St Mary’s ADS cemetery is located in the vicinity of Haisnes, which lies between the towns of Lens and La Bassée in the Pas-de-Calais. Although the Cemetery lies in open farmland, there are neighbouring towns of Vermelles, Loos-en-Gohelle and Hulluch.
The Cemetery can be reached from the D947, Lens to La Bassée road, and a CWGC signpost is visible on this road. The Cemetery is on the D39, Hulluch to Vermelles road.
In general the French do not aspirate the ‘H’ beginning a word. Nor do they pronounce a final -CH. This results in Hull-uck ! Being pronounced closer to Oo-loo. By the same token Loos is pronounced : Loss.
This can be a busy and very fast country road. Trying to turn around at the cemetery can be difficult and dangerous. It is often more prudent to continue towards Vermelles and use one of the side roads to accomplish the manoeuvre – though you may want to visit Le Rutoir Farm and the 46th Division’s monument before doing so.
On Easter Monday, 24th April 1916, Irish Republicans seized the Dublin Post Office and other locations in the city, proclaiming an independent Ireland. The insurrection lasted six days before it was put down; by British troops (mostly Irish in reality). At this same time members of the 16th (Irish) Division were serving on the Western Front, on the old 1915 Loos battlefield.
On the 23rd April a German deserter had given information that a large scale assault in the area of Hulluch was likely to be made and that a large quantity of gas would be used.
If correct, such an attack would probably be carried out using chlorine gas cylinders and helped explain why observers had spotted rats leaving the German trenches — leaks from the containers.
The larger part of the front expected to be at risk was held by the Irish and their neighbours to the north: the 15th (Scottish) Division. Both Divisions were put on a state of alert and daily gas drills were carried out.
For a gas cloud to succeed the wind has to be in the right direction and at just the right speed. Too fast; the gas is dispersed; not fast enough and the gas lingers over your own lines.
Over the next few days the wind was blowing towards the German lines but on the 27th it turned and began gently blowing towards the British trenches.
At 0500 hours a heavy bombardment fell on the entire length of the Irish front and on the right flank of the Scottish. Ten minutes later the German engineers working with the 5 Bavarian Regiment and 5 Bavarian Reserve Regiment opened up their cylinders together with smoke agents, and a grey-green cloud, thick enough to blot out the rising sun, began drifting north-westwards.
In theory the 9 Bavarian Regiment were also supposed to have discharged their cylinders but the direction of the wind made them fear that the gas would have been carried across their own lines to the north.
Gas alerts were sounded and the British artillery began a bombardment of the areas from which the discharge was being produced. The cloud was now so thick that visibility was down to a few metres and gas masks were required even at Brigade Headquarters a few kilometres behind the front line trenches.
Chlorine gas is heavier than air so when it reached the British trenches it would drop into them and hang there. This would increase the dose of gas that the gas masks were required to neutralise.
At the Battle of Loos in September 1915 the British had calculated that the German gas mask of the time was only effective for fifteen minutes before its filter was saturated.
Just before 0600 hours, after the gas had been present in the Irish trenches for at least half an hour, the Bavarians exploded three small mines in front of them and released a second gas cloud.
Behind this second cloud came large groups of infantry, about two hundred strong. Some of them managed to get into Chalk Pit Wood in the sector held by the 8th Bn Royal Dublin Fusiliers. On their left a party infiltrated trenches held by the 7th Bn Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and further north the trenches held by the 9th Bn Black Watch.
All were swiftly dealt with and driven off. By 0730 hours the sector was all quiet.
The following day passed comparatively peacefully but at 0345 hours on the 29th a bombardment was laid down on the Irish and a gas cloud (this time mixed with white smoke) was released between Chalk Pit Wood and Hulluch.
This cloud had been created using the cylinders not used by the 9 Bavarian Regiment on the 27th.
The cloud was particularly dense near Chalk Pit Wood and again visibility was severey curtailed but Bavarian soldiers could be seen manning their trenches at Hulluch. Suddenly the wind swung around and blew the cloud back over the amassing Bavarians causing panic amongst their ranks as they fled back towards the rear.
Although the Irish soldiers had been well drilled in gas alert procedures they suffered very high casualties despite the wearing of gas masks.
The initial reports suggested that the masks must have been badly fitted by soldiers in the midst of their first encounter with gas, however tests later showed that the sack cloth styled masks were inadequate in the circumstances encountered. The concentration employed against them had rendered them ineffective within a short period.
Orders for new box respirators were pushed on with urgency and the blankets used as door covers for shelters were also discovered to be inadequate. On the other hand, the Vermorel spray used by the Lewis Gun crews had protected the weapons from corrosion whilst untreated ammunition that had come into contact with the high concentration of chlorine had corroded.
Over the two gas attacks 1,260 British troops had become gas casualties, of whom 338 died. A further 700 had been killed or injured by shellfire and the trench fighting.
In two days the 8th Bn Royal Dublin Fusiliers lost 368 men out of 946. The list of casualties takes up ten pages of their War Diary.
The 7th Bn Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers were equally hard hit on the 29th. They lost 263 men out of 647.
On 1st May the Bavarians hung out two placards in front of the Irish lines which read:
Irishmen! Heavy uproar in Ireland. English guns are firing on your wives and children. 1st May 1916.
Interesting war-news of the April 29th 1916. Kut el Amara has been taken by the Turks, and whole English army therein — 13,000 men — taken prisoners.
They were promptly shot up by the 8th Bn Royal Munster Fusiliers and seized on the 10th May during a night raid led by Lieutenant Francis Biggane. Both panels were later presented by Lt Colonel Williamson to King George V.
Lieutenant Biggane was killed in Flanders on 16th August 1917. He has no known grave and is commemorated on the Tyne Cot Memorial.
The plaque was created on the initiative of the Durand Group who have been investigating the tunnels on the Loos battlefield (and elsewhere) for many years.
It was unveiled on 30th April 2016 in the presence of members of the Durand Group and local French officials.
Mr Bill Byrne flew from Perth, Australia to tell the story of his grandfather Billy Byrne who had been incapacitated by the gas cloud and then injured by a bullet wound. At first, thought to be dead he was eventually recovered by German medics who realised that he was still alive. Having been patched up, Billy spent the rest of the war farming in Germany !
Maire of Hulluch André Kuchcinski paid tribute to the soldiers who fought and died here and reminded the gathered onlookers that there was an obligation to remember the fallen. Music was provided by the Somme Battlefield Pipe Band and local schoolchildren.