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.
Cavalry charges such as those portrayed in 'War Horse' still continued into 1915. In all, about 10,000 British cavalrymen were killed in the war. Only 200 or so Irish soldiers were killed or fatally injured on horseback while serving with the Irish cavalry regiments -- the part-time yeomanry of The South Irish Horse and The North Irish Horse, and the regular Irish cavalry regiments, the Irish Lancers, the Irish Dragoon Guards, the Inniskilling Dragoons, and the Irish Hussars. Curiously, the Irish were not drawn to cavalry as they were to the infantry: apart from the two yeomanry regiments, even the "Irish" cavalry regiments were predominantly British.
After the appaling lessons of what machine-gun fire can do to massed cavalry had been learnt, horsed soldiers were kept well in the rear for the rest of the war, waiting for the great breakthrough in 1915, 1916 and 1917. Finally, in the summer and autumn of 1918, as the allies broke the German defences and trench warfare came to an end, cavalry was deployed in the open fields of Picardy and Flanders against a retreating foe. It was still an expensive business, and a brave one, advancing on horseback against concealed machine-guns. But cavalry still had their uses: 1918 was the bloodiest year of all for the Irish cavalry regiments.
Shortly before 11am, November 11, 1918, a picket of Irish Lancers of the 3rd Cavalry Brigade was ordered to charge to secure the flanks of the advancing Canadians near Mons, where Willie Harvey had begun his war four years before. As the moment of armistice approached, a burst of gunfire killed Corporal George Ellison, of York, the last British soldier to be killed outright in the war. But it also wounded Thomas Farrell from Lucan, Co Dublin, who thus became the very last Irish soldier to be fatally injured in the war. He died in a field hospital the next day, and his remains were later buried in Valenciennes military cemetery.
In the coming years, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission created one of their wonderful graveyard-gardens there, and it employed a former Irish Guardsman, Robert Armstrong, as gardener. This must have been a sobering, terrible place to live one's life: most of the 884 graves were of soldiers -- generally Canadian, but a handful of Irish as well as young Farrell, such as Patrick Walsh from Cork and Patrick Griffin from Kilrush --who were killed in the final days of the war.
However, yet more sobering times lay ahead. When the Germans returned in 1940, they did not intern Robert Armstrong, because he was an Irish national with an Irish passport. In those days, it must have required an actual effort for a former subject of the UK, now living in France, to have achieved this. So Robert Armstrong, Irishman, was allowed to continue tending the war graves. However, he was emphatically pro-allied, and in due course helped set and run a Resistance group, which smuggled allied aircrew and escaped POWs out of occupied Europe. In 1943, this gallant Irishman was betrayed to the Gestapo, and sent to Waldheim Concentration Camp, Saxony, where he died in December, 1944.
Who in Ireland knows the name, Robert Armstrong, freedom fighter and concentration-camp victim, who minded the dead and served the living? And not even Spielberg could make a credible film out of the last cavalry charge of the Great War and the heroic gardener of Valenciennes.