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Saturday 20 September 2014

Letters homes showed what Wexford soldiers endured at the Front

Published 16/08/2014 | 12:00

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A notice in memory of Patrick Cousins of Wexford, who was killed in France on January 4, 1916.

THERE can be no greater insight into what our soldiers were enduring during the horrors of the First Wold War than the letters they managed to write to their concerned families at home.

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While the families were worrying and praying for the safety of their loved ones, so were the soldiers anxious to let them know how they were getting on and how awful the war was.

We can imagine the anxious wives and mothers lighting candles in their parish churches and besieging the holy nuns in the Adoration Convent to add their prayers for safe return from the battle field. Here are a few more examples of letters sent from the trenches.

Pte Patrick Furlong from Castle Hill Street, Wexford, in a letter to Mrs Moore, tobacconist, North Main Street, wrote gratefully acknowledging receipt of cigarettes, etc., sent by her. He stated that the 2nd battalion to which he belonged had suffered severely.

'We had a hard time for the past couple of weeks, but we cannot help it now. The Germans are terrible ruffians. They used the gas on us again. On Monday, May 24, [1915,] we saw large clouds of green and yellow fumes coming towards our trenches, and of course we knew what was going to happen. We lined up and opened fire on the Germans' trenches until we had to drop down owing to the poisonous gases.

'It was a terrible thing to see poor men dying from it; they turned purple and green. Then the Germans came on themselves but we did not move. We mowed them down with our machine guns. Of course, we lost nearly all of our regiment, but the Germans lost more and they will still lose more.'

Private John Clowrey of the Royal Irish Regiment, who had been a prisoner in Germany, in a letter to his wife in Barrack Street in Wexford wrote: 'We have changed stations and come to a very nice place in Germany. I have met a lot of Wexford fellows here, among them being Mickey Connors, Young Leacy, Fenlon, Berry, Tierney, Kearns, Jack Carthy and some more chaps from John Street. I don't know them all but we are all together here along with some from Enniscorthy.' He also stated that he received some packets of cigarettes, tobacco and other articles sent to him quite safely.

Private William Murphy of 10 Patrick Place, Enniscorthy, who was serving in the 18th Royal Irish Regiment, sent details of his capture and escape from the Germans after the battle of Mons. 'After being called up I was sent to Devonport where I left on August 10 for Bologne. From there we were sent to Mons, marching most of the way. The weather was very warm.

'On August 23 we were in action, supported by four English regiments. We had a terrific engagement on the 25th. We were outnumbered by nearly 100-1. Fully half of our men were killed or put out of action. A comrade of mine named Clarke and myself were cut off from the main body of our troops.

'We were completely surrounded, and we held up our hands in token of surrender. We were at once taken prisoners. I was thrown down. A big German rushed at me with a knife and ripped open my bootlaces, pulling the boots from my feet. Clarke was similarly treated.

'We were compelled to walk barefooted to the place where we were imprisoned. We were put down in a cellar. We had been there about half an hour when a Belgian gentleman came along and saw us through a grating, which opened onto the street. He went away but quickly returned with a piece of a broken shaft of a car, with which he loosened the grating, lifting it a little, so that we got up and crawled through it.

'He brought us to his house and kept us concealed for a couple of days. Then notice was sent around that anyone found harbouring aliens would be severely dealt with. The gentleman tried to explain this to us by signs at the same time he began to weep for our sad plight. That night we left for a place called Hoverville, about five miles from Mons. There a Belgian miner concealed us in his house for three weeks, treating us very kindly.

'While we were there a girl used to call from a hospital about four miles from Hoverville. I wrote my name and number and Clarke's name and number on a piece of paper and gave it to the girl who took it to the hospital where there were between 20 and 30 nuns acting as nurses. The nuns sent for us and we went to the hospital by night. When we left the hospital they took us across fields till we again struck a main road where we saw a troop of German cavalry coming along. The nuns walked about 200 yards in front of us and we being dressed in miners clothes and carrying tommy cans the Germans let us pass. The nuns brought us to their convent and treated us very kindly. Two Belgian gentlemen called at the convent and took us to their house. After some days they conducted us to a Belgian regiment and we remained with them until we joined up with a British regiment. Captain Butler of our own regiment was the first Irish man we saw after our escape.'

In March 1915 it was estimated that Co. Wexford had already given upwards of 2,000 men to the army and naval services. In Wexford town upwards of 100 members of the local volunteer battalion had joined the Irish Brigade and other popular regiments and many were daily joining.

Among those who enlisted in one week were John O'Leary, John Street; Thomas O'Keefe, the Faythe; William Roche, John's Gate Street; George Warren, Patrick Square and James Miller

William O'Keefe, Faythe House, Wexford, secured a commission as lieutenant in the Royal Field Artillery.

Private Thomas Smith of Enniscorthy was home suffering from frost bite in the foot. He was within 30 yards of Private P. Jordan also of the Royal Irish Regiment, another Enniscorthy man when the latter was shot dead in the trenches.

Two New Ross men who left for the front in February 1915 were J. Hearn, only son of Mr J. B. Hearn, and Patrick Kelly, eldest son of Mrs B. Kelly, Conduit Lane.

Private Michael Neill of the Irish Guards was killed in action on February 6, 1915. He was son of Mr Michael Neill, Hill Street, Wexford, and had only enlisted the previous June. Before that he was for some years connected with the printing business in Wexford.

John Allen, shoemaker, of Mary Street, New Ross was informed by the War Office that his son John belonging to the 18th Royal Irish Regiment had been killed in the fighting in France.

New Ross Standard

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