This 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. This is part one of a two part series
A soldier, man and boy
James Plunkett was born into a military family in Kilkenny, Ireland, on 9th January 1878 (son of John Plunkett (soldier) & Amelia (nee Williams), Barrack St., Kilkenny. Aged just 13, he ran away from home and joined 2nd Battalion The Royal Irish Regiment as a band-boy.
Army life clearly agreed with him, and he took advantage of its many sporting opportunities. As well as enjoying cricket and billiards, he became a skilled marksman and an accomplished footballer.
By the outbreak of the First World War (1914-18), Plunkett had already served 23 years and risen to become a regimental sergeant major. He saw action on the Western Front throughout the conflict, taking part in some of its most bitter battles.
He recorded his experiences in a rough diary, from which he later wrote up a fascinating memoir. This not only details his incredible story, but also provides valuable insights into the nature of trench warfare.
Retreat from Mons
Plunkett arrived in France with his battalion on 14 August 1914. As part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), the men immediately advanced into Belgium to meet the German invasion head-on.
As they marched, the British were welcomed everywhere by the local people and Plunkett later described this opening phase as a ‘glorious picnic’.
This mood was soon shattered by their first encounter with the enemy. The battalion played its full part in a famous action at Mons in which the BEF checked the German advance, though at a heavy cost of life.
Following this baptism of fire, the battalion – along with the rest of the BEF – had to endure a demoralising retreat, punctuated by a series of desperate rearguard actions. The defence of the village of Audencourt proved particularly harrowing, with Plunkett astonished that any of his comrades came out alive.
Needless to say, the British suffered many casualties during this period. Among them was Plunkett’s own brother, who was wounded and taken prisoner.
‘However anybody in Audencourt that day escaped being killed or wounded remains a miracle to me. I have never witnessed to date anything like the shell, machine gun and rifle fire we were under there… It was a pitiful sight along the road from the village to about ½ mile to the rear, to see the wounded lying by the roadside, many torn by shell, with nothing but death or capture by the enemy awaiting them.’
James Plunkett on the fighting at Audencourt, 1914
Tragedy at Le Pilly
The gruelling retreat came to an end on 6 September 1914 and Plunkett recorded the enthusiasm with which the men received their orders to advance.
The Royal Irish Regiment now took part in the grand counterattack that unfolded, known as the Battle of the Marne. This culminated in a bloody check on the River Aisne and was, in turn, followed by a series of flanking battles and manoeuvres known to posterity as the ‘Race to the Sea’.
At the Battle of La Bassee (19-20 October), Plunkett’s battalion undertook a desperate attack on the village of Le Pilly. The men captured their objective at heavy cost, only to find themselves in an isolated and impossible position, facing a powerful German counterattack. Enfiladed and overrun, the unit was almost entirely wiped out.
At this time, Plunkett oversaw the battalion’s horse-drawn ammunition carts and so was fortunate not to be in the front line. Unable to get through to his comrades, he later recalled how the ‘the groans and moaning in the trenches of our wounded was terrible, it being impossible to get near them to render even first aid as the surrounding ground was swept by fire’.
Plunkett found himself to be one of the most senior of the handful of survivors. Soon afterwards, the remnants of the battalion were pulled out of the line so that it could be reconstituted.
‘I cannot give an estimate of the casualties, amongst the rank and file, but should image that all, with the exception of the transport, were either killed or captured.’
Captain Michael Harrison, 2nd Battalion, the Royal Irish Regiment, recounting the action at Le Pilly, 1917
A double award for gallantry
Plunkett undertook many heroic actions during this opening phase of the war. These included helping to rescue his wounded commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel St John Augustus Cox, during the retreat from Audencourt and clearing a dead horse from a pontoon bridge at Vailly, on the Aisne, while under heavy fire.
He was honoured with the Distinguished Conduct Medal and became one the first recipients of the newly established Military Cross.
Plunkett returned to the Western Front with his battalion in March 1915, serving in the Ypres sector until June. Here, the Germans pioneered a terrible new weapon – poison gas.
Gas could inflict terrible injuries and sow terror in the ranks. A particularly nasty experience came in the early hours of 24 May at Bellewaarde Ridge, when the Germans unleashed a deluge lasting over five hours as the prelude to a major attack.
The gas engulfed the British line. Many men, including those of 2nd Royal Irish, were driven into headlong retreat. Plunkett himself was rendered unconscious, but was luckily found and revived by two officers.
Realising that the retreat countermanded a recent order prohibiting withdrawals in the face of gas attacks, Plunkett and a few others immediately attempted to rally the men, though with little success. While the attack was eventually halted, the Germans had inflicted severe losses upon the regiment. Casualties included its commander, Lieutenant Colonel Redmond Moriarty.
The withdrawal was the subject of a regimental enquiry in which Plunkett was obliged to give evidence. Although he remained convinced that soldiers could withstand gas attacks, he was later to write of the persistent difficulties involved in maintaining discipline in the face of this cruel and insidious weapon.
‘My own experience through many gas attacks has proved to me, even when not wearing a mask, that the individual can, in most cases, overcome the effect without going back.’
Plunkett on poison gas.
Next week Part two.
We wish to thank Justin Saddington, curator of The National army museum for his research on this wonderful story.