Our family at war: Letters sent from the frontline
A remarkable archive of Irish letters depicts a vivid picture of life at war, writes Damian Corless
Published 10/05/2014 | 02:30
Shortly before the Battle Of The Somme began in July 1916, the Irish Independent reported that 100,000 Irishmen had signed up for the British army since the outbreak of war two years earlier. That battle, one of the most brutal and bloody engagements in history, rumbled on for almost five months leaving over one million men dead or wounded. Starved of news from the front, the thousands of Irish soldiers locked up in German prisoner of war camps didn't yet know it, but they could count themselves lucky to have escaped the unspeakable slaughter.
By the time of the Somme, the old fiction that combat and chivalry went hand in glove had been blown to smithereens, as the terrors of a new type of industrial war were unleashed. In early 1915, the Germans used poison gas for the first time on the Western front in the second Battle of Ypres. Weeks later, in May 1915, nationalist Ireland got first-hand exposure to another type of new, dirty and underhand war, when German U-Boats torpedoed the Lusitania off Kinsale.
In spite of the dirty war taking shape, many of the missives in and out of the POW camps belonged to the old world of politeness and deference. Soldiers interned in the German camps were issued with standard postcards on which to write home for supplies and, just as importantly, say thank you for favours received.
Aged 75 at the start of the war, Augusta Crofton Dillon, better known as Lady Clonbrock of Galway, worked closely with the Irish Women's Association to send basic necessities to Irish POWs. Many of her care packages went to members of the Connaught Rangers imprisoned in Limburg near Cologne. In one letter to Lady Clonbrock, a soldier named B Maguire writes that he has not yet received cigarettes that he'd been told were on the way, adding that while other men in the camp were receiving bread from Switzerland, he was not getting any. He asks if the good Lady could look into both matters.
On a surprisingly personal note, Maguire reveals that he has not received a letter or parcel from his wife for 18 months and requests Lady Clonbrock to visit her to ascertain what's the matter. In fact, many of the letters back from the POW camps make discreet and not-so-discreet inquiries about the fidelity of wives and sweethearts who had fallen out of touch.
On a happier note, many of these postcards from the edge are simply messages of gratitude to thank those back home for cigarettes, bread, boots and clothing. One, for instance, from Joseph Connolly of the Connaught Rangers to JM Dane, simply says: "Madam, I am today in receipt of two breads sent by you for which I desire to thank you and yours."
A large archive of letters from the front is being assembled at letters1916.ie by Professor Susan Schreibman of NUI Maynooth who invites the public to contribute material from the period which may have been passed down in the family. She says: "It's a crowd sourcing project that depends on public participation. Not only do we value material sent in, but people can go online and transcribe the letters."
Transcribing simply means reading the letters, many of which are in handwritten scrawls, and typing in a more reader-friendly version. In addition, participants can make a contribution by proof-reading the typed version.
This new approach to mapping history, made possible by the appliance of science, allows marvels like sentiment analysis. Susan says: "It's the big data approach. We can hit a search for all the letters posted on a particular day and gauge the mood of the country."
If Irish society was split by the poster campaign featuring Lord Kitchener and the slogan "Your Country Needs You", the Easter Rising in 1916 turned that split into a deep gash. At the start of hostilities the island's Catholic nationalist majority had already been guaranteed Home Rule once the war was won. Tens of thousands of nationalists had marched off to fight for Britain, but with Irish independence as the end goal. To them, the rebellion was a wanton act of treachery.
Weeks after the Rising, sailor Gerald O'Driscoll wrote from the HMS Temeraire expressing his disgust to his father Denis back in Ireland. He said: "I was of course shocked by the Dublin rebellion and indeed not a little anxious for the safety of those near and dear to me. I was worried and restless. The possibility of Maggie and Barbara being in the danger zone, and this coupled with the temporary stoppage of mails and communication of every description, increased my solicitude.
"But I will not waste time in dogmatising on such madness. We and our fellow countrymen at the front felt it all the more keenly. It would seem as if the temple of glory built by our brave Irish regiments had been pulled down by their own kindred. In a paper that Maggie sent me I notice the name and address of Dot's brother as one of the rebels deported. I wonder what his own brother Jack will say when he hears the news at the front. That half-demented, crazy, misguided fool Willie Halpin is also one of them. Patriotism! My God! And he knows as much about Irish history as a Fiji cannibal. The outcome of it (the Rising) was death and sorrow, and the destruction of the finest and statliest street in Europe – a street that every Dublin man must have been justly proud."
Amongst the most poignant items in the Maynooth online archive is a collection of letters from a loving mother to a child she could not locate. Mary Martin had a son, Charlie, and a daughter, Marie, serving at the front. Charlie was a soldier and Marie a nurse. Mary acted as a news relay between her son and daughter, keeping each of them posted on the updates that both were sending back from the lines.
In late 1915, however, the dreadful news from Salonika in Greece was that Charlie had gone missing in action against the Turks of the Ottoman Empire. Further news filtered back that, when last seen, Charlie had been wounded in an arm and a leg. His mother hoped he may have been captured and imprisoned in the relative safety of a POW camp.
With no address for her son, Mary wrote the letters she would have sent into a diary which she began on the first day of 1916. In an entry dated January 13, she told her missing son of a letter recently received from her daughter Marie.
Mary wrote: "Marie said she had not got any news from home for some time, which is curious as I wrote constantly. She was anxious to have news of you. Was glad to hear Tommy was with us for Xmas. She was very grateful to him for sending a cheque for her special men. She was able to give all the 5th Connaughts & 6th Dublins in the Hospital a special present with his best wishes. A pipe, cigarettes, tobacco and some sweets to each.
"They were delighted and thought themselves the luckiest of men. In fact she gave all the men in her block a very good time with the money we collected and sent out. Another nurse also got some money so they were able to do things well. She took some of the men out for a drive the next day, which was a great treat to them. She told me she had a great escape of being poisoned with an injection of typhoid. Most of those who had it got ill."
Mary's diary of letters to her missing son finishes in late May 1916. Two months later, she received official notification that her beloved Charlie was dead.
See our dedicated World War 1 section here.
Irish Independent Supplement