In this, the second week, The Kilkenny Observer looks at the life Of Lieutenant Colonel James Frederick Plunkett, born into a Kilkenny military family, and who was to see war at first hand in many parts of the world
Life in the trenches
Plunkett’s indefatigable efforts throughout this grim period earned him the further reward of an officer’s commission.
Thereafter, he served with a variety of units – notably including 12th Battalion The Suffolk Regiment, 19th Battalion The Royal Welsh Fusiliers, and 13th Battalion The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers – in various sectors – including Loos, Gouzeaucourt, Cambrai, and Bullecourt.
During this time, Plunkett experienced all the dangers and discomforts of life in the trenches. He stoically endured the misery of the cold, wet, mud and lice, and the ever-present threats of gas, sniping, shelling and mines.
His penchant for taking pot-shots at the rats which plagued the trenches almost resulted in a ghastly accident, when a stray bullet narrowly missed his commanding officer.
A dedicated professional soldier, Plunkett became an expert in trench warfare. He developed a special talent for the difficult and dangerous business of trench raids. These were essential for keeping the enemy under pressure and for gathering intelligence from prisoners, but they often ended in disaster when carried out under careless or inexperienced officers.
Plunkett not only appreciated the finer points of raiding tactics, but also the importance of leading from the front, serving as an example and an inspiration to his men. Emerging as a first-class battalion commander, his service thoroughly merited his award of the Distinguished Service Order, bestowed upon officers in recognition of their courage, leadership and meritorious service.
Plunkett’s finest hour came during the Battle of Cambrai in 1917. This is famous for being the first time that tanks were successfully employed on a large scale.
The attack initially enjoyed great success, breaching the Germans’ formidable ‘Hindenburg Line’ defences and bringing in a large haul of prisoners. However, things soon went awry. The British found themselves unable to exploit their success and vulnerable in the face of a powerful German counterattack.
While the offensive ultimately ended in failure, Plunkett and his men performed their role magnificently. They played a prominent part in the capture of Bourlon Wood on the left flank, a feat made more remarkable by the fact that tanks and smoke shells, which had been promised to support the attack, failed to materialise.
They then held the wood for three days against a ferocious series of counterattacks, engaging in some of the most vicious close-quarter fighting of the war.
‘I have fought with many regiments in this war, but the achievements of the 19th Bn Roy Welch Fusiliers & remainder of 119 Brigade taking Bourlon Wood on 23rd November 1917, with no assistance from tanks, smoke barrages, etc, and only a few minutes preliminary artillery bombardment, capturing at least 500 prisoners with many machine guns, then repelling counter-attacks for 3 days without sleep, subsisting on iron ration food only, handing over the wood intact, marching 15 miles to the rear, after the brigade had suffered 75% casualties both in officers and men, and finishing the last mile of the march in high spirits, I place second to none of any other.’
Plunkett on the conduct of his troops at Bourlon Wood, November 1917
Contempt of danger
Plunkett had been recommended for the Victoria Cross for his bravery at Bourlon Wood, but this was later downgraded to a bar to his Distinguished Service Order. Nonetheless, the citation to this award fully recognised the leadership and heroism that he had displayed.
Further heroics were to follow during the final victorious Allied offensive of 1918. On 27 August, Plunkett led his battalion in a daring flank attack against a German position at Rue Pruvost, which enjoyed complete success and saw the capture of seven machine-gun posts.
For this, he was awarded another bar to his DSO, with the citation praising his ‘absolute contempt of danger’ and highlighting ‘his determination and fine personal example’ as the chief cause of their success.
‘For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty during sixty hours’ hand-to-hand fighting. When our line was pressed back by a counter-attack and the men began to waver on the right, he reorganised them and succeeded in re-establishing our old line. When reinforcements arrived, he organised and led a successful counter-attack. He carried out in person many daring reconnaissances, and undoubtedly saved the situation at many critical moments by his prompt action.’
Citation for Plunkett’s first bar to his Distinguished Service Order, 1917
In the course of his service, Plunkett had innumerable close shaves. During some periods, these were almost a daily experience. On many occasions, shells landed nearby, but either failed to go off, narrowly missed him, or left him only lightly wounded. Several times, he described leaving a place only for it to be immediately obliterated by shell fire.
Perhaps most remarkable was an incident at Bourlon Wood. Plunkett spotted an enemy who was about to take aim at him, but by quick thinking, lightening reactions, and sheer good fortune, he was able to take aim and get his shot off first.
A heavy toll
Despite escaping serious injury, the war still took a heavy toll on Plunkett’s health. His many ailments included deafness and respiratory problems, as well as a heart attack.
His service at the front was interrupted by several long bouts of convalescence. At one stage, he had trouble persuading an Army medical board that he was fit to return to action. And, ultimately, it was owing to poor health that he retired from the Army in 1922.
Plunkett was clearly in his element as a front-line commander. Indeed, the end of the fighting in 1918 came as something of a disappointment to him as it prevented his promotion to brigadier-general, a rank he felt was in his grasp had the conflict continued a little longer.
He was, however, able to console himself with the cheering thought of returning to his wife and family, and the satisfaction of a job well done.
His full wartime honours were: Distinguished Service Order with Two Bars; Military Cross; Distinguished Conduct Medal; French Croix de Guerre; and five mentions in despatches.
In May 1930, he was given the further honour of joining the Military Knights of Windsor, one of Britain’s most ancient military establishments. He resided at Windsor Castle for the next 17 years. However, as he continued to be dogged by ill-health, he was then permitted to move to Sussex, where he died in 1953 aged 75.
The Kilkenny Observer wish to thank the following for information used in this article: Mary Anne Maher, The National Army Museum, and curator at the National Army museum, Justin Saddington.