Saturday 20 April 2019

How war claimed life of the heir to Johnstown Castle

Gerald Hugh Fitzgerald was the only son of Lady Adelaide FitzGerald and the late Lord Maurice FitzGerald of Johnstown Castle.

Following his early education he went on to study at Eton and joined the Royal North Devon Hussars (Yeomanry). In December 1907 he was gazetted to the Royal Irish Dragoon Guards and was promoted to Lieutenant on 17 November 1908. On 25 November 1913 he was promoted to the rank of Captain. The young officer and Miss Dorothy Violet Charrington, youngest daughter of Spencer Calmeyer Charrington, of Winchfield Lodge, Winchfield, were engaged to be married but brought their wedding forward and were married at South Tidworth on 5 August 1914, the day after war was declared. He left that evening with the Expeditionary Force to France where he was slightly injured during his first week of service there.

The British Army was advancing north from Marne on 13 September 1914 in the hope of crossing the Aisne which was both a river and a canal. The village of Bourg-et-Comin, was about 17 miles east of Soissons, and was intersected by the Oise-Aisne canal also.

Part of the Oise-Aisne canal crossed over the Aisne river on an aqueduct. The 4th Dragoon Guards were positioned in front of the village where there were three bridges that crossed the two canals and the river.

Earlier, patrols had discovered that the two canal bridges were intact but the road bridge over the Aisne river had been destroyed. The plan was to take the two bridges and make an entry into the village of Bourg which was held by German infantry supported by machine-guns at strategic spots on the bridges. The British infantry charged the outposts that guarded the first bridge and took the Aisne canal bridge quickly.

During this time the 4th Dragoon Guards were under heavy fire from machine guns on the other side of the Aisne-Oise canal and from the aqueduct.

At this point Captain Fitzgerald, the Dragoon's machine gun officer rode up and with his machine guns soon silenced the German fire. The way was now clear for the infantry to move up, cross the bridges and use the aqueduct to cross the river and enter the village of Bourg.

Captain Gerald Hugh Fitzgerald was known to all in the army as 'Pat' FitzGerald and the following account was given by Captain A. Osborn RAMC Medical Officer 4th Dragoon Guards:

It was at this point in the battle a shot rang out from the church tower in Bourg. Pat got a bullet between the eyes. I was only a few yards from him, trying to do something for Sergeant Langdon when someone shouted to me. Fitzgerald was unconscious when I got to him. His wound was no bigger than a blue pencil mark in the centre of his forehead. Then in a moment he was gone.

Captain Gerald Hugh FitzGerald was just 28 years of age and his loss to his regiment was immense. He was extremely popular and loved by his brother officers and men. A keen sportsman, a fine horseman, polo player and cricketer.

A brass plaque on a pillar inside the Beauclerk/Charrington family pews reads: In memory of Capt. G.H. Fitzgerald, 4th Dragoon Guards. Killed in action, 13 Sept. 1914. Quis separbit. This memorial plaque is in St. Mary's Church, Winchfield.

The news of Captain FitzGerald's death was received in a telegram from the War office to the Castle on Friday evening. Lady Maurice and the Captain's widow, who was staying at Johnstown, were profoundly shocked on receiving the sad tidings. The news, on being circulated in Wexford town and throughout the county, occasioned general expressions of regret. In a letter from Captain H.S. Sewell details of Captain FitzGeralds death were outlined and his personal belongings were collected and will be sent to Mrs. Fitzgerald. His remains were buried in the village cemetery. I know you will bear this bravely, and we all mourn with you the loss of so noble and gallant a comrade. Yours Sincerely, H.S. Sewell.

The names of several Wexfordmen killed in action in The Great War appear on the pulpit at St. Iberius Church, Main Street, Wexford. Capt. G.H. FitzGerald is among the names listed together with his cousin, Lt. D.O. Paget, Kings Royal Rifle Corps.

Enniscorthy Guardian