Tuesday 25 November 2014

So, just who was the 'young Willie McBride'?

Graham Clifford visits the final resting place in France of the famed soldier from County Armagh

Graham Clifford

Published 10/05/2014 | 02:30

Scottish singer Eric Bogle wrote the song.
The grave of Willie McBride

In a quaint French country graveyard in the village of Authuille (5km north of Albert and close to the battlefields of the Somme) a wreath, with its leaves now withered, rests against a white headstone.

On its inner rim green, white and orange ribbons and a circle of synthetic poppies still stand out against the brown earth below.

This is the last resting place of Private William McBride who served with the Inniskilling Fusiliers and lost his life on April 22, 1916.

He was just 21 when he was killed – one of so many Irish men to have lost their lives in the Great War – but in song his memory is preserved.

Though there were eight soldiers named 'William McBride' listed with the British forces, and a further six registered as 'W McBride' who died in France and Belgium during World War I, it's believed the William McBride buried in Authuille is the one on whom the song 'The Green Fields of France' is based.

The song's Scottish composer, Eric Bogle, recently confirmed that this was one of the graves he sat by before writing the emotive song words – though Private McBride was 21 when he perished – and not 19 as the lyrics state.

Bogle allegedly told a local historian that the grave (of 'his Willie McBride') belonged to a soldier who was with this battalion – without being specific about the location of the grave.

In the same cemetery I find the headstone of a Private W McBride who died in February 1916 but records fail to confirm his age (most believe he was 19).

Some are convinced that, in fact, this is the 'Willie McBride' in question but Bogle's testimony seems to contradict this.

The composer has been reluctant to clearly pinpoint the source of his inspiration beyond all reasonable doubt – perhaps all of those fallen acted as inspiration en masse.

In the song, made famous by the Fureys and Davey Arthur, the singer asks 'Did they Beat the drum slowly, did the play the pipes lowly? Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down? Did the band sound the Last Post in chorus? Did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest?'

On the day I visit the only sound is that of the gentle breeze blowing through the manicured trees which shelter the cemetery on each side.

Private William McBride may have been buried with military honours (though it's more likely during the intensity of war his body was interned quickly without such a ceremony) but for most of the last century his grave site has been peaceful – so at odds with the conflict that ended his young life.

But who exactly was the Willie McBride we now sing of – the fallen soldier and mother's son the song's composer says he prayed over?

One of four children, born to Joseph and Lena McBride in the small Armagh village and townland of Lislea in 1897, a young William attended the Crosskeys National School.

From a Presbyterian family he would have been a regular mass-goer at the local Temple Presbyterian Church.

Interested in becoming a cobbler before war broke out, a teenage Willie would serve his time in the 'shoe trade'. Initially he worked as an apprentice in Aitkens, Cootehill. He then went to Irvinestown for a short time before moving to work in Belfast.

Eager to do his bit for the war effort, Willie enlisted in the army in Belfast just nine months before his death. He would serve with the 9th Battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers which was formed in Omagh in September 1914 and was known as 'the Tyrones'.

Interestingly, the 12th battalion of the Inniskilling Fusiliers fought against the Irish rebels on Easter week in 1916 in Dublin with two of its soldiers dying and seven being wounded.

On the day Willie McBride was killed fighting conditions in the trenches were even more devastating and bleak than usual.

The rain poured in, men stood in water up to their waist – many half-waiting for death. Furious German shelling came on a continuous basis and sick men tried to hold onto their positions.

It simply was hell on earth. The end was inevitable for most, including Willie McBride.

Looking out over the beautiful flatlands near Authuille today it's hard to imagine that these green expanses were turned into such bloody killing fields for the likes of the youngster from Armagh.

The irony is that these 'Green Fields' once ran red with blood.

An entry in the cemetery log by a 'James Crowley from Cork, Ireland' reads 'Willie McBride – you gave your young life for the cause of freedom – every time we sing your name we'll remember your sacrifice and that of so many brave Irishmen who fought this most brutal of wars so far from your native homeland. May you have found rest 'where the red poppies dance.'

The Green Fields of France

The story of 19-year-old Private Willie McBride who died in 1916 recently inspired four young Dublin schoolboys to delve into the history of World War I.

The result is a book exploring the futility of war, which has been published by the Glasnevin Trust and is for sale in the museum gift shop in Glasnevin.

Inspired by the Eric Bogle ballad, 'The Green Fields of France' the boys from St Paul's in Finglas, Michael McDonagh (15), Ciaran O'Connor (14), Aaron Boylan (14) and Jamie Broughan (14), used the internet and the commonwealth war graves database to attempt to find the 'real' Willie McBride behind the classic song.

During their research they discovered that 19 Willie McBrides were killed in World War I, all of Irish descent. Two died in 1916.

They concluded that the most likely subject of the song died on February 10 and is buried in a French cemetery near the town of Albert.

Their book is a tribute to all Irishmen and Willie McBrides who perished in the Great War.

 

 

See our dedicated  World War 1 section here.

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