Monday 19 March 2018

The soldiers who left home 100 years ago – many never to return

This photograph features on the front cover of the book
This photograph features on the front cover of the book

THE STORIES of the North Wexford men who went off to war a century ago, as well as how the war affected those at home, are recounted in a new book titled 'News from the Front: Gorey and the Great War'.

Brian and Mary Kenny from Ballycanew spent eight months trawling through old records and newspaper archives, and talking to descendants of those whose names feature on lists of local soldiers who went off to war and never came home.

Their work has now been collected in a fascinating book which will be launched by Canon Mark Hayden at Gorey Library on Friday, April 4, at 7 p.m. Members of the Irish Great War Society will be in attendance in period costume, and memorabilia relating to the time will also be on display. Locals with items of interest from the time are invited to bring them along so they can be examined, recorded, and explained by the experts.

When Brian and Mary set about researching the book, they wanted to find the human stories behind the well recorded accounts of battles. 'This is about the young men who were killed in the Great War, or World War I,' explained Brian. 'It features reports of them winning medals, their letters home, their accounts of battles, and reports of those who were killed in action.'

They spent many months in the archive section of Wexford Library, researching old newspapers such as the Wexford Free Press, the Guardian and the Echo, and cross referenced the reports with memorial records and the Imperial War Graves Commission, and tracked down photographs of some of those featured.

'This is the human side of it,' said Mary. 'It's not about the battles, it features their accounts of battle.'

They focused their work on the Gorey District, from Castletown in the north to Kilmuckridge in the south, and across the Wicklow border.

One article reproduced in the book relates how locals were advised what to do in case of an invasion by the Germans. It reads: 'There was considerable consternation in Gorey on Tuesday when the police notices were delivered advising people as to the steps to be taken in case of a German invasion. Although it was made clear in the notices that this only a precautionary measure, yet amongst old people particularly, there was great alarm felt. The news of an air raid in England, which followed almost immediately after the services of the notices, added the last real touch of realism to the situation, and even amongst the people who should have better sense, the situation was discussed with the greatest seriousness. All the large shopkeepers in Gorey were notified on Tuesday about midday to hold themselves in readiness for a hurried departure inland in case of a landing of Germans on the coast and furthermore they received orders to burn any goods or stores left behind. In many districts along the coast, and even places as far inland as Coolgreany, notices were sent. Still there is a firm belief amongst many that these notices are put out as a precaution against any eventuality, while others say they are more probably part of a recruiting campaign.'

The book not only features the stories of those who went off to war and the horrors they witnessed there, but it also looks at the recruitment rallies that were organised in towns such as Gorey; the initial cheerful farewells from Gorey Railway Station; and receptions that were held in the Market House, where local ladies gave rousing speeches.

Fears of currency devaluation and bank closures soon followed, and hundreds of horses were sent off to the front from the local area. Civilians were also appointed to patrol the coastline in case of an invasion from the sea or by air. Several women were also appointed to fill posts left vacant by men who went to war, and several postwomen were seen in the area, and Miss Evans became Wexford's first female bank clerk when she took up work in the Bank of Ireland in Gorey.

The following is an excerpt of an article from Tuesday, August 4, 1914: 'Very little else is being discussed in Gorey except war news. Little groups may be seen in the streets and in each of them the subject was the same – the outlook. There was considerable commotion in the town when the order went forth to have the army reservists mobilise, and a crowd quickly gathered round the market house as the police were posting up the momentous war notices. The seriousness and the suddenness of the situation have appalled everyone. At the town commissioners meeting that evening, a quorum not being in attendance to proceed with the ordinary business, the members present, together with the town clerk, and the representatives of the press formed themselves into a council of war and a most interesting discussion took place lasting over an hour. The closing of the banks has caused a great inconvenience in business circles and nothing is so much in demand as ready money. Traders and shopkeepers are flooded with cheques they cannot negotiate. A panic has even spread in some districts that bank notes will soon become useless. This is altogether unfounded and unwarranted and there need be no danger on that score. Major Richards and A C Ellis travelled by motor all through the Gorey district and purchased a number of horses for war purposes. Quite a scene was caused at the railway station as the army reservists were taking their departure on mobilisation. A great body of naval reservists left Courtown and the great majority of them went off in the highest of spirits.'

The book also features the deep grief felt in the area as families received tragic news from Europe of the loss of a loved one. Many families suffered great loss, and one of the worst affected streets in the town was William Street, now McCurtain Street, where eight young men were lost.

'News from the front: Gorey and the Great War' will be on sale for €10 in Gorey Library on the launch night, and from local retailers such as The Book Café, Main Street, Gorey.

Enniscorthy Guardian