The New Ross man who witnessed horrific scenes of fighting at the Somme

Published 30/08/2014 | 00:00

A FORMER New Ross resident who witnessed the horrors of World War I first-hand lived to see his four sons carry on the army tradition in the exact same role he mastered in the killing fields of the Western Front.

Patrick Condon survived 'The War to End All Wars', having served as a signalman in the trenches of Ypres, The Somme and Paschendale.

Born in Glenmore, Co Kilkenny, he saw some of the older boys in the village leave for battle in 1914 and decided to take up the call of Lord Kitchener and join the army aged 16 in 1914.

He enlisted through the local postman and trained with the Dublin Fusiliers and, having trained for a year in Cork, joined the British army in France at the tender age of 17.

As a first class signalman he was involved relaying orders and messages from headquarters to the troops in some of the bloodiest campaigns the world had ever witnessed.

Ypres, The Somme, and Paschendale were among the battles he endured on the Western Front, suffering shrapnel burns and days of hunger and sickness.

Today, Patrick's son John lives with his wife Monica at 4 Haughton Place in New Ross, a house previously occupied by his father, which was given to him by the British Legion for his service in the war.

John, along with his brothers Frank, Bill and Noel, all went on to serve for eight years each as signalmen in the Irish army, carrying on the family tradition, while the army connection stretches back to their great uncle Sam who fought in the second of the Boer Wars in Africa.

John said: 'We are the complete army family. We just found out that a first cousin was also in the army.'

He said his father rarely spoke of the war. 'He was introverted after the war. I couldn't get a word out of him about it.'

Patrick died in 1989 aged 92, having celebrated his 60th wedding anniversary to Johanna from New Ross.

Before he died he recalled to his son Frank (who is now living in London) the horrors he experienced.

Frank said his father recalled to him the horror of Paschendale and The Salient battle, where the Germans experimented with mustard gas and flame throwers.

'He recalled the green fog of the deadly gas, the shouts of 'Gas! Gas! Gas!', the men screaming in agony and how some threw themselves into the mud from duckboards into waist high watery mud as they couldn't go on,' he said.

Patrick had to mend the holes in the barbed wire that had been torn apart by shell fire and had to crawl within feet of the German lines when doing so.

Patrick also spoke of the underground war and of a massive explosion on June 7, 1917, which saw an entire area of earth, close to the enemy line, erupt skywards.

He later recalled: 'The noise was terrific even for those of us that were prepared. Because I was a signaller, qualified in the use of Semaphore and Aldus Lantern, I had become aware of such an event and was still shocked by that event. Stones and earth were hurled skywards to a height of several hundred feet and we were in more danger as this stuff fell back to earth again.'

Thousands of German prisoners were captured, most of whom were in a shocked state of mind and deafened as well.

He said the only consolation was the occasional drink of rum, while sleep only came for him after he dug a hole in a trench wall, in which he would rest his head.

In an interview with the late Larry Larkin of the New Ross Standard on the occasion of his 60th wedding anniversary, he said: 'I was graded a first class signaller, which meant standing where everyone could see me. In order to read what I was sending with my semaphore flags there was another poor fellow doing the receiving and relaying in full view down the other end of the trenches. This was a very dangerous time to be a signalman.'

He returned from the war with trench feet in a state of shellshock and without any teeth, but not without his characteristic fighting spirit, which one day enabled him to win over a fiery New Ross woman named Johanna Henneberry, who became his wife.

After the war he quickly joined the Foreign Services, serving in Egypt, Palestine and Jerusalem.

He received a letter from King George V of England thanking him personally for his services to 'his country', which he kept in a German soldier's pigskin wallet which he found during the war. Along with his three medals, this was the only memento he had from the Great War. Patrick was described in his demobilisation papers as a high quality signalman.

He returned to Ireland in 1921 only to face a torrent of abuse for fighting for the British shilling (he earned £30), but, undeterred, Patrick went on to enlist for the Irish Free State Army, which he was demobbed from after nine months.

'I was damn glad to get out of that army,' he was often heard to say. 'For it was there that I was nearer to being shot than in the Somme.'

He told the story of how he and a relief sentry were shot at by the very soldier that they were about to relieve.

He went on to work on the electrification of Ireland and as a farmer and became secretary of the New Ross British Legion.

In 1952 his sons enlisted and served under the tricolours in the Curragh Camp and a photograph of Frank, Bill and John was used as an advertisement for a recruitment drive to the Irish Army, Óglaigh na hÉireann.

Today, Frank's sons Michael and Stephen continue the army tradition and he is still an active member of ONET (Organization of National Irish ex-service men and women) in London.

Enniscorthy Guardian

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