Sapper Samuel Irwin, MSM

Royal Engineers,

in the Great War

64219 Sapper SAMUEL IRWIN, MSM, Royal Engineers
Samuel served in 121st Field Company, Royal Engineers, 36 (Ulster) Division, during the First World War
He was born in 1885, the elder son of Francis and Jane Irwin (née McMinn) of Cumry House, Ballybay,
Co. Monaghan, Ireland. See pages 3, 13-15 at
In January 1919, two months after the Armistice which ended the four long years of the First World War,
Samuel Irwin received the Meritorious Service Medal . It was for distinguished service with the Royal
Engineer’s Field Company in which he served continuously on the Western Front from 7 February 1916
when 36 (Ulster) Division took over their first sector of the front line, which was followed on 1st July by the
battle of Albert (part of the Somme offensive in which the British lost 60,000 men on the first day), until he
was wounded near Courtrai on 20th October 1918, just 22 days before the end of the war. Over this period
the Company fought in nine major operations or full scale battles in France and Belgium (they are named in
red in this text and on the time-line below with their dates). A sketch map of the Front is on the last page.
The MSM was instituted only for Army non-commissioned officers in 1845, and this was extended to
private soldiers in 1916. It is clear from the record that Samuel’s service was quite exceptional if only
judged on his survival under the conditions and pressures of the Western Front over more than 2½ years.
Following the leave he was given after the death of his father in 1916, we found only one record of his
taking home leave – a mere ten days in October 1917. Very soon after his return then, he was engaged in the
British attack at Cambrai, a battle which for him continued day and night for two weeks, and ended
inconclusively with heavy casualties on both sides. Thus it was that Samuel was chosen for this special
award from among the thousand or more NCOs and men who had served during the war in the two Royal
Engineer Field Companies, each established with over 200 men, who remained as Divisional troops of the
36 (Ulster) Division throughout their time on the Western Front.

Samuel Irwin, MSM, in 1935

Meritorious Service Medal

This medal was instituted in 1845 for distinguished or gallant service by non-commissioned officers of the British Army.
Private soldiers only became eligible in 1916. Sapper Samuel Irwin received the medal for his war service in January 1919

The role of Royal Engineers in the field is to help the Army to survive and fight. So in 1914 their tasks
included a whole range from preparing defences such as the trenches, gun emplacements, dug-outs, barbed
wire, which were such a feature of the Western Front, to creating obstacles to enemy movement with
explosives, laying minefields and booby traps, while also detecting and clearing enemy mines, removing
obstacles to our own movement by bridging rivers and the quagmires in no-man’s-land, building roads,
clearing routes for resupply and laying railway and telephone lines. Samuel would have been trained to
undertake many of these tasks. A record of 12 April 1917 shows he was raised to the highest rate of pay for
his rank – on the basis of qualifications and performance. Other records are lacking but from the War
Diaries it is clear, for instance, that his whole Field Company was employed in the tunnelling and laying of
explosives in the months before the storming of the Messines Ridge in June 1917 when 19 large detonations
(totalling 600 tons of explosive) were detonated simultaneously under the enemy front line trenches as the
attack went in. As General Herbert Plumer said to his staff the evening before the attack: "Gentlemen, we
may not make history tomorrow, but we shall certainly change the geography." See bottom of next page.

Sapper Samuel Irwin, MSM, 121st Field Company RE, 36 (Ulster) Division
Imperial War Museum has summary of his life at

8 Feb

Attested at Cavan, Ireland, as a carpenter. Had worked for his father, Francis (1847-1916)
a coach builder. Joined 121st Field Company, Royal Engineers, in 36 (Ulster) Division.
Samuel, then aged 30, claimed some previous military service (details unreadable).
36 (Ulster) Division moved to Sleaford, Sussex. Inspected by Gen Kitchener 27 July.
3-6 Oct
Moved to France 10 miles north of Arras.
Moved to Abbeville where 36 Div spent the winter in reserve, attached to 4 Div (regular
Army) for trench warfare training on a (then) quiet part of the front near Albert from
5 Nov 1915 to 3 Feb 1916.
7 Feb
36 Div took over a complete sector of the front near Albert on the River Ancre, 15 miles
north-east of Amiens on the Somme.
1-13 Jul
Albert was part of the Somme Offensive: 36 Div (with 9 Battalions) attacked the Schwaben
Redoubt just north of Thiepval achieving all their objectives but with very heavy losses. Due
to neighbouring Divisions failing to achieve their own objectives, 36 Div’s flanks were left
exposed to a full German counter attack which came in after dark and forced the Ulstermen to
withdraw. Four Victoria Crosses were awarded to men in the Division.
July- Aug
36 Div, regrouped and reinforced, move 50 miles north to Flanders west of the Belgian
border to be joined there by the 16th (Irish) Division, both becoming part of the British
Second Army under General Plumer, already planning for the Messines operation.
8 Feb
Samuel “Awarded 1st Gb Badge” (trade qualification)
12 Apr
Samuel “Raised to the superior rate of Engineer Pay...” (increase in trade pay)
121st Company tunnelling at ‘Bus Farm’ to lay explosives for the Messines attack. In all the
Engineers and Tunnelling Companies dug 19 tunnels totalling 9000 yards to place a total of
600 tons of explosives under the enemy trenches. Preliminary artillery bombardment of
German positions was started on 21 May and continued until H Hour for the attack at 0310
hours 7 June when the resulting explosions could be heard by Lloyd George in London.
7-14 Jun
Messines was meticulously planned and prepared over a long period by Plumer’s staff who
corrected many of the mistakes made during the Somme Offensive of 1916. Apart from the
19 initial explosions, the shock of which had a major effect on the enemy, tanks and gas were
also used in support of the infantry. Surprise and almost complete success were achieved
despite an enemy counter attack on 8 June. By 14 June the entire Messines salient was in
allied hands.

Troops view a mock-up of the ground over
which they will be fighting at Messines

Another part of the pre-battle briefing

General Herbert Plumer, British Second Army, the architect of the overwhelming success at Messines in Belgium,
with one of the 19 craters that were made along the German trenches on the Messines Ridge at 0310 hours on 7 June 1917

1917 (Continued)
31 July
36 Div went into reserve at St Omer in French Flanders to await the next phase of this
campaign at Langemarck north of Ypres in Belgium
16-18 Aug Langemarck was part of the 3rd Battle of Ypres. Heavy rain and cloud caused a part of the
attack to bog down in mud and a successful German counter-attack ended in stalemate.
36 Div were transferred some 50 miles to the south to Cambrai on the River Escaut in the
Pas-de-Calais, France
30 Oct
Samuel on home leave 30 Oct-9 Nov 1917
20 Nov-3 Dec Cambrai: an artillery-infantry attack supported by tanks on a 6 mile front to break through
the strongly fortified defences of the “Hindenburg Line”. In this it was initially successful
using new methods to gain surprise and improved all arms cooperation. However, poor
planning, the break-up of roads, falling snow all eventually resulted in the breakdown of the
advance until, on 30 Nov, the German counter-attack came in and the result became a virtual
stalemate. 121st Company had been operating from Havrincourt Wood just south of the
Canal du Nord, presumably hard pressed to keep routes open. The Company moved on the
1 Dec to the villages of Hermies and Metz-en-Couture.

British infantry, moving up into captured German trenches
at Havrincourt, forward of the Wood – 20 Nov 1917

Canal du Nord with Havrincourt Wood
on the left

Cambrai: Column of German prisoners entering Havrincourt Wood

Cambrai: The village of Fontaine-Notre-Dame, 3 miles from Cambrai on the Bapaume N30 road,
in German hands just after the they had repulsed a British attack from which the tank was captured.

36 Div, now 30 miles further south in Picardy, became part of General Gough’s 5th Army
responsible for the southern end of the British defences between Arras in the north and La Fère on the
River Oise 50 miles to the south. There 36 Div had a 3 mile wide sector opposite St Quentin. They
had been substantially reorganised, reduced in size, trained in new doctrines on ‘defence in depth’ and were
on the defensive. They faced a German Army, reinforced by the collapse of Russia, about to launch their
Spring Offensive (Kaiserschlacht).
21-23 Mar St Quentin: At 0435 hours on the 21st the offensive began with a 5 hour bombardment
followed by attacks under cover of thick fog. 36 Div’s main defences were a series of isolated redoubts in
which the Ulstermen held on for several hours but many were ultimately surrounded and cut off by
overwhelming numbers of enemy, and suffered heavy casualties.
24-27 Mar Rosieres; Suffice it to say that this southern half of the British front were engaged in a
fighting withdrawal over a distance of 40 miles across Picardy before the German advance was held just 12
miles from Amien on the Somme. 121st Company had the vital task of blowing bridges to protect the retreat.
In this, timing is critical to allow our troops to cross, but to blow the bridge before the enemy can use it.

The German Spring Offensive 21st March 1918: A heavy 5 hour bombardment followed by an attack
under cover of fog and smoke by overwhelming numbers forced the start of a fighting withdrawal

The War Diaries of the 121st trace the route of this fighting withdrawal: Grand Seraucourt (near St Quentin)
– Golancourt – Margy-aux-Cerises – Erches – Grivesnes – Sourdon (15 miles south-east of Amien).
1918 (Continued)
28 Sep-13 Oct Ypres: 36 Div took part in the final advance back in the Ypres salient of Belgium as part of
General Jacob’s 2nd Corps. They advanced 8 miles on the first day against an enemy that was
broken and thrown into confusion. Yet progress then became slow because of the difficult
ground with inadequate roads choked with vehicles and horses. Then, as they approached
Courtrai (Kortrijk), 20 miles east of Ypres, and were about to cross the River Lys there,
new orders sent them north to Lendelede where they were established on 18 Oct.
14-19 Oct
Courtrai: The Crossing of the River Lys, almost the final action of the war during which
Sapper Samuel Irwin, 121st Field Company RE, was wounded, is described below:“Three bridging wagons with full bridging equipment had been brought up the previous night and hidden in farm
buildings beside the river bank, north-west of Beveren, by the 121st Field Company. The pontoons of the 150th
Field Company were hidden slightly further north. At dusk two pontoons were launched, and at 7-25 p.m. the passage
of the 9th Inniskillings began. Two trips were actually made before the enemy fired a shot; then machine-gun fire
burst out, followed a little later by that of artillery. Nevertheless, by 8 p.m. the whole battalion and its attached section
of machine-guns were across, with one casualty only. Hastily in the darkness the battalion formed up.”
“Directly the 9th was over, the 121st Field Company set about throwing across a "half-pontoon" bridge. It was found,
however, that the river was here actually over a hundred feet wide, considerably more than was anticipated from the
information in our possession, and that two pontoons in halves would not reach across. Since pontoons were infinitely
precious - some having been sunk at Courtrai - as many as possible being required for a subsequent heavy bridge, an
attempt was made to assemble a trestle-bridge instead. But under the very heavy shell-fire now falling upon the river
this had to be abandoned for want of time, and eventually a pontoon was borrowed from the 150th Field Company to
complete the bridge. It was ready at ten o'clock, just as the leading platoon of the 1st Inniskillings appeared on the
bank. The battalion had four hours for its crossing and assembly on the further bank.”
“In the late operations the 36th Division had inscribed, on these its final pages, one of the brightest chapters of its
career. It had been a period marked by a brilliant co-operation of every arm, combatant and non-combatant. Amid
many great achievements, perhaps the most satisfactory of all had been that of the Engineers. For once their work,
always so hard, but generally so obscure and thankless, had stood out in the foreground.”
Imperial War Museum has a summary of Irwin’s life at
The 36th (Ulster) Division - Their role in the Great War 1914-1918

1918 (Continued)
20 Oct
Samuel; Gun shot wound. Admitted med services 1100 hrs, prognosis “poor”.
11 Nov
Armistice (end of WW1)
17 Dec
Samuel discharged from 55 General Hospital
20 Dec
Samuel arrived at RE Base Depot. Rejoined his unit, later transferring to 11 Fd Coy RE
Samuel awarded the Meritorious Service Medal vide London Gazette dated 18 Jan 1919
and recorded in 121st Field Company RE “War Diaries” for 21 Jan 1919.
29 June
36 (Ulster) Division at Mouscron (north-east of Tourcoing) disbanded.
--------------------------------------------------------------------------SKETCH MAP NEXT PAGE

Pontoon bridge over the River Aisne: Sept 1914 (Imperial war Museum)

Erection of the Havrincourt bridge over the Canal du Nord: 3 Oct 1918 (Robert Ronayne, New Zealand)

For details of Samuel Irwin’s family and history click on

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