Friday 24 May 2019

Guns go quiet on Western Front

The Big Read: For decades, the 200,000 Irish soldiers who served in World War I were ignored. But the war could never be obliterated from public consciousness

Forgotten men of the trenches: soldiers from the Royal Irish Rifles rest during the opening hours of the Battle of the Somme in 1916
Forgotten men of the trenches: soldiers from the Royal Irish Rifles rest during the opening hours of the Battle of the Somme in 1916
Ireland's call: John Redmond in a WWI recruitment poster
Remembered: Prince Harry, president Michael D Higgins and the Duchess of Cambridge at the Thiepval memorial, France
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

A century ago at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the incessant boom of artillery guns suddenly fell silent all along the Western Front.

It was so quiet during those first moments of peace that in the eerie silence, a soldier recalled how he could hear raindrops falling from a tree.

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Frank Hitchcock, a Dubliner from the Leinster Regiment, later told how Irish troops at the front were wary when they received the news that peace had suddenly been declared.

The armistice had been signed between the Allies and the Germans in a converted railway dining car, hidden away in the woods at Compiègne in northern France.

Ireland's call: John Redmond in a WWI recruitment poster
Ireland's call: John Redmond in a WWI recruitment poster

A brigadier galloped up to Irish troops and yelled: "The war is over! The Kaiser has abdicated!"

"We were typically Irish, and never cheered except under adverse conditions, such as shell fire and rain," said Hitchcock in a diary of his wartime experiences. "Somewhat crestfallen, the brigadier rode slowly off to communicate his glad tidings to an English battalion, who, no doubt took the news in a different way."

Another Irish company commander, Terence Poulter, was more excited as he received a note from his superiors: "Hostilities will cease at 11am on the 11th day of the 11th month. After that time, all firing will cease."

"This was joyous news," Poulter recalled. "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."

Tomorrow, up to 80 world leaders will gather at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on the Champs-Élysées in Paris to mark the centenary of the armistice.

They will remember the fallen from a war that was without question the greatest calamity in modern Irish history - with the exception of the Famine.

Remembered: Prince Harry, president Michael D Higgins and the Duchess of Cambridge at the Thiepval memorial, France
Remembered: Prince Harry, president Michael D Higgins and the Duchess of Cambridge at the Thiepval memorial, France

More than 200,000 Irishmen fought in the conflict, and many witnessed horrific killing on an industrial scale that had never been seen before.

Historians have differed on how many Irishmen died. The historian Tom Burnell has spent 15 years researching the casualties, and has counted a military death toll of 29,773 for the 26 counties - and up to 17,000 more people are thought to have died from the North.

For Irish citizens living in the middle of the last century, it was far more likely that a neighbour or a family member had fought or died in the Great War than in the Easter Rising or in the War of Independence.

And yet, for many decades, official Ireland more or less chose to ignore a conflict that had such a profound impact on the country.

Burnell, who served in the Irish Defence Forces, said: "Growing up in Ireland in the 1950s, we were never even told about the war in school. But I remember saying prayers at home for soldiers who died on the battlefield."

In De Valera's Ireland and its immediate aftermath, remembering the fallen of the war at an official level may have been politically incorrect.

But the sheer scale of a conflict that ripped the heart from communities and left thousands maimed meant the war could never be entirely obliterated from public consciousness.

Stories of fathers, grandfathers and uncles were told in families, their forever young faces passed on through generations in sepia-tinted photographs.

Two of the biggest hits of the 1970s in Ireland - 'And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda' and 'The Green Fields of France' - were evocative songs about World War I.

They were both written by the same Scottish-Australian singer, Eric Bogle. They resonated in Ireland as strongly as any ballad about the War of Independence, and their success uncovered a deep well of sympathy for those who had fallen.

And part of the emotional appeal was a perception that young Irish soldiers had been forgotten - eclipsed by the small number who had fought in 1916.

'The Green Fields of France', sung by Finbar Furey, was in the charts for 28 weeks after its release in 1979. Suddenly the generation that was "butchered and damned" were no longer strangers "without even a name enshrined forever behind a glass pane".

They were brought to life, and the story of the war was reawakened in Irish folk memory.

When Liam Clancy sung in 'And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda' about Australian soldiers and "how in that hell that they called Suvla Bay, we were butchered like lambs at the slaughter", he might as well have been singing about the thousands of Irish troops who lost their lives at Gallipoli in 1915. Irish troops who fought in the war left behind memoirs, letters, and diaries, and in recent decades many of these have been rediscovered.

Some accounts gloss over the gory details, sparing loved ones some of the horrors of warfare. Others are much more graphic.

Halo of death

Landing in the blood-red sea at Gallipoli, Sergeant J McColgan described how he brought 32 men ashore - and just six survived: "One fellow's brains were shot into my mouth as I was shouting for them to jump for it."

And a Kildare man, Lieutenant JM Brophil, gave a vivid description of the harrowing scenes: "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."

As the historian Philip Orr puts it in an essay in the book Our War, today the graveyards around Gallipoli are filled with tombstones that read like entries from an Irish street directory.

And the same goes for the graveyards along the Western Front in France and Belgium. The rural parish of Lorrha in Co Tipperary is in some ways typical of parishes across the country.

Up to 90 people with strong connections to the parish fought in the war, and these have been documented in a book by a local historian Gerard O'Meara.

O'Meara's kinsman Martin O'Meara, a stretcher bearer and reluctant soldier, won a Victoria Cross for his gallantry at the Somme after joining up as an emigrant living in Australia.

The citation read: "During four days of very heavy fighting, he repeatedly went out and brought in wounded officers and men from No Man's Land under intense artillery and machine gun fire. He also volunteered and carried up ammunition and bombs through a heavy barrage to a portion of the trenches which was being heavily shelled at the time. He showed throughout an utter contempt of danger and undoubtedly saved many lives."

Twenty-two people with connections to Lorrha - mostly very young men - died in the war. About half of the Irish fatalities in the war are thought to have been under the age of 25.

Like so many soldiers who fought and survived the war, Martin O'Meara's fate was not a happy one, despite his heroics.

When he went back to Tipperary on visits, his heroism was initially celebrated, but attitudes to the war were changing in Ireland in the aftermath of the Easter Rising, and local people began to notice the local man's erratic behaviour - most likely brought on by the trauma of the war.

After he returned to Australia, an officer noted that O'Meara "is suffering from delusional insanity, with hallucinations of hearing and sight, is extremely homicidal and suicidal, and requires to be kept in restraint".

Up to 100,000 soldiers returned to Ireland at the end of the war to an uncertain future.

A Pathé newsreel of Armistice Day recorded the joyous scenes of celebrations in London, Paris and New York - and the silent film carried the headline hailing the "greatest day in all history".

In its editorial on the day after the armistice, the Irish Independent commented: "A world from which the black shadow of death is lifted can rejoice its fill today."

There were some celebrations in garrison towns, and loyalist enclaves such as Kingstown (now Dún Laoghaire). Soldiers marched through the centre of Dublin. They were met by counter-demonstrations by flag-waving Sinn Féin supporters, and there were some scuffles.

Many of the returning soldiers carried the physical and psychological scars of the conflict, and faced the difficult task of blending back into their families and their communities.

Varying motives

Like their compatriots at home, the soldiers were torn by the political divisions of the time.

Some were loyalists, but many more had gone to war hankering after some form of autonomy for Ireland, hoping that participation in the war effort would help to bring about Home Rule. But had it all been futile?

As the soldier and nationalist MP Stephen Gwynn put it: "When the time came to rejoice over the war's ending, was there anything more tragic than the position of men who had gone out by the thousands to confront the greatest military power ever known in history, who had fought the war, and won the war, and now looked at each other with doubtful eyes?"

In the decades after independence, it was often forgotten that the British war effort had been popular among many Irish nationalists when the war broke out.

It was initially portrayed in many quarters as a just war to defend little Catholic Belgium against German invaders.

John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, urged Irishmen to enlist "in defence of the highest principles of religion and morality and right".

The participation in the war was voluntary, and Irishmen were inclined to "take the King's shilling" for varying motives. Some wanted to fight German "imperial tyranny", others wanted adventure, and for a significant number of recruits, it was an opportunity for a steady income for their families.

The recruits came from all backgrounds -from the Protestant Anglo-Irish gentry to the farm labourer, from the educated Catholic middle-class to those from working-class Dublin.

The nationalist politician Tom Kettle explained his own reason for enlisting in mystical terms in his famous poem to his daughter just days before he died:

"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 secret Scripture of the poor."

Irish troops may have gone to the front in a spirit of idealism and adventure, but ­recruitment fell quickly, as the casualty list soared and stories circulated about the horrors at the front.

A dreaded sight in towns, villages and suburbs was the telegram boy holding an envelope. Before they had opened the contents, a mother, a father, a brother or a sister would know that their loved one had departed into the next life.

The letter could be a curt message from an officer expressing sympathy, but there were also letters from comrades, such as the message sent to the mother of Anthony Byrne from Chapel Hill, Athy, Co Kildare.

"Dear Mrs Byrne, Just a few lines to let you know that your son Anthony, is dead. I am very sorry to have to send you bad news, but, dear Mrs Byrne, I hope you won't worry over it, as he was a very good lad and was praying night and day. So don't worry, as he is in Heaven, and may God bless and have mercy on him - I remain, yours - An Athy lad, J Fanning."

As well as news of the enormous loss of life, stories quickly spread the appalling conditions: foul-smelling dugouts; rats that fed on unburied corpses; and the foot rot that left men crippled after hours standing in deep water.

Tom Kettle volunteered in a spirit of idealism with a misplaced belief "that when Catholic and Protestant have soldiered together, that they may find something better to do with their lives when they come back than spend them quarrelling".

Soon after his arrival in France, he saw the grim realities of the conflict: "There are two sinister fences of barbed wire on which the blood-stained strips of uniform and fragments more sinister have been known to hang."

Within a short time, service in the trenches was taking its toll on Kettle. "Physically I am having a heavy time," he told his wife. "I am doing my best, but I see better men than me dropping out day by day and I wonder if I shall ever have the luck or grace to come home… the heat is bad, as are the insects and rats, but the moral strain is positively terrible."

As a soldier serving in the British forces, Kettle had been deeply upset by the Easter Rising of 1916. His brother-in-law Francis Sheehy-Skeffington was murdered by a deranged officer from the Crown forces, and Kettle was acquainted with some of the rebel leaders including Pádraig Pearse and Thomas MacDonagh.

Kettle may have disapproved of the Rising, but just before he departed for the front, Kettle predicted: "These men will go down to history as heroes and martyrs and I will go down - if I go down at all - as a bloody British soldier."

The commemoration of the tens of thousands of Irish people who lost their lives in World War I is still problematic for many nationalists, concerned that it gives validity to the British army's excesses, including the killing of 14 people by the Parachute Regiment on Bloody Sunday.

The militaristic tone of some Remembrance Day services in Britain, with their close association with royalty, does not help in encouraging an inclusive commemoration of the war dead in Ireland.

But a century on, it should be possible to remember in our own way the Irish people who lost their lives between 1914 and 1918 without endorsing Britain's military ventures.


The Irish in the Great War in numbers


Estimated Armistice Day crowd at College Green, Dublin in 1924


The year the Irish National War Memorial Gardens in Dublin were opened.


The height of a new sculpture of a weary World War I soldier that was unveiled in St Stephen’s Green, Dublin this week.


The number of Irish who took part in the Great War.


About half of the Irish fatalities in the war are thought to have been under this age.


The number of world leaders, including Leo Varadkar, expected at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Paris tomorrow.


The number of Wicklow people believed to have died in the war.


The number of weeks ‘The Green Fields of France’, sung by Finbar Furey, was in the charts for after its release in 1979.

Read More: Music with its roots in World War I, see ClassicTalk with George Hamilton


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