Though his time with the battalion was short, it is instructive to read the fate of the 2nd RDF in the weeks after John was wounded; the activities of March were indeed ‘quiet’ compared to the coming action in which his fellow Dubliners were caught up.[i]
On the 22nd the battalion took over an exposed section of trenches running between the River Douave and the Wulverghem-Messines Road. On April 12th they was relieved and marched west to billets at Bailleul. That very night the town was raided by a Zeppelin air-ship and four civilians were killed in the bombing. However things were quiet for the next week and a half. Towards the end of April, events took a dramatic turn when the German army used gas attacks to force an opening in the Allied line east of Ypres. Chemical warfare was a new terror of modern war and it had devastating effects on soldiers who had not the equipment or experience to deal with this evil form of attack. Units were raced to the threatened sector to try and hold back the enemy advance, among them the 10th Brigade and the Dublin Fusiliers.
“As regards reserves...the situation was far from satisfactory…Hope lay in the10th Brigade, fresh and at war strength, now marching up.”[ii]
On April 23rd the 2nd Battalion RDF hurriedly left Bailleul for the front-line. It billeted that night at Westoutre. The next day it force-marched north through the villages of Hensken, Zevecoten, Ouderom, and Vlamertinghe, and reached the outskirts of Ypres at 8pm. Here they dumped their packs, and at midnight the battalion marched east to St. Jean, deploying at 4am on the 25th April west of the Wieltje- St. Julien Road. They attacked that day alongside the1st Royal Irish Fusiliers, acting in support of the 1st Warwickshire and 2nd Seaforth Highlanders, with the 7th Argyll & Sutherland in reserve. The Official History describes the ensuing slaughter:
“St. Julien were in the hands of the enemy. The brigade, therefore, shook out into fighting formation somewhat earlier than intended. Its advance, visible from many points, was carried out in faultless order…The fire now came mainly from machine guns hidden in the houses of St. Julien and the upper stories of farm buildings, with cross fire from Kitchener's Wood, and particularly from two farms south of it (Oblong and Juliet, captured by the Germans on the, previous day). There was no great amount of rifle fire, and only a moderate amount of artillery fire; for the [German] 51st Reserve Division, having been ordered to retake St. Julien and finding it unoccupied, was making preparations for a further advance, and was not at first fully disposed to meet an attack. By rushes the leading lines advanced more than a quarter of a mile till they were within one hundred yards of the outlying houses of St. Julien. Then, though the fifth battalion was thrown in on the left, the lines paused and became stationary, and for twenty minutes the Germans deluged them with machine-gun fire, very effective and very heavy. A few men tried to crawl back into cover, but the majority of those in the leading lines never returned; mown down, like corn, by machine guns in enfilade, they remained lying dead in rows where they had fallen. The following lines were pinned to the ground by fire, and after several efforts to advance, as if by common accord, rose and surged back to cover in the folds of the ground and hedges behind them.”[iii]
Ferocious fighting took place over the coming days in which the Allies were forced back but managed to prevent a German breakthrough in this sector, with serious loss to both sides. The 2nd RDF was all but destroyed. On the 25th alone they lost 510 men.[iv] In May the unit, devoid of officers and reduced to a handful of man, disintegrated in the fighting around Mouse Trap Farm. If John had escaped unscathed from his initial stint in the trenches, it is doubtful if he would have survived the ferocity of the 2nd Battle of Ypres
[i] Details taken from the UK’s Official History of the War – Military Operations - France Belgium 1915, plus the battalion’s war diary.
[ii] OFW MO FB - 1915 Vol I, p. 237.
[iii] OFW MO FB - 1915 Vol I, p. 242. It must be noted the 10th Brigade task was made hopeless by poor communications which resulted in a lack of artillery support and the non-involvement of several other battalions that were meant to support their attack.
[iv] OFW MO FB - 1915 Vol I.