hall; C.S.M. W Baines

H Company . Captain JWS Lane, M.C.; C.S.M. Tim Grant.

Headquarters Company:  Captain RWJ Bartlett; C.S.M. J Daly.