Bravery, endurance and loyalty were in rich supply
Published 11/11/2012 | 05:00
Remembrance Day commemorates the end of the First World War. Wesley Boyd pays tribute to the many Irishmen who fought in it
When the First World War broke out there were 20,000 Irishmen serving with the regular British Army and another 30,000 in the reserve. In the first year of the war, another 80,000 Irishmen volunteered -- about half of them from Ulster. There were many heroes among them.
The first Victoria Cross, the highest award for valour, of the war was awarded to Lt Maurice Dease from Mullingar who died fighting at his machine gun post, trying to stop the German advance on Mons on August 23, 1914.
In Flanders fields, I recently came upon the place where another Irishman -- one of many -- won the Victoria Cross. I walked through a field to a small copse surrounding a giant oak tree. It was here that 15 men of the 2nd Battalion, Irish Guards, hopelessly outnumbered and surrounded by German troops, held their advance post near Ypres for four days.
They were under the command of 22-year-old Lance-Sergeant John Moyney, from Rathdowney, Co Laois, who imposed a stern discipline. They had no food or water but Sgt Moyney would not allow them to break into their iron rations.
On the fifth day, the Germans launched a heavy assault. Sgt Moyney, deciding the best method of defence was attack, led his men out. Using rifles and grenades, they charged the German lines and managed to reach a narrow stream called the Broembeck. Under covering fire from Sgt Moyney and Private Thomas Woodcock, the men scrambled across the stream to the comparative safety of no man's land. Only when they thought all their comrades had reached safety did he and Pte Woodcock retire across the stream under a hail of bullets (the British Army never used the term 'retreated'; they always 'retired').
After crossing, Pte Woodcock heard cries for help. He returned and waded into the stream and rescued a member of the party who had fallen wounded, and carried him over open ground in daylight under heavy machine gun fire.
Why did the sergeant not allow his men to eat their iron rations when they were fatigued and hungry while under continuous fire for four days?
Rudyard Kipling offered an explanation in his monumental history The Irish Guards in the Great War: "In a tight spot if you do one thing against orders you'll do anything. And it was a dammed tight place that that man Moyney walked them out of." Kipling wrote the history in memory of his 18-year-old son, John, a lieutenant in the Irish Guards, who fell at the Battle of Loos in 1915.
Sgt Moyney was awarded the Victoria Cross on September 13, 1917. The official citation read: "It was due to endurance, skill and devotion to duty shown by this Non-Commissioned Officer that he was able to bring his entire force safely out of action."
Pte Woodcock, from Wigan, was also awarded the Victoria Cross. He was killed in action six months later.
When Sgt Moyney retired from the army he went to live in Roscrea, where he died in 1980 at the age of 85. The place of his bravery in Flanders is not signposted. It is now a peaceful farm.
The place where the Irish poet, Francis Ledwidge, fell near the village of Boezinghe, north-west of Ypres, is marked by a faded and tattered Irish tricolour and an untidy overgrown surrounding hedge.
After surviving the hell of Gallipoli and the rigours of Serbia, Ledwidge was sent to Flanders with his regiment, the Royal Inniskilling Fusil-iers. "And now I'm drinking wine in France/The helpless child of circumstance/ Tomorrow will be loud with war/How will I be accounted for?" The answer came on July 31, 1917. He was a member of a work party repairing a road when a shell exploded beside them. Six men, Ledwidge among them, were killed. They were buried where they fell but were later reinterred in Artillery Wood Military Cemetery.
The grave of Major Willie Redmond, MP, while not neglected, could also do with some attention. The son of an Irish Nationalist MP and the brother of John, who became leader of the party at Westminster, Willie joined the army but resigned in 1881 to agitate for the Land League and was imprisoned three times. He, himself, was elected an MP in 1883.
When war broke out he volunteered for the Royal Irish Regiment and went to France in 1915. He led his men in the advance by the 16th Irish Division and the 36th Ulster Division on Messines Ridge. One of the first out of the trenches, he was shot almost immediately and died of his wounds in the field hospital of the Ulster Division at the Catholic Hospice in Locre.
The nuns buried him in the grounds of the convent. Aged 53, he was one of the oldest casualties of the war. His grave lies just outside the walls of a military cemetery. At his family's request his grave remains where the nuns laid him to rest, marked only by a simple cross and a statue of the Virgin Mary.
A few months before his death he had written to his friend, author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: "It would be a fine memorial to the men who have died so splendidly if we could, over their graves, build a bridge between North and South." Now, not far away, stands the 100ft high Irish round tower which commemorates all the men of Ireland who fought in the Great War. The sun illuminates its interior only on Remembrance Day, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.