Wednesday 17 January 2018

Battle lines – war in the soldiers' words

Letters home and extracts from diaries reveal the horrors on the front line

Artillery of the Irish Division marching past King George V during an inspection.
Artillery of the Irish Division marching past King George V during an inspection.

"Many of us who then watched the shores of Ireland receding from view were doing so for the last time."

Private AR Brennan, 2nd Battalion Royal Irish Regiment, leaving Dublin for the Western Front

"One of our fellows, while a German flare lit up his trench as it shot over it, saw half a dozen of our raw Irishmen on their knees, praying to the Virgin as if their last hour had come."

Capt Gerald Burgoyne, C Company, 4th Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles

"Spent all night trying to console, aid and remove the wounded. It was ghastly to see them lying there in the cold, cheerless outhouses, on bare stretchers with no blankets to cover their freezing limbs ... Hundreds lying out in cold air all night at Windy Corner. No ambulances coming. They came at last – at daylight." May 10, 1915

Father Frank Gleeson, Irish Chaplain on the Western Front

"You would sink up to your neck in the mud. You daren't light a fire to boil up some tea, otherwise a whizzbang [shell] would drop on you. To boil up tea we had to dig in deep into the mud at night."

War veteran Tom Lawlor, Mountmellick, Co Laois, on his time in the Somme (in an interview with the 'Leinster Express' in 1991)

"I would never like to see it again anyway, to tell you the truth. Never in my life would I ever see the likes of it. The only time it stopped was when they were clearing the dead people off the fields. There was thousands of them; if they were left in it for 24 hours they would have everyone killed and poisoned with the smell of them."

War veteran Jack King, 10th Batallion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, (in an interview on RTE radio in 1974)

"Then in the lull of midnight, gentle arms / Lifted him slowly down the slopes of death / Lest he should hear again the mad alarms / Of battle, dying moans, and painful breath."

Extract from 'A Soldier's Grave' by war poet Francis Ledwidge, who was killed in action in the Battle of Passchendaele 1917

"It rained and rained day and night for weeks it seemed, turning the shell-torn ground into a great slimy bog in which men drowned and guns and vehicles disappeared. Passchendaele was a shambles."

Lieut Henry Crowe, 6th Battalion Royal Irish Regiment

"In a matter of seconds, a hissing and shrieking pandemonium broke loose. The sky was splashed with light. Rockets, green, yellow and red, darted in all directions; and simultaneously, a cyclone of bursting shells enveloped us."

JFB O'Sullivan, 6th Connaught Rangers

"I wish the sea were not so wide that parts me from my love, I wish that things men do below were known to God above. I wish that I were back again in the Glens of Donegal; they'll call me coward if I return, but a hero if I fall."

Patrick MacGill, London Irish Rifles

"The mail arrived from home and I received among other things a green flag with a harp and the words 'Erin go Brath', put on by my mother in large Gaelic letters."

Private AR Brennan, 2nd Battalion Royal Irish Regiment

"A letter out here from home is like nothing on earth. You can send me on some more cigs and chocs and if it could be managed the 'Cork Weekly Examiner' every week."

Jerome Guerin, 2nd Batallion, Leinster Regiment, in a letter home to his mother Mary in Killarney in August 1916. He was killed the following month

"Death is reaping a rich harvest. Shells everywhere searching for us."

Bombardier James Moloney, RFA Ballina, in his diary

"They were literally slaughtered like rats in a trap. Many men sank owing to the weight of their equipment and were drowned. The carnage on V Beach was chilling; dead and wounded lay at the water's edge tinted crimson from their blood"

Eye-witness account from the first landing at Gallipoli

"Heaps of dead and wounded lay around us... after that terrible charge I sat in my trench and my mind wandered back to Ballina and I thought of how on that Saturday night the boys were enjoying themselves but there is no time for day-dreaming here."

Corporal David Rydel wrote in a letter home after the Battle of Gallipoli, August 1915

"They crept right up to our trenches (they were in thousands) and they made the night hideous with yells and shouting 'Allah, Allah'. We could not help mowing them down."

Extract from the diary of Sergeant D Moriarty, 1st Royal Munster Fusiliers, May 1, 1915

"Wounded and dead lying everywhere. The sun streaming down and not a drop of water to be had. Neither had we bombs to reply to the Turks and drive them out."

Henry Hanna, Dublin Fusiliers, writing about the Suvla Bay assault

"As many as 400 dead Turks and British in one small trench...smell so dreadful I had to put on a respirator."

Sapper Joseph Kelly, Royal Engineers, Ballina

"The little ring of blue-grey smoke, which marks a shrapnel, floats peacefully in the blue overhead like a halo, it seems, in the brilliant sunlight. But what a halo – a halo of death. You wonder when the next shell will fall and as you wonder you are deafened with a mighty roar. A blinding glare sears your eyes and you fling yourself flat on the ground; the next instant you are covered with dust and broken stones. You have been lucky this time, but others are not so, for around you are lying what a few moments before were men, but now are only a mass of quivering flesh."

Lieut JM Brophil, of the 6th Leinster, December 1915

"So here, while the mad guns curse overhead, and tired men sigh, with mud for couch and floor, know that we fools, now with the foolish dead, died not for Flag, nor King, nor Emperor, but for a dream born in a herdsman's shed, and for the sacred scripture of the poor."

Tom Kettle, 9th Royal Dublin Fusiliers

"Hostilities will cease at 11.00am on the 11th day of the 11th month. After that time all firing will cease. This was joyous news. Approaching 11 o'clock in our sector you could have heard a pin drop. When 11 o'clock came there were loud cheers. The war was over as far as we were concerned."

Terrence Poulter, 7th Royal Dublin Fusiliers

"Bethune, when we reached it again, had changed from a town of laughter and song to a shambles ... War is certainly a beast from hell."

Private David Starrett, 9th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles

"So the curtain fell over that tortured country of unmarked graves and unburied fragments of men ... We were said to be fighting to stop future war, but none believed that. Nor ever will."

Private David Starrett, 9th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles


See our dedicated  World War 1 section here.

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