Wednesday 17 January 2018

Kevin Myers: 'It's easy to forget the brave cavalrymen'

The theatrical production of 'War Horse' was perhaps the most unashamedly moving piece of theatre I have ever seen. If there was a dry house in the house, it wasn't mine; and now the Steven Spielberg film has opened, to largely ecstatic reviews. At which point, I revert to stereotype.

The first British soldier to open fire in the Great War was an Irishman: Corporal E Thomas, from Nenagh, a cavalryman with the Royal Irish Dragoon Guards, on August 22, 1914. In the Golgotha that was to consume so many millions of lives, it's easy to forget the cavalrymen who took their steeds to war, yearning for the breakthrough that never came.

In 1987, I interviewed the last surviving Irish cavalryman of the period; Willie Harvey, of the South Irish Horse, whose troop arrived near Mons just in time to join the great retreat of the British Expeditionary Force at the end of August 1914. Willie was one of those great Irish countrymen that could turn their hand to anything, and well into his 80s he was the backbone of the Catholic parish of Newcastle, Co Dublin. He and his troop of South Irish Horse formed a rear line behind the Irish Guards near the French town of Landrecies; and upon the massed fire of Irish musketry, the advancing Prussians impaled themselves. Willie watched the Irish Guards' commanding officer, Colonel Morris, riding his white horse back and forth along his line of kneeling guardsmen as they poured volleys into the unfortunate Germans. That poor man is not long for this world, thought Willie, behaving like an eejit under fire like that: and so it proved.

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