The Sherwood Foresters Story
The Second Battalion of the Notts and Derbyshire Regiment, better known as the "Sherwood Foresters", were the last of the 'Great War' volunteers; citizen soldiers who joined up to fight in the trenches of France and Belgium during WWI. They never expected that their first taste of combat was to be on the leafy streets of what was the second city of the British Empire – Dublin.
When the Sherwood Foresters arrived in Dublin early on Wednesday morning the 26th of April 1916, they had been told they were facing an ill-discipline poorly armed rabble and their role in Dublin would be little more than police work. However, the men they faced were far from an ill disciplined group. Instead, only hours after setting foot in Ireland, they would go into battle with well trained fighters, in heavily barricaded buildings, with home advantage. As they marched from Kingstown port into the city, they walked straight into the path of these waiting rebels. Within hours of their arrival, over 220 of the Sherwood Foresters lay dead or wounded, their injuries inflicted by just 17 men of the rebel Irish Volunteers. The men of the Notts and Derbyshire Regiment had been sent to their slaughter.
The young men of the Sherwood Foresters were not supposed to die on British soil. They are part of the hidden story of a conflict lost in the chaos of the First World War. Their names are not remembered on any monument, their deaths unrecorded in the official war records, their sacrifice forgotten.
Marching the leafy streets
The men of the 2nd Battalion were just 12 weeks into their training when they were roused from their beds in the early hours of Tuesday morning the 25th of April 1916. Few of them, if any, realised where they were going. That Monday, the men and women of the Irish Volunteers, Citizen Army, Cumann na mBan and Na Fianna boy scouts took to the streets of Dublin in a violent uprising. Caught off guard, the British military authorities in Ireland put out an emergency call for troop reinforcements to quell the Rising. Four thousand men of the Notts and Derbyshire Regiment, “the Sherwood Foresters”, were among 20 battalions dispatched to Dublin.
Totalling almost 25,000 soldiers, these men were sent into a fight that none of them expected. Worse still was the fact that the 2nd Battalion of the Foresters were the only unit sent to Dublin that week that had not completed their full training. They were totally unprepared for combat and some of the men had not even learned to fire a rifle yet. To make matters even worse, in the rush to get the men to Dublin, their machine guns and hand grenades had been left on the dockside in Liverpool. The British military leaders had miscalculated the situation and believed that a show of force would be enough to end the uprising. However, the rebels that they would send their men up against were well prepared for what lay ahead. The Sherwood Foresters were facing a well trained and committed opponent.
On Wednesday morning, as they arrived in the port of Kingstown (now Dún Laoghaire), just outside Dublin, the battalion was divided in half. Two thousand troops were sent into the city along the tree-lined Northumberland Road, cheered on by many of the citizens of Dublin. They had expected to be in France that morning, with reports of soldiers initially greeting the girls they met with a jaunty “Bonjour”!. Perplexed at finding themselves in Dublin instead, they laughed and joked as they marched along the route, buoyed by the cheers of their fellow British citizens.
Among them was Nottingham barrister named Christian “Freddie” Dietrichsen, a Captain in the regiment. Before the war, Dietrichsen had married an Irish women, Beatrice Mitchell, of a wealthy wine merchants family from Dublin. They lived in Nottingham, where they had enjoyed a genteel life up until the outbreak of World War I. However, when the German's started launching Zeppelin raids against British cities, Freddie had sent his wife and children back to her parent's home in Dublin. As his company marched up the leafy Northumberland Road on their way into the city, he spotted his wife and children among the cheering crowds. Their re-union was loving but far too short. He only had time to exchange a few words with his family and to briefly kiss his wife before rejoining his men on their march. Half an hour later, Dietrichsen was in the first line of Sherwood Foresters to come under attack. As he tried to rally his inexperienced and panic stricken men, he was struck down by a snipers bullet. He died on the streets of Dublin as the battle raged all around him, just a few miles away from where his wife and children excitedly waited to see Daddy again. In his pockets, were two notes given to him by his children and a last letter to his wife that he never got a chance to send.
This was the Battle of Mount Street Bridge, the British Army’s first major experience of urban warfare. Two thousand half-trained soldiers from the Notts and Derbyshire Regiment had been marched into a withering fire of well defended enemy positions. At the end of 6 hours of fighting, 220 men lay wounded and dying on the bloody streets surrounding Mount Street Bridge. This was at the height of the First World War, just months before the carnage of the Somme. These soldiers met their fate, not at the hands of the German Army in France, but during 5 days of street fighting against their fellow citizens in the second city of the British Empire.
Above: The last unsent letter that Captain Dietrichsen wrote to his wife and the two notes from his children, all of which were found on his person after he was shot down by a sniper during the Battle of Mount Street Bridge
a sacrifice forgotten
The losses suffered by the Sherwood Foresters were ignored by those in Westminster. The whole Battle of Mount Street Bridge was seen as a debacle for the military authorities who tried to keep the affair as quiet as possible. Here, just months before the Battle of the Somme, was an example of lions led by donkeys to their doom. The casualties were forgotten, their losses brushed under the carpet. The names of those who were killed in Dublin that week where condescendingly listed as having “died on the home-front”, as if their deaths had been nothing more than a training ground accident. Only the bereaved families of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire would remember their bravery and sacrifice.
The men of the 2nd Battalion who were lucky enough to survive the fierce fighting in Dublin that week, returned to their base at Salisbury Plains in January 1917. In February of the same year, they were all sent to the Western Front to face the enemy which they had originally signed up to fight. Although there were no service medals issued for their time spent in battle on the streets of Dublin, the men who fought and died that week engaged in the same great acts of valour and bravery that their comrades would go on to enact on the fields of France and Belgium. While the people of their home counties refused to let their sacrifice be forgotten and their memories fade, the actions of the Sherwood Foresters during that Easter week, almost 100 years ago, were almost entirely written off in the annals of the history of the 'Great War'. In 2016, it will be interesting to see whether or not the British government finally recognise the bravery of those who fell at Mount Street Bridge. Only time will tell.
- Written by Colin Farrell