2nd BATTALION, ROYAL SUSSEX REGIMENT
KILLED IN ACTION NEAR HULLUCH DURING THE BATTLE OF LOOS, FRANCE
25th SEPTEMBER 1915, AGED 33
WILLIAM IRELAND was born in Rudgwick in 1883, the eldest son of William and Emily Jane Ireland, and brother of Edith (born 1877), Emily (born 1880) and Maurice (born 1884). The Ireland family lived in Bucks Green, William senior being a plate layer on the railway. William senior was the brother of Stephen Ireland, who was also a plate layer on the railway & lived in the village. Therefore William was the cousin of Jacob Ireland (born Rudgwick 1888) and who was killed in action at the Battle of Jutland on 31st May 1916.
William married Eva May Whiting in 1908. Eva was the daughter of William & Ann Whiting, of Lynwick Street, Rudgwick (born 1886). Eva gave birth to their only daughter, Eileen Maisy Ireland, on 12th April 1910.
(L) Eileen & Eva May Ireland c1915 (R) Eileen Maisy Ireland
(pictures kindly supplied by Barry Hyder)
It appears that William was a Territorial soldier prior to the start of the First World War, serving as Colour Sergeant 5518 with the 6th (Cyclists) Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment (6/Sussex), a Territorial unit which was in Brighton in August 1914, and moved to Norfolk on mobilization in the same month to join the 1st Mounted Division. The unit was to remain in the United Kingdom throughout the war. Photographs of William in 1913 and 1914 show that he wore four Good Conduct chevrons on the lower sleeves of his uniform suggesting that he had served with the army for a significant period of time, probably having enlisted at the age of 18.
A Postcard sent from Seaford to William's mother in August 1913, whilst serving with 6th (Cyclists) Battalion, Royal Sussex Regiment (possibly William at the wheel of the car).
(picture kindly supplied by Barry Hyder)
William Ireland (standing left) & colleagues in Norfolk, 1914
(picture kindly supplied by Barry Hyder)
It appears that William was commissioned from the 6/Sussex and transferred as a Second Lieutenant to join the 2nd Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment (2/Sussex) then serving with the British Expeditionary Force in France. He arrived in France on 16th May 1915, joining 2/Sussex, which was an element of 2nd Brigade, 1st Division on 22nd May 1915.
The 2/Sussex had been in action at Richebourg L'Avoue on 9th May 1915, in what is now known as the Battle of Aubers Ridge. The battalion diary notes that the unit incurred casualties of 14 officers and 548 other ranks. William arrived at the battalion as a member of a group of reinforcements to replace the unit's battle casualties. At the time that he joined the unit was holding trenches south of the Lens-La Bassee Road, north of Cambrin. They remained in this area through the summer of 1915.
On 25th September 1915 the British Army launched an offensive to the north of the town of Loos, which became known as the Battle of Loos. Following a four day preliminary artillery bombardment the British attacked the German front line with a force of six Divisions. The battle saw the first use of poisonous gas by the British Army, however light and variable winds caused it to return to the British front line.
At 1.50am on the 25th, William and the men of 2/Sussex took up positions in support trenches in the vicinity of an area known as Lone Tree, the location of a single, isolated cherry tree on the flat agricultural lands to the north east of Loos. To their front, forming the first wave of the forthcoming attack was the 2nd Battalion Kings Royal Rifle Corps (2/KRRC) and the 1st Battalion Loyal North Lancashire Regiment (1/LNLancs). Lone Tree was just less than half way across No Mans Land, 200 yards from the British Front Line and 300 yards from the German Front Line.
1st Division area of operation on the first day of the Battle of Loos
The 2/Sussex Battalion War Diary contains a description of the action by William's commanding officer, Lt Col Evelyn F Villiers DSO:
"My orders were that immediately the two assaulting battalions (1/LNLancs and 2/KRRC) advanced the Royal Sussex were to move forward & occupy their trenches in the front line in readiness to move forward again in support of the assault so soon as I could ascertain that the assaulting battalions had obtained a footing in the German Front Line Trench.
At 6.30am the assaulting battalions moved forwards and the Royal Sussex immediately pushed on to our own Front Line Trench. Owing to the dense smoke from the smoke candles it was not possible to see how the advance was progressing but the wind had veered round and had carries some of the gas back over our Front Trench causing a good deal of confusion amongst the troops of the Assaulting Line. My Company Commanders then on their own initiative at once advanced and pushed on to the assault, the Battalion thus becoming part of the assaulting line at a very early stage of the attack.
This advance was pushed right up to the German wire which was not cut and at this stage all our officers and men who had reached or got close to the wire were either killed or wounded. The Royal Sussex Machine Gun Sections, which had advanced with the Battalion endeavoured to reach the German Line but were annihilated about 50yds in front of Lone Tree.
Meanwhile the 15th Division on our right and the 1st Brigade on our left had succeeded in driving the Germans out of their Front Line Trenches. Owing to the fact that almost all my Officers & NCOs were either killed or wounded it was very difficult to obtain reliable information as to the progress of the attack but it was evident that in front of the 2nd Brigade the Germans were holding their Front Line in strength. My second in command Major Willett went forward to endeavour to obtain information as to the progress of the attack, he was able to get as far as Lone Tree but beyond this it was impossible for anyone to advance in the face of German Machine Gun & Rifle fire.”
British Trench Map of the Lone Tree area, west of Hulluch and north of Loos.
(British Front Line shown in blue, German Front Line shown in red).
“At about 11.45am Green’s force attacked but at this time did not get any further forward than Lone Tree. A second attack delivered by the same force later in the day was able to push on further and at about 3.40pm the Germans in front of the 2nd Brigade surrendered.
At about 3.15pm I and Major Willett with Lieutenants Baker & Wallington collected all the men of the Battalion whom we could get hold of, some 70 in all, and found a line close to Lone Tree & when the Germans in the Front Line surrendered I occupied their trenches and from thence pushed on to Chalk Pit where by order of the GOC 2nd Brigade, we entrenched ourselves along the Lens-La Bassee Road with our right resting on the Chalk Pit. This line we held until relieved at about 3am on Sept 26th when we returned to the old British Line in front of Bois Carree."
During the day's fighting Sergeant Harry Wells of 2/Sussex won the Victoria Cross when his platoon officer was killed and he took command, leading his men forward to within 15 yards of the German wire. Nearly half the platoon were killed or wounded and the remainder were much shaken but Sergeant Wells rallied them and led them on. Finally, when very few were left, he stood up and urged them forward once again and while doing this he was killed. According to the Commonwealth War Graves Register 12 officers and 171 men were killed in the action on the First Day of the Battle of Loos.
One of the officers killed in action was Second Lieutenant William Ireland. After the battle many of the men from 2/Sussex were buried at Le Rutoire Farm, the site of their Brigade Headquarters during the attack. In the early 1920's it was deemed that the burials at Le Rutoire Farm were too isolated, and the graves were moved to Dud Corner Cemetery. where William Ireland and Harry Wells VC now lie. Also from Rudgwick and in action with 2/Sussex on the 25th was Private Edwin Waller. Edwin was wounded in the battle and died of his injuries three days later.
The cherry tree at Lone Tree was cut down after the battle and some of it's wood appears to have been kept as mementos by the men who fought in it's proximity. On 25th September 1915 members of the Western Front Association replanted a flowering cherry tree at the site of Lone Tree to mark the 80th anniversary of the battle (more details).
On 9th July 1921 William's widow Eva May applied for his medals from their home at 54 London Road, Bognor, West Sussex. She received his posthumous 1915 Star, British War Medal and Victory Medal.
(Click on panorama to view the area of 2/Sussex action on 25th September 1915 in a new window)
Soldiers Medal Record Card
Battalion War Diary
Commonwealth War Graves Register
Ireland Family Tree, thanks to Barry Hyder