Sea at Gallipoli ran red with Irish blood
Special exhibit at museum to shine light on ill-fated military campaign.
On April 25, 1915, the ageing tramp steamer the 'SS River Clyde' approached Turkey's Gallipoli peninsula. On board were soldiers from two Irish regiments, the Royal Dublin and Royal Munster Fusiliers.
The British plan was to use the 'River Clyde' as a Trojan Horse, grounding the old ship on 'V Beach' and opening doors cut in its sides to let the fusiliers storm on to the sands.
But the plan went badly wrong. The beach was heavily defended by Turkish troops, and as they opened fire, shells from their German-supplied pom-pom guns began "hitting off the ship and tearing people to pieces", according to one Irish veteran. The sea turned red from the slaughter.
More fusiliers attempted to land in small boats, and eventually 200 troops got ashore, but at a terrible price – the Irish troops sustained 90pc casualties in the attack.
The crew of the 'River Clyde' were so moved by the Irish soldiers' bravery that they later presented the ship's wheel and lantern to Munster Fusiliers. And, almost 100 years later, these artefacts are on display at the fascinating 'Soldiers and Chiefs' exhibition, which charts Irish military history from 1550 and has several rooms dedicated to World War I.
The V Beach exhibits are favourites of Lar Joye, curator of Military History at the National Museum of Ireland, Collins Barracks, who points out that the significant involvement of Irish troops in the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign is often overlooked.
"People know about the Anzacs (Australian and New Zealand troops), but as many Irish died at Gallipoli as New Zealanders, 3,000, and 15,000 Irish soldiers served there in total."
The exhibition is full of such poignant details, and several of the exhibits provide a glimpse of what the war must have been like for those who fought in it. A Munster Fusilier uniform from 1915, for example, makes few concessions to the Turkish heat – the Irish soldiers landed on V Beach in the standard wool service dress.
See our dedicated World War 1 section here.
A German leather helmet, retrieved as a trophy by a soldier from the 36th (Ulster) Division at the Somme in 1916, also tells a story, as the large bullet hole in its side leaves little doubt about the fate of its wearer, an infantryman in a Bavarian regiment.
And an interactive exhibit lets visitors hold and aim a Lee-Enfield .303, the standard British rifle during the war, while a mould next to it shows the grisly effect of a bullet from the weapon on human flesh. "It gives kids a chance to see that weapons are heavy," says Mr Joye. "It's not like 'Rambo', where you can fire a gun with one hand."
Some exhibits hint at moments of respite amid the carnage – a cigarette case, still with its cigarettes, is one of hundreds of thousands presented to British soldiers by the Royal family as a gift for Christmas 1914; those who didn't smoke got sweets instead.
Not all Irish combatants in the war fought with British forces. A US army recruiting poster for the "famous Irish regiment" the 69th Infantry exhorts recruits to "go to the front with your friends". Like the ill-conceived 'pals' battalions' in the British army, such a policy devastated whole communities – the 69th suffered 3,500 casualties in nine months.
Those with Irish roots fought in the air too. A photo of a naval pilot who shot down nine enemy aircraft stands next to a scale model of his seaplane. But Gottfried von Banfield fought for Austria-Hungary, not Britain or America, and he was the last recipient of the prestigious Order of Maria Theresa, the Austrian equivalent of the Iron Cross. Descended from a Cork family, he was said to have spoken English with an accent from the Rebel County.
The exhibition also extensively covers the 1916 Easter Rising, and puts this pivotal moment in Irish history in the wider context of the World War. A uniform of an officer in Roger Casement's Irish Brigade illustrates how the rebels viewed the Great War as a case of "England's difficulty is Ireland's opportunity" and had initially sought military help from Germany for any insurrection.
The Irish Brigade uniform was a standard German one, adapted to incorporate Irish insignia. But Casement's force, recruited from Irish POWs held by the Germans, never numbered more than around 60 men, and a German arms shipment to the rebels was intercepted by the British.
At the end of the exhibition, a screen displays the names of all of the 1,200 Irish people who died in military action around the globe in three weeks surrounding the Easter Rising. Almost 400, civilians and Irish Volunteers, died in Dublin. The rest were killed on the Western Front and other fronts of the Great War. And as rebel fighters died to achieve Irish self-determination, Irish soldiers fighting with Britain were also killed, from Flanders to Mesopotamia, many of them hoping that their actions would lead to the same goal.
All photographs courtesy the national museum of Ireland and are on show at the 'Soldiers & Chiefs' exhibition at National Museum of Ireland – Decorative Arts & History. The National Museum of Ireland, Collins Barracks, (www.museum.ie) will open a new exhibition during the summer focusing on the Irish soldier in the first two years of World War I.
Irish Independent Supplement