Tuesday 23 January 2018

Review: Military history: The Fighting Irish – The Story of the Extraordinary Irish Soldier by Tim Newark

Constable, €16.99
Available withfree P&P onwww.kennys.ie or bycalling 091 709350

They ran for cover amid the elephant grass and the trees as the arrows flew at them. Around a hundred Baluba warriors were hunting down 11 Irish soldiers.

"They all appeared to be mad and I believe they were drugged," said Private Joseph Fitzpatrick. "Hearing them shouting would strike you dead."

He said: "A fellow came at me with a hatchet. He was a young fellow of only about 21 and I shot him."

Another soldier, 23-year-old private Thomas Kenny, recalled: "We grabbed whatever weapons we could lay our hands on. I was wounded with one arrow in the back. I saw one of the men get killed. We then went for deeper cover and I had two arrows in me. I got weak and fell down, but was not unconscious. I got a third arrow in the hip and I could not get up. They then started hitting me in the back of the head with clubs."

He was left for dead. Fitzpatrick lay hidden with his face and arms blackened with mud and did not fire any shots to reveal his position.

"However, when I heard a pal's cry I opened up as I decided I might as well die then as later that night."

His pal crawled close to him and said: "I am dying, please pray for me," and died shortly after. This was the horror of the Niemba ambush in the Congo in 1960 when a small Irish UN patrol was ambushed and overrun. Only two survived.

Ireland had answered the UN call for a peacekeeping mission in the newly independent Congo which had descended into anarchy.

The soldiers were there as policemen, not soldiers, and had left their heavy weapons at home.

Their story is told in a new book, The Fighting Irish -- The Story of the Extraordinary Irish Soldier by historian Tim Newark.

Private Danny Bradley, who went to the ambush scene, found spent shell casings everywhere, poisoned arrows, and a wheelbarrow containing rainwater and blood which had been used to move the bodies of the Irishmen.

As he entered the tall grass, Bradley says, he felt the presence of evil all around him, before finding the bodies of some of the dead. He believed acts of cannibalism had been carried out but says this had been "hushed up and whitewashed".

The official medical reports into the dead soldiers still have not been released.

Later, in an epic battle at Jadotville, 156 Irish soldiers withstood attacks by 4,000 enemy troops, killing or wounding 400 of them.

Mercenaries and gendarmes mounted wave after wave of infantry attacks, artillery bombardment and air strikes against the peacekeepers.

The Irish had a tough and competent commander, Comdt Pat Quinlan -- and their fighting spirit.

Private John Gorman said: "The only thing we knew about Africa was when we were going to school -- we would have to bring in a penny for the black babies to feed them. I didn't know the black babies would be trying to kill me afterward."

Under a blazing sun the Irish ate "dog biscuits" mixed with water; handing around tins of pineapple juice to wet their lips, the lids stabbed with knives so they woudn't attract swarms of flies.

After another four days of fighting, with no chance of reinforcements, and running out of food, water and bullets Quinlan agreed to a ceasefire.

After a period of captivity the Irish were released. At one point the mercenaries threatened to send in the Baluba tribesmen to eat them.

Quinlan told them: "If they do, we will give them indigestion."

It is this fighting spirit that is rightly celebrated in this book.

Irish soldiers have fought in all corners of the world, in the American Civil War; World Wars One and Two, Korea, the Congo, Iraq and Afghanististan. And often fighting on both sides, as in the Boer War and Spanish Civil War.

The author uses the old journalistic trick of personalising history -- using a soldier's life story to illustrate the bigger picture. It works well.

He sheds light on forgotten history: Queen Victoria's imperial army busily conquering India in the 19th Century was 42pc Irish, for example.

One incident encapsulates Ireland's international military tradition.

In 2002 Irish Guardsman Lance Corporal Ian Malone from Dublin, serving in the British army, met his namesake in Iraq, US Marine Lance Corporal Ian Malone, whose family emigrated from Dublin to America in the 1840s.

But Guardsman Malone paid the butcher's bill that adventurous Irish soldiers have done for centuries: he was killed by a sniper.

At his funeral in Ballyfermot two pipers, one from the Irish Guards of the British army and one from the Irish Defence Forces, played a lament, honouring a tradition that continues to this day.

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