At War with the 16th Irish Division 1914-1918 - The Staniforth Letters, J.H.M. Staniforth

At War with the 16th Irish Division 1914-1918 - The Staniforth Letters, J.H.M. Staniforth

J.H.M. Staniforth was raised in North Yorkshire, but had Irish roots and when the First World War broke out chose to enlist in an Irish division. Despite being qualified to serve as an officer he also decided that he needed to serve in the ranks first before he would be fit to command, and so entered the army as a private in the 6/ Connaughts, a battalion formed to allow Nationalist Irish Volunteers to serve together. Staniforth didn't stay in the ranks for long, and he became an officer of the similar 7/ Leinsters before leaving Ireland.

This book is made up of Staniforth's letters home, starting with his arrival at the training camp in Ireland, through Loos, the Somme, Passchendaele and the German spring offensive of 1918. The end of the war found him back in Britain suffering from the effects of gas, so he recorded the armistice from an unusual perspective - still a serving officer, but away from the actual fighting.

Staniforth thus provides us with two unusual perspectives of the war - first, as seen from an originally Irish Nationalist unit serving in the British Army, and second as a officer who began in the ranks (but who moved on before reaching the front, and doesn't appear to have been seen as an outside by his colleagues).

His view of the Irish Division is perhaps the most valuable. At first he was very unimpressed with his new comrades in arms, who he paints as something of a rabble, but they soon earned his respect (the division seems to have gone through the same process at a higher level as well, entering combat comparatively late, but then becoming respected for its fighting abilities). We also get a brief glimpse of the impact of the Easter Rising of 1916 on the Irish troops, although German attempts to disrupt their loyalty to appear to have failed.

Most of the letters are encouraging in tone (quite a few begin with instructions not to worry), but several are much darker, including his description of his first experiences on the Somme battlefield in 1916. These must have caused a great deal of concern at home!

One feature that appealed to me was his habit of comparing parts of the front to the fringes of the North York Moors and the coast around Whitby, using the distances between local villages to give some idea of the scale of various battles, and local landscape features to give an idea of the layout of the battlefield (again in particular on the Somme). This is an area I am quite familiar with, so it helped me visualise what he was describing just as it must have helped the original recipients of his letters. 

1 - 'A fearful mutiny' - Training in the Ranks, October to November 1914
2 - 'The time of my life' - Orders and Orders, November 1914 to March 1915
3 - 'Thrills enough to satisfy the most reckless glory hunter' - Signals Training, April to September 1915
4 - 'The sun slipping west over the snowy fields' - England, September to December 1915
5 - 'Greyish ashen squalor of filthy humanity' - First Impressions of the Trenches, December 1915 to February 1916
6 - 'Covered in fresh blood' - Cambrin, February to March 1916
7 - 'I've had miraculous escapes' - Puits 14 Bis and Hulluch, March to May 116
8 - 'We were all quite mad' - Raiding, June to August 1916
9 - 'Sitting in pyjamas in the sun' - Hospital, August 1916
10 - 'One continuous ear-splitting roar' - The Somme, September 1916
11 - 'A nest of Sinn Feinery' - Limerick, March to April 1917
12 - 'Worse than the Somme!' - Passchendaele, June to August 1917
13 - 'The milk and whiskey are blocks of ice' - Cambrai and Paperwork, August 1917 to January 1918
14 - 'The Division has ceased to exist' - Disbandment and the German Spring Offensive, February to April 1918
15 - 'Keeping on keeping on' - The 2nd Leinsters, May 1918
16 - 'A "blighty one" at last!' - Gassed, May to June 1918
17 - 'A roaring, surging wave of sound' - Portsmouth and Peace, August 1918 to April 1919

Author: J.H.M. Staniforth
Editor: Richard S. Grayson
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 256
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military with Imperial War Museum
Year: 2012

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