2nd Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers,
Died of Wounds (Gas Poisoining),
26th May 1915,
From Dublin aged 21
Serjeant John Joseph Tait enlisted in Royal Dublin Fusiliers at Naas and first served in France with the 2nd Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers from 23 August 1914 as Lance Serjeant. The 2nd Battalion landed at Boulogne as part of 10th Brigade in 4th Division.
On the 24th August, the British Expeditonary Force (BEF), began to retreat from the Belgian City of Mons. It was during this retreat that the 2nd Dublin Fusiliers, as part of the 4th Infantry Division, were brought over from England and placed around the town of Le Cateau. Their objective was to provide a rear guard force that would cover the retreating BEF.
On April 25th, 1915, the 2nd battalion force marched 50 kilometres to fill a gap in the British lines to try and retake the village of St Julien from the Germans. They got within 100 yards of the German lines before being “mown down, like corn, by machine guns in enfilade. They remained lying dead in rows where they had fallen”, as the British official history put it.The battalion suffered 500 casualties, though John came through unscathed. It was possibly here, where John may have received his recommendation for the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM). For all ranks below commissioned officers, it was the second highest award for gallantry in action after the Victoria Cross..
Worse was to follow a month later at a place called Mouse Trap Farm which exists to this day. Mouse Trap Farm was a place of dread for the British soldiers, who nicknamed it Shell Trap Farm.
The assault on Mouse Trap Farm was to be the Germans’ last attempt to take Ypres from the British. On the morning of May 24th, 1915, they drenched the Allied lines with chlorine gas along a 12 kilometre front.
Three Irish battalions held the line around Mouse Trap Farm. To the right was the 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers, in the centre was the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers and to the left was the 2nd Royal Irish Regiment.
The RDF bore the brunt of the German assault on the trenches surrounding Mouse Trap Farm. Their trenches were within 35 metres of the German lines. They could hear the hissing of the gas being released. Within seconds the Germans were on top of them.
The Dublins quickly lost their commanding officer, Lieut Col Arthur Loveband, from Naas, Co Kildare, who was shot through the heart. The situation for the RDF grew ever more desperate. One officer sent out the message “For God’s sake send some help, we are nearly done”. No help was forthcoming. The only surviving officer, Capt Leahy, recalled that the men “died fighting at their post”.
At the end of the day all that was left was one officer and 21 other ranks out of a total complement of 658 officers and men. Rarely in that terrible war had a single battalion suffered such a wipeout.
The Royal Irish Regiment, drawn mostly from the southeast and the Royal Irish Fusiliers from Armagh, Cavan and Monaghan, also suffered grievous losses in what was the bleakest of bleak days for Irish regiments. The whole of Ireland was affected by the tragedy, which also claimed the life of Pte John Condon from Waterford city who was with the Royal Irish Regiment. At 14, he was the youngest Allied soldier to die in the war.
John died wretchedly of gas poisoning two days later. His will confirms that he died at No 8 Casualty Clearing Station on 26 May 1915 having made out his will in hospital and that all his effects should go to his wife on the event of his death. Serjeant Tait is buried in the Bailleul Communal Cemetery Extension, Nord, France.
It is this particular horror of gas that is captured in Wilfred Owen’s poem Dulce et Decorum Est, arguably the most widely read description of the horrors of war in the English language.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.