Monday 11 December 2017

'I will leave all to my mother in the event of my death'

Voices from the grave: last wishes of thousands of Irish soldiers are now online.

On the March: Troops from the 1st Australian Division at Hooge, Ypres, in 1917. Photo: Frank Hurley/Getty Images.
On the March: Troops from the 1st Australian Division at Hooge, Ypres, in 1917. Photo: Frank Hurley/Getty Images.
Edward Meehan's will and letter
Documents of Private D Lawlor

Anita Guidera

IT has taken four years to complete but the heart-rending last wishes of more than 9,000 Irishmen who died in World War I are all now online, after lying unseen for almost a century.

Some were simply signed with an X. Most of the men had precious little to leave except their pay but these 'voices' from the grave shed unique light on the thoughts and feelings of young men who were confronted with the reality of war.

The entire collection of 9,244 wills, which is free to view on the website of the National Archives of Ireland, accounts for just one-quarter of the soldiers from Ireland who died as a result of the war.

Archivist Hazel Menton said the project had caught the interest of people, many of whom had only been vaguely aware of a family connection with World War I.

"When we first went online we had over 150,000 hits in the first week alone.

"What makes this collection special is that it is the wills of the ordinary rank-and-file soldiers. Now, 100 years later, we are 'hearing' their voices," she said.

In the early weeks and months of the war, the sense of excitement among the soldiers was palpable.

On the eve of heading to the front on August 12, 1914, Edward Meehan of the 2nd Battalion Royal Irish Rifles, from Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh, wrote to his parents: "We are going away tomorrow to either France or Belgium, we don't know which as only the commanding officer knows that, so he told us that we would be in our first battle on Sunday so when you are having your dinner on Sunday think of me under fire."

Later in the same letter, he continues: "There is great excitement here with the movements of thousands of troops; everyone seems to be anxious to get at the Germans. I felt that my heart is as big as a mountain. I feel that it is my duty to go to help to put down such beasts as the Germans are."

By way of reassurance, he adds: "Don't worry about me as I trust to God to be all right so look out for a good night when I come home. They all seem quite happy here playing music and singing. Look out for next Sunday's battle and see what we will give the Germans."

He died two months later.

Reference to God, prayers and priests is a recurring theme.

Private Peter McDonagh from Corthoon, Co Mayo, a member of the West Yorkshire Regiment, who was killed on August 16, 1916, left a will leaving £50 each to his father and sister and £8 "to the priest in Whitly Bay".

Among the documents of Private D Lawlor from Tralee, Co Kerry, was a note with the words "Please send for a priest at once".

In cases where the dead soldier hadn't made a will, the authorities relied on the sworn testimony of others.

The sister of Kilkenny private James Keating, who was missing presumed dead in France in October 1914, stated in a letter that the deceased had told her personally: "You must remember that should anything happen me in the war, my father is not to get anything after my death as if he did it would be no good to either my mother or him as he would drink it."

He asked instead that his mother be his sole benefactor.

Bridget Healy, the owner of a boarding house in Kilkenny, made a statement confirming that Michael Lawlor, a member of the Royal Irish Regiment, who died in May 1915, had stayed in her boarding house for six weeks just three months earlier.

"I was present at the time when Ellie Bryan lent him £3 and I heard him telling her this money will be alright, when I come back we will get married, and if I am killed on the battlefield all my property will be yours as you are the only friend I have."

David Berney, a Lance Sergeant with the Connaught Rangers from Thomas Street, Dublin, who died on November 1, 1914, wrote several letters to his brother, William.

"Don't let this letter grieve anyone at home. Dear William, I have addressed my bankbook home to you and a pair of boots, which I trust you will keep for me if I come back. If I don't, you can convert all to your own use.

"I can only trust in God to come back as you know the dangers of war, it might be settled later, so it would be better late than never. If you look at the paper you will see when we leave – the 1st army corps. Remember me to all at home and good luck to you all."

Noble McCormack from Belfast, who died after discharge in 1918, left a letter naming his wife Eliza as his sole benefactor.

"In this greatest war that ever has been on God's earth, I do sincerely hope and trust in God's mercies towards my dearly beloved wife and beloved children and bless them forever and I do trust in his promise to me that I shall be spared to them and in such an event of my death I declare I leave all my effect to my dearly beloved wife," he wrote.

Unusually, McCormack, a father of seven, had stated his age as 44 when he enlisted in 1915 but census records suggest that he was 50 and over age.


See our dedicated  World War 1 section here.

Irish Independent Supplement

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