Derry soldiers’ stories feature in new World War I book

Soldiers from the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers pictured in the trenches days before going into battle. Photo: Inniskikkings Museum.
Soldiers from the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers pictured in the trenches days before going into battle. Photo: Inniskikkings Museum.

A new book features the remarkable story of soldiers from Derry and Donegal who fought in one of the bloodiest battles of World War One.

‘It was an Awful Sunday: the 2nd Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers at the Battle of Festubert, 15-17 May 1915” is written by Michael Nugent who analyses the battle to discover why the ‘Inniskillings’ suffered such horrendous casualities in the engagement.

At 11.30pm on Saturday, May 15, 1915, men of the 2nd Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers advanced to attack strongly-held German defences near the village of Festubert in northern France.

By the time they were relieved forty-eight hours later, near midnight on May 17, they had sustained 649 casualties – nearly two-thirds of the strength of the battalion. Amongst these casualties were 264 dead.

During the engagement, 30 men from Derry and 14 men from Donegal were killed.

For such a close-knit community, this was a 
terrible blow.

Many more local men were wounded and, in a remarkable coincidence, some of them were treated by a native 
of Derry.

47-years-old at the time of the battle, Captain Arthur Clarence Turner was a surgeon attached to the Royal Army Medical Corps and a veteran of the South African War.

He was the son of Walter Turner, a steamship agent and Justice of the Peace, whose family home was at 
Foyle Street.

In a letter home to his father, Captain Turner revealed that he had “professionally attended at least fifty wounded soldiers from Derry, all belonging to the Royal 
Inniskilling Fusiliers.’

He went on to mention that the soldiers, who had relatives from Lecky Road, the Long Tower district, Rossville Street, Fountain Street and the Waterside, had recognised him and appeared pleased to be in his care.

Commenting on the battle they had been engaged in, Captain Turner said: “All these Derry boys fought with a splendid courage and determination and are a credit to the city they came from.”

The 2nd Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers were a regular British Army battalion and part of a local regiment with a long and 
distinguished history.

With the regimental depot in Omagh, the battalion recruited mainly from counties Derry, Donegal, Tyrone and Belfast, but many other Irish counties were also represented in its ranks.

On May 15, 1915, the 2nd Inniskillings were taking part in the first attack carried out at night in the war by British troops. The plan was to make their way out into ‘no man’s land’ under cover of an artillery bombardment 
and lie down.

At the appointed time, they were to advance with fixed bayonets and seize the German lines. However, the Germans were prepared and simply mowed down the Inniskillings with accurate machine-gun fire. Despite this, the Inniskillings were the only battalion in their brigade to seize and hold the 
German trenches.

In his new book - launched recently at Enniskillen Castle - Michael Nugent takes the Inniskillings from the beginning of the war and describes what life and conditions were like for local men at the front. He also analyses factors which occurred over the months prior to the battle which, he argues, had such a disastrous impact on 
the advance.

How the battle was reported through the newspapers at home is also covered in detail, along with how families were informed of casualties. In addition, each of those killed is identified along with his place of origin.

The book has been described as an “authentic account of life and death” at the front for local men in the early years of the First World War.

Published by Reveille Press, the book is available from booksellers, 
priced £14.99.