Tuesday 23 January 2018

Stories from Limburg Prisoner of War camp

Only a fraction of Irish soldiers in Germany agreed to join Roger Casement and the Rising after war ended.

Eilis Lambe with a photo of her grandfather Lance Sergeant William Reilly.
Eilis Lambe with a photo of her grandfather Lance Sergeant William Reilly.
Tony Kelly with his collection of pictures and letters of his grandfather Gerald James Kelly. Picture: Ronan Lang
Irish patriot and British consular official Sir Roger David Casement (1864 - 1916). Following the Easter Rising he was tried by the British and executed for high treason. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)
The PoW camp in the small German town of Limburg.
Irish soldiers at Mass in Limburg.
45 Irish soldiers died while being held at Limburg.
Letters and documents of Lance Sergeant William Reilly.
William Reilly
A wood carving made by Lance Sergeant William O'Reilly
Lance Sergeant William Reilly's medals. James Flynn/APX
Robert Smythe memorabelia
Martin Wright with some of the letters /papers from his uncle Robert Smyth from World War 1. Ronan Lang
A card sent by Private Robert Smyth to his mother.
A photo from the prison camp at Limburg.
Mobilization and discharge documents for the Connaught Rangers.
Private Gerald James Kelly

Graham Clifford

Some of the prisoners couldn't believe what they were hearing. It was late 1914 and at a prisoner of war (PoW) camp in the small German town of Limburg, 50 miles north-west of Frankfurt, Roger Casement was trying to convince captured Irish soldiers to join his Brigade and fight against the British once the war was over.

Some were disgusted by the invitation. Others, knowing that if they committed their living conditions would improve greatly, agreed to join.

From December 1914 the Germans concentrated Irish PoWs in Limburg.

But, despite the efforts of Casement and others, the call for desertion often fell on deaf ears.

Out of 2,200 Irish soldiers, Casement managed to recruit just 55 despite visiting them on numerous occasions before 1916.

Pte William Dooley, 2nd Royal Irish, wrote of the general reaction to Casement's rallying call. "The men were very restless during the (recruitment) speech, but they restrained themselves to the end. Then, as Casement passed away, they let themselves go, hushing, hissings, and calling him all sorts of names."

Amongst those opposed to Casement's recruitment drive was Lance Sergeant William O'Reilly from Kingscourt in Cavan. It's thought he was captured at the first Battle of Ypres in late 1914.

Those Irish soldiers captured and interned in Limburg didn't know it at the time but being sent there could have saved their lives. That said, 45 Irish soldiers died while being held in Limburg.

Over the course of the war O'Reilly sent over 40 letters home. In May 1915 tragedy struck. O'Reilly was informed, by letter, that his wife Kate had died of peritonitis, aged just 24.

His sister-in-law Annie would look after his baby daughter Anna but tragically O'Reilly would never meet his only child, and he died on October 6, 1917 in a London hospital.

Through O'Reilly's writings, carefully stored by his granddaughter Eilis Lambe, we learn that Limburg was relatively comfortable compared with other camps.


See our dedicated  World War 1 section here.

Casement believed that the isolation from other nationalities, along with better food and recreation, would attract the men to the Irish Brigade.

Inmates could also receive a far higher number of parcels than their British counterparts in other camps.

One prisoner wrote of "Fine wooden huts, each with two rooms to house 50 men: well ventilated, comfortable: beds on wooden trestles and ample blankets."

Once 1916 came and went, conditions at the Limburg camp deteriorated. In general though it was more relaxed than other camps and prisoners could leave to buy rations in the town.

It was on one of these expeditions in January 1917, that Pte Gerald James Kelly was court-marshalled for buying contraband.

Instead of using his ration to purchase listed goods, such as soaps and food items, it's believed cigarettes and alcohol may have been purchased by the Dubliner instead.

His grandson Tony showed me the transcript of his trial.

Pte Kelly and a group of others were found guilty but not punished due to administrative errors within the camp.

Kelly, born on Gloucester street (now Sean McDermott St), was a career soldier and it's likely he was captured by the Germans while fighting with the 2nd Battalion of the Connaught Rangers in Ypres or Messines in 1916.

The Connaught Rangers first used the marching song 'It's a Long Way To Tipperary.'

Once released Pte Kelly, a father of four, returned to Dublin and lived until 1954. Amongst his documents is a letter from Buckingham Palace, which reads: 'On returning to your home, which you have so nobly defended, on quitting the Arms that you have so courageously borne, your King ... thanks you.'

Correspondence from the front was precious. But all too often the letters brought pain rather than solace.

The parents of Pte Robert Smyth, from Essex St in Dublin, received one such letter as the war entered its last few months.

It was dated May 2, 1918 and read: 'I regret to inform you that ... Rifleman Robert Smyth of the Royal Irish Rifles was posted as missing on 24/03/1918.

'The report ... does not necessarily mean that he has been killed, as he may be a prisoner of war or temporarily separated from his regiment.'

Indeed, he had been captured (either at the Somme or in the town of Saint-Quentin) and was held in Limburg.

His nephew Martin Wright showed me a collection of postcards he sent home. One card is embroidered with a butterfly in the colours of the British, Belgian and French flags and says 'To my dear mother – from your soldier Boy.'

In his last correspondence he writes: 'Dear Mother ... ..I am on my way home and in the best of health.'

He ended up living into his nineties in the seaside town of Bray.

Most of those Irish who were interned in Limburg would return home at the end of the war.

In 2007 a Celtic Cross, first erected in 1917, was restored and reconsecrated at the site of the camp in memory of those interned Irish who died there.

Irish Independent Supplement

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