From Kerry to Salonika: An Irish doctor in World War I

Donal McMahon examines his Listowel-native relative Thomas Enright's tragic World War story as the town commemorates Ireland's war dead in its inaugural history festival

A century ago James and Margaret Enright and their family of 46 Church Street, Listowel were mourning the sudden death on the 19th March of their young son and brother, Thomas Louis.

The 29-year-old doctor had been serving with the Royal Army Medical Corps in far-away Salonika, in northern Greece. Details of the circumstances of his death were reported in the Irish Independent on the 27th April:

"Particulars of the death of Capt. TL Enright, RAMC, in Salonika received by his father in Listowel show that while motoring he swerved the car to avoid a native Greek when it struck a bank and overturned. Capt. Enright was killed instantaneously."

Today he lies in the Salonika Military Cemetery, among the fallen from many nations - Ireland, Britain, France, Italy and Serbia. I would like to remember him here on the occasion of his centenary by telling the story of his short life as far as it can be reconstructed from the few documents available and, since his younger brother Ignatius and his cousin Thomas also served in World War I, mentioning them too in the story.

James's two eldest sons became priests, educated at All Hallows in Dublin and ministering in Illinois. The two next eldest, Thomas Louis ("Tod") and Ignatius ("Ig") became doctors. Thomas trained in UCD and the RCSI (Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland). It was a proud day, July 2, 1914, when he graduated from the latter, writing his name and address ("Church St. Listowel") in a fine clear hand in the Roll of Licentiates.

Just five days previously, an event took place that was to have momentous consequences for the lives of a whole generation of young men - the assassination in Sarajevo of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne.

Britain declared war on Germany on August 4 and the men of Ireland were exhorted to play a part by John Redmond at Woodenbridge on the 20th September.

Thomas Louis, along with fifteen of his graduating class of twenty-one, volunteered his services. He joined the RAMC as a temporary lieutenant on February 1, 1915, being assigned to the 10th Battalion, Rifle Brigade, 20th Division (as a letter to his sister in March from Witley Camp, Godalming, Surrey tells us), and arrived in northern France on the 24th July.

The next verifiable date we have for Thomas Louis is when he sets sail from Marseilles on December 20, 1915, on board the transport ship Manitou - destination, Salonika.

He was part of the reinforcements being sent to defend Serbia from attack by German, Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian forces. All traffic passed in and out of the multinational port city of Salonika. In early December the Royal Munster Fusiliers (5th and 6th battalions) of the 10th Irish Division were, side by side with the French, involved in desperate fighting in horrific conditions (described by the poet Francis Ledwidge in his letters) high up in the mountains of Kosturino Ridge.

Having suffered many casualties, the Allies retreated to within the border of neutral Greece - an event mentioned in The Kerryman on January 8 ("the grim retreat of the 10th Division to Salonika", p.7).

In May 1918, two months after Thomas Louis died and now reinforced by a Greek army, they launched what was to become the final and victorious push against the Central Powers in the Balkans.

No letters or post cards from Dr Tod have so far been found that would shed light on his personal life in Salonika. What would give us some insight into his day-to-day working life is the diary of the unit he was attached to, i.e. No.9 Motor Ambulance Convoy, held (not yet digitized) in the National Archives in Kew. In the end, which came so suddenly, he who had signed off many a casualty form in that distinctive hand of his (now with "Capt." prefixed) became a casualty himself, alas, and was entered into the admissions book of the 28th British General Hospital for the 19th March, 1918.

Among the bleak details to be read there are: Years Service (3 years, 1 month); Ailment (Dead on admission); Observations (Brought in dead; syncope resulting from shock injuries); Religion (Roman Catholic); Other unit info. (Attached No.9 Motor Ambulance Convoy). Of the 130 Irish doctors who served in Serbia and Salonika from 1915 to 1918, Thomas Louis was one of just four who did not return (P.J. Casey et al., Irish Doctors in the First World War, 2015, p.83). His father James requested of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission that "R.I.P." be inscribed beneath a cross on his headstone.

One wonders how soon his brother Ignatius and his cousin Thomas heard the sad news in their particular sectors. Ignatius, also an RAMC Captain, was at this time stationed in the No.2 Prisoner of War Hospital, Abbassia, Cairo.

In 1918 an Austrian prisoner made him and his colleagues a gift of a little hand-carved (cigarette?) box engraved with their signatures. Ignatius survived the war to practise as a doctor in Dalkey, Co. Dublin. His nephew Jim remembers Ig fondly as "an extremely generous and charitable man" who played golf and liked to attend horse-race meetings (e.g. in nearby Leopardstown). He remained single. He died in 1960 and was buried in Listowel.

As for Tod's cousin, Lt. Thomas Enright (my maternal grandfather), who served with the 29th Vancouver Battalion in France, he was admitted five days after Tod's death to the Balfour Military Sanatorium in British Columbia, Canada, having been invalided out from England as a result of wounds suffered in the Battle of Hill 70 near Lens, northern France, on 21 August 1917. In 1919 he returned to Listowel with his wife, Mary White, from Bedford. He died on 14 December 1921 and was buried in Listowel.

So much for the short and noble life of Thomas Louis Enright. Each one of us has his or her own unique story to tell (or for a successor to tell), a story constructed out of the facts of a life. But beyond that, what? "What then?" asks W.B. Yeats. Emily Dickinson answers, "This world is not conclusion."

A person's story extends beyond the grave into something ultimately unfathomable, signified for us here by the cross and RIP inscription on that brave young doctor's headstone in far-away Salonika.

Let this brief tribute be as a wreath laid on his grave in fond and prayerful remembrance one hundred years later.