Monday 9 December 2019

They thought that they would be home by Christmas

Irish Independent readers tell their family stories of World War I.

Ciaran Branigan with some of the war memorabilia of his seven uncles. Dave Meehan
Ciaran Branigan with some of the war memorabilia of his seven uncles. Dave Meehan
Arthur Kerr with part of a Russian officer's helmet and a Death Penny medal
David Cross with a cutting from a paper about his grandfather Thomas Lalor.
A recruitment drive poster.
Private Thomas Kerr's honourably discharge certificate, now in the hands of Arthur Kerr, Timahoe, Co Laois. Photograph: James Flynn/APX
Private Thomas Kerr's King Albert cross medal certificate, now in the hands of Arthur Kerr, Timahoe, Co Laois. Photograph: James Flynn/APX
PROUD: Seamus Smyth with his granduncle Bernard Duignan's medals.
Ciaran Branigan had seven uncles who signed up for World War 1.
Proud son: William Mooney, whose father Peter served in World War 1 at the age of 28, with his father’s honourable discharge certificate and medals. Photo: Barry Cronin
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

They are just some of the 200,000 Irishmen who fought in the World War I. Last month the Irish Independent put out an appeal to families for information about their forebears who took part in the conflict.

We received responses from all over the country. Many have medals and faded sepia photographs of men in uniform, but few details of what these soldiers did at the front.

Others have detailed stories of their family member's participation in battles from the Somme to Gallipoli.

Some family members have vivid memories of their fathers or grandfathers who fought in the war. Others know little about them, but there is still a medal or two hidden away in a drawer.

Pictures of mysterious moustachioed gentlemen in exotic army or navy uniforms decorate mantelpieces across Ireland.

Almost without exception, the survivors – men who came of age in the early 20th Century – did not like to talk with their families about what they had been through.

The plight of the World War I veteran was not a fashionable one in De Valera's Ireland, but it was also perhaps a time when men were not encouraged to reveal too much about their inner demons.

Many suffered from shell shock, which would be described as post-traumatic stress disorder today.

There are thousands of mementoes of the war scattered across the country, including the Prussian soldier's helmet brought home by a member of the Kerr family in Laois.

Others have letters from the front from soldiers to their families. One can only imagine the horrors some of these men must have gone through.

But the censored letters were often pre-occupied with humdrum details about what was happening at home, rather than dispatches from the front.

So why did these men go to war when conscription was never enforced?

Historians point to the desire of the public to come to the help of "poor little Catholic Belgium" (which had been invaded by Germany).

Others, according to the history books, answered the call of the nationalist leader John Redmond, who believed that if Ireland joined the fight against Germany, Britain would give us Home Rule in return.

But most families of veterans seem to put it down to a simple sense of adventure and excitement, and the temptations of a few shillings when times were hard.


David Cross with a cutting from a paper about his grandfather Thomas Lalor.





My grandfather Thomas Lalor, fought during the war in the 1st battalion of the Leinster regiment. He was 16 years old when he joined at Birr, fought in France at the Battle of the Somme, and also served in the Middle East.

At the Somme, his unit came under intense fire. A 100mm shell landed close by and literally buried him in a trench.

He was buried there for three days. He managed to find an air pocket, and that is how he managed to breathe. Other troops were digging through the trench looking for the dead, and very fortunately he was dug out alive.

He was a tough man. After his recovery, he went back to war, and found himself in Iraq.

In another battle he was with a soldier Sergeant Chester, from Portlaoise, who won a Victoria Cross for knocking out an enemy machine gun position

At one stage he was approaching Alexandria harbour in Egypt by ship and was torpedoed. He had been adrift on a float for a day before he was picked up.

After the war, he re-enlisted and won the rare Malabar medal for his service in India. His father and his brother also served in the British forces.

My grandfather was fiercely proud of his service in the war and I am fiercely proud of him. The British army looked after him later on.

In 1922 after the Leinster Regiment was disbanded, he joined the Free State Army and later worked as a gardener.

When he was older, he seemed to develop shell shock. He had the shakes and had to drink out of a mug.

A plaque commemorating the Mountmellick men killed in World War I was at one time located in our local St Joseph's parish church – but it was removed in the 1950s, on the orders of parish priest Fr Burbage.

The priest, who was an ardent nationalist and supporter of Eamon De Valera, was an old IRA man and resented anybody who served in the British army. But taking out the World War 1 memorial was an act of vandalism.

My grandfather was so incensed that he vowed never to go to Mass ever again.

I would like to find out where that memorial is and maybe have it put back in the church.


Arthur Kerr with part of a Russian officer's helmet and a Death Penny medal




I ran a shop and post office here and two of my uncles, Thomas and Robert, served in the British forces in the war.

Thomas was in the Somme and at Paschendaele and at Ypres. He saw some of the worst battles in the conflict when he was in the machine gun corps in the Enniskillen fusiliers.

He was awarded the King Albert Cross for his service in Belgium. He was one of the last to receive it in 1991. When he came back to Ireland, he drove a hackney cab.

Tom was attacked with mustard gas during the war and it affected his health afterwards. Doctors advised him that his health would be better with the climate in New Zealand, so he moved away.

I don't know very much about Robert at all. He was in the medical corps. After the war he became a foreman on a farm at Ballyfin outside Portlaoise

Neither of my uncles liked to talk about the war at all. They lived in the house where I am now. I also have death penny awarded to a man called Thomas Dowling, who was killed in Egypt.

(Officially known as a Memorial Plaque it was one of 1.3 million medals to the next-of-kin of all service personnel killed in the the war).

It is like a large old penny. When I enquired into it, I found out the man wasn't really called Thomas Dowling at all.

He joined the forces using his mother's maiden name, because he was in trouble with the law. His real name was Thomas Byrne, and he was advised that the best way to join up would be to change his name

I also have a Prussian officer's helmet. One of my uncles must have brought it home from the front. More than likely it came from a dead officer.

I don't think my uncles received a bad reception when they came back from the front. In small country areas everybody knew everybody, and they all would have been friendly. There were 10 people who joined up in Timahoe. It's only a small village. Only one of them died.

PROUD: Seamus Smyth with his granduncle Bernard Duignan's medals.





My grand-uncle Bernard Duignan, from Navan was awarded three medals for his service in the war. I inherited them from my Aunt Bridget.

He had worked for Spicers bakery in he town and grew up on Cannon Row. His house still stands there.

People had no money then. When each soldier joined up they were give two shillings and sixpence.

When they got the money it was like Christmas and all the new recruits from Navan all got drunk and had a great time, but they didn't know what they were going into

He was sent down to Cork for training and then off he went to France. He fought at the Battle of Gallipoli, and he was killed later on in the war on September 19, 1917.

My aunt Bridget used to tell me about him when I went around to her house. She showed me his medals and eventually gave them to me.

He won the Territorial force medal and the Star medal and I also have the death plaque which was sent to his family after he was killed in France.

There was a ghost story in the family about the time Bernard died in the war.

My father told me how one day in 1917 he was at home with his sister. They heard a knock on the door, and went out, but nobody was there. There was a second knock, and the same happened.

There was a third knock and my aunt Bridget said they shouldn't answer it. Six days later they heard Bernard had been killed.

Bernard was very young, only 23, and it was very upsetting for the family. There's no memorial to those who died from the town apart from in the Protestant church. Perhaps because it was an IRA stronghold.

It was brushed under the carpet. After the Rising in 1916 it spread like wildfire that people shouldn't wear a British uniform, so when other soldiers came back from the war they weren't treated as heroes.

Our history is complex. I try to to look at it from both sides.


Ciaran Branigan with some of the war memorabilia of his seven uncles. Dave Meehan




My mother Bridget was from Grangebellew, Co Louth. She had seven brothers, all of whom joined up for World War I.

They did so from a sense of camaraderie and the lure of adventure. They only had menial jobs, and it was an opportunity.

They didn't know what they were letting themselves in for and thought they'd be home by Christmas.

Tom was the only one who died. He joined the army and was sent to France. He was blown to pieces when on horseback.

His belongings were sent home afterwards and they still have the prayerbook in Grangebellew. My grandmother used to cry: "Poor Tom, poor Tom."

Willie was a gunner in the navy and was on the ship the Albion when it ran aground in the Dardanelles.

He said: "The whole sea was on fire and we were lucky to get away with our lives."

Willie was torpedoed three times and at one stage he was floating in the sea on planks until he was rescued.

His best friend drowned. When Willie arrived home at the railway station in Louth, his friend's mother was waiting for him but Willie could not bring himself to tell her because he was too upset.

One of my other uncles, Peter, was a baker and was in the army. He got through the war all right but he became an alcoholic afterwards.

My mother used to say he drank to forget what he had seen.

Hugh was the youngest, and joined up even though he was underage. His mother went to Barmeath Castle and got him out. All the others who joined up with him were killed in battle.

According to my mother, her brothers didn't really talk about the war much when they came back to Ireland. There wasn't really any negative reaction to them when they came home.

I am very proud of what they did in the war.



Proud son: William Mooney, whose father Peter served in World War 1 at the age of 28, with his father’s honourable discharge certificate and medals. Photo: Barry Cronin





My father Sergeant Peter Mooney from Dunboyne fought for the Royal Engineers and Royal Artillery in the Great War.

I believe he signed up early in the war in 1914. I think he joined up because it was a bit of adventure, but they soon discovered it was no adventure.

They went through trials and tribulations, and the sights those soldiers saw were dreadful. Terrible deeds were done. My father fought in several terrible battles including Ypres, St Quentin, the Somme, and Poperinge.

It was almost impossible to get him to talk about it. I am sure he was trying to put it at the back of his mind. He received an honourable discharge after he was shot in the shoulder in Flanders.

He must have been well looked after in the hospital, because it didn't seem to affect him later in life. I often asked him to show me the wound by lifting his shirt, but he wouldn't have any of it.

I have his medals from the war and the letters which he wrote home.

The letters were censored and he was not allowed to write about the war. So, they were all about how local people were getting on. In one letter he asks: "How's Johnny Bruton?" That would be John Bruton's grandfather.

I think, after the war, De Valera had a terrible vendetta against those who fought in the war. It was a time of terrible division, but I think the country has come a long way since then.

He was a farmer when he came home and lived until the age of 84.


See our dedicated  World War 1 section here.

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