William Hickie and the 16th (Irish) Division

Published in Artefacts, Issue 3 (May/June 2017), Volume 25

William Hickie and the 16th (Irish) Division

Above: Major-General William Hickie, commander of the 16th (Irish) Division. (NMI)

By Lar Joye

In 1917 two Irish divisions fought side by side, in victory and then in defeat. In June 1917, the 36th (Ulster) and 16th (Irish) Divisions benefited from careful preparation and good luck to eject well-entrenched German forces from the important Messines Ridge. The preliminary artillery bombardment was unprecedented in its intensity—three shells exploded on the German lines every second for twelve days.

Two months later, the same two divisions suffered terrible casualties in assaulting concrete fortifications amid the mud of an unusually wet autumn. Despite warnings from his officers, the commander, Irishman Hubert Gough, insisted that the attacks go ahead. An observer later wrote: ‘The two Irish divisions were broken to bits, and their brigadiers called it murder’. The 16th Division lost 221 officers and 4,064 men.

Above: One of Hickie’s special certificates of commendation, awarded to Lt Bernard Reid of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. (NMI)

Through most of its brief existence the 16th (Irish) Division was commanded by William Hickie of County Tipperary. He had served in India and Egypt, and fought in South Africa in 1899 and later in France, before being appointed commander of the 16th Division in December 1915. The 16th was largely an Irish nationalist division, and Hickie, a Catholic and Home Ruler, was a popular commander. He tried to encourage his troops by awarding a special certificate to deserving soldiers. In the summer of 1917 two officers that Hickie particularly liked, Major Willie Redmond and Fr Willie Doyle, were killed, and their deaths had a devastating impact on him. He recommended Fr Doyle for the Victoria Cross, to be added to the Military Medal that he had already won in January 1916.

As for the 16th Division, by late 1917 after the loss of so many soldiers there were fewer Irish replacements and the gaps were filled by English conscripts, while Hickie himself was replaced in February 1918 owing to ill health. He eventually retired from the army in 1921, became involved in the British Legion and served in the Irish Free State Senate.

Above: Hickie’s medals, reflecting the various monarchs under whom he served—Queen Victoria, Edward VII and George V. (NMI)

Lar Joye is curator of military history at the National Museum of Ireland.


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