The War Begins
The years leading up the First World War were a period of unprecedented prosperity for the British Channel Island of Jersey. Decades of peace and strong economic growth had served to create a general sense of well-being as islanders looked forward with confidence to the future. Europe’s sudden descent into war at the start of August 1914, therefore, came as an even greater shock. Almost overnight, the Island was stopped its tracks as uncertainly and alarm gripped the population.
With German armies advancing on Paris, and the regular British Army garrison withdrawn, the defense of Jersey fell to the Royal Militia of the Island of Jersey. Raised from local men compelled by law to serve, this long-standing corps diligently took up position around the Island’s harbours and coasts throughout the late summer and autumn of that year.
A Contingent is Raised
Allied victories on the Continent and the emergence of trench warfare ended any direct threat to the Channel Islands in 1914. This changed situation persuaded the British War Office to consent to an offer from Jersey to raise a military contingent for overseas service. General Kitchener’s recruitment drive in Britain and the formation of the famous ‘Pals’ battalions had pricked the conscience of many Islanders who saw the retention of such a large force of trained militiamen as unnecessary. In December 1914, Jersey had set about forming its own ‘Pals’ unit.
A gripping and unexpectedly difficult recruitment campaign led to the formation of an infantry company of 230 officers and men at the start of 1915. On 2 March 1915, to the cheers and applause of a huge crowd, this ‘Jersey Company’ left St Helier’s harbour bound for Ireland.
Training for War
The new Jersey Company was attached to the 7th Battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles, one of those battalions raised in response to Kitchener’s call for a New Army. Throughout the spring and summer of 1915, the Jerseymen trained alongside Irish volunteers near the town of Buttevant amid the beautiful countryside of County Cork. They were joined there by a further 96 volunteers from Jersey, to bring the total number up to 326.
In September the 7th Royal Irish Rifles, and its attached Jerseymen, moved to Aldershot in England, to complete training and join up with the other units forming the 16th (Irish) Division. On 19 December 1915, the Battalion left for the France. Two days later the Jersey Company arrived at the front and prepared to enter the trenches.
The front line around the French town of Loos had been static and comparatively quiet since September 1915. This meant the trenches there were well suited for introducing units new to the Western Front. The Jersey Company would serve at Loos from January 1916 until August that year. It was a period of introduction, learning the grinding routine of life in and out of the trenches. Despite the area’s quiet status, casualties were inevitable as enemy shelling, sniping and gas gradually took their toll on the small band of Jerseymen.
The Battle of the Somme
While the Jersey Company served at Loos, further south in France a massive combined British and French offensive had started on 1 July 1916. The Battle of the Somme was the Allies most powerful attack yet on the German lines, with hopes that it would end the stalemate of trench warfare for good. Two months later, however, when the 16th (Irish) Division arrived on the battlefield, the fighting remained mired in a dreadful and costly struggle to break through.
The villages of Guillemont and Ginchy were thorns in the side of any Allied advance. For seven days, the Jersey volunteers would serve in the thick of the fighting to wrest them from the Germans, firstly holding Guillemont, and then, on 9 September, taking part in the successful storming of Ginchy. Victory, however, came at a terrible cost; the Battle of the Somme reduced the Jersey Company to only a handful.
Messines & Ypres
In October 1916, the 16th (Irish) Division had moved to Belgium to rest and rebuild after its shattering losses on the Somme. The much reduced Jersey Company spent the bitter winter of 1916/17 serving at the foot of the then infamous Messines Ridge, a strongly held German position lying to the south of the town of Ypres. Numbers slowly increased as men returned from hospital or from other assignments, but not enough to return it to full strength. By the spring, with no reinforcements available from Jersey, drafts of British soldiers were the only option.
In June 1917, the replenished Jersey Company took part in the successful storming of Messines Ridge. Assisted by the explosion of nineteen massive mines, the British drove the Germans back while incurring minimal losses. In July, the British attacked again around Ypres, although with less success. German resistance and heavy rain hampered the advance and created appalling conditions for the troops. In August, an attack by the Jersey Company near the hamlet of Frezenberg ended in abject failure and resulted in another heavy casualty list.
The End with the Royal Irish Rifles
The losses in Belgium were one of the factors behind a decision in September 1917 to disband the 7th Royal Irish Rifles. Among the surviving members of the Jersey Company, the news was greeted with despair. Feeling increasingly isolated from their home island by what they perceived as a lack of support, there was bitterness at what some saw as the final insult.
Despite their protests, the remnants of the Jersey Company transferred to the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles in November 1917. Later that month, they took part in the Battle of Cambrai, which featured the first large scale use of tanks as the British smashed through the much vaunted Hindenburg Line.
For the Jersey Company, the action was to be the final one undertaken as part of the Royal Irish Rifles. At the very end of the year, in response to a petition from the volunteers, the authorities consented to move the Jerseymen to an English regiment to see out the remainder of the war.
The Final Year of Fighting
In January 1918, the remnants of the Jersey Company moved to join the 2nd Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment, a unit with strong Channel Island connections. In April 1918, as German offensives threatened to overwhelm the Allied line, they took part in the fighting around the strategic French town of Bailleul and helped stem the enemy advance. A summer of costly minor battles followed, by then mostly out of the trenches as a war of movement resumed once more.
By the autumn of 1918, worn down by its efforts and pushed back all along the Western Front, the German Army was on the brink of defeat. At the end of September, the Jersey Company took part in the final battles in Belgium that finally drove the enemy back from the gates of Ypres. In November, with Brussels almost in sight, the war ended for the Jersey volunteers on 11 November when the Germans accepted Allied terms for an armistice
After the War
The last members of the Jersey Company returned to their island in the first half of 1919. Of the 326 who left four years earlier, eighty, or one in four, had died, while a similar number suffered grave wounds. Most others bore the scars of their wartime service in one way or another.
Yet, in an island suffering from the effects of the economic depression, the survivors of the Jersey Company determined to remain together as a band. The Original Jersey Overseas Contingent Association formed soon after the war, with a pledge to remember the fallen and continue supporting old comrades. It lasted for sixty years when the final living members, by then in their eighties, formally brought the history of the Jersey Company to a close.
- Ours: The Jersey Pals in the First World War, by Ian Ronayne, The History Press (2009)
- Ireland’s Unknown Soldiers: The 16th (Irish) Division in the Great War, Terence Denman, Irish Academic Press Ltd.(1992)