Thursday 25 April 2019

'We don't want war. Never again!'

Reporter David Medcalf joined the attendance at the Great War memorial garden in Woodenbridge for the ceremony which marked the centenary of the conclusion of the 'war to end all wars'

Pete McWilliams lays a wreath in memory of fallen Wicklow soldiers
Pete McWilliams lays a wreath in memory of fallen Wicklow soldiers
The re-enactment group paying their respects during the Armistice Day commemoration at Woodenbridge War Memorial. Photos by Paul Messitt

The poppy was worn by many of the attendance who arrived in Woodenbridge on a Sunday afternoon to mark the end of World War One 100 years ago. Principal speaker at the memorial garden on the bank the River Avoca was former Taoiseach John Bruton, following in the footsteps of a historic Irish leader. Woodenbridge was also the venue where nationalist John Redmond made a famous speech exhorting Irish men to volunteer for service in the conflict.

It is estimated that at least 1,224 of those Wicklow men who enlisted in British (and other) forces perished during 1914-1918 war. They are memorialised in this picturesque spot by a series of stones on which the names of the deceased are engraved. Children played among the stones as the audience the politician speak from the shelter of a gazebo erected for the occasion.

John Bruton spoke of the Great War as an 'accidental war', not planned by any of the countries which found themselves involved. Though it may have been an accident, its results are still with us, he suggested. The running sore of friction between France and Germany was eventually cured by the creation - after a second world war - of the European Union.

Long committed to promoting the EU, the Fine Gael man came right up to date when he confessed that Brexit is, in his mind, a tragedy. Leaving aside economic considerations, he regretted the fact that Britain is taking its leave from a structure which has secured a lengthy spell of peace. The Union has certainly proven more effective than the network of royal marriages which was supposed to be the lynchpin of Europe's security in 1914.

As he looked out into the sunshine from amongst the military flags clustered near to the speaker's stand, the Bruton message was: 'We should do all that we can to ensure that peace is sustained.'

He moved onto the Ulster question, which dogged his time in politics. 'Show the people of Northern Ireland that they have a secure home here,' he pleaded, 'and that we recognise their British heritage. There is room for everyone on this island.' The Union Jacks on the flags of the Royal British Legion were within his easy reach as he made the point before reverting to century old history.

'Commemorations are really about the future. This commemoration tells us that we do not want war again. Never again.'

Applause sounded around the garden, with its view over one of the prettiest golf courses in the world, as he spoke of peace being the message from the trenches of the Somme and Vichy Ridge. Future generations may thank us if they do not have to endure what the soldiers who fought and died amidst scenes of incalculable human suffering.

Singer Maureen Smith was called up to put lyrics to the thoughts of battle when she sang 'I hope you died well and I hope you died clean. Or young Willie McBride was it slow and obscene?' Maureen had her own slant on the war, sharing memories of her grandfather, Arthur John Smith from Kilmacanogue, who went to war and survived the experience.

Historian Christopher Power was also summonsed up to the mike to read an anonymous squaddie's poem culled from the pages of the 'Ypres Times'. Prayers were said by Father Dermot Byrne and by the Reverend Janet Kirwan, while a trumpeter was on hand to sound 'Reveille'.

Among those present for the latest ceremony at the memorial garden were members of a military re-enactment group, resplendent in their Great War soldier or nursing uniforms. Most of the group on parade in Woodenbridge came from Wexford but at the end of the line was David Owens from Arklow. He explained how they first came together in 1996 to take part as either Red Coats or Rebels in events re-creating the United Irishmen insurrection of 1798.

David reported that he had just returned from a visit to Israel, calling to a British military cemetery where Murphys from Bray are among those interred. The trip to the Middle East brought him back to familiar country as the Arklow man was a member of the defence forces in Israel during the 1960s and '70s. He found himself in the frontline with his Uzi sub-machine gun as a humble infantry private during the Yom Kippur War, which blew up in 1973.

The re-enactment group, which can call on up to 20 members, take their parade ground drills, complete with replica guns, very seriously. They arrived in time to hear John Bruton, having already been to Dublin earlier in the day to pay their respects at the war memorial at Islandbridge in Inchicore. They were certainly not the only ones with military credentials present for the occasion organised by Tom Curran and his committee.

Berets, some green, some grey, and some in the bright blue of UN peace keepers, were all in evidence. Uniforms of various origin were worn, including those of the modern Irish Defence Forces. Medals jingled as ex-soldiers mingled with member of families whose forebears are named among the deceased of the Great War.

Councillor Pat Vance was present as the current cathaoirleach of Wicklow County Council. He noted that his fellow Bray native Thomas O'Neill had the misfortune to perish at Mons on November 8, 1918 - just three days before the Armistice stilled the guns. The unlucky fatal casualty had been swept up in a recruitment drive which signed up close to a quarter of menfolk in Wicklow towns such as Newcastle, Newtownmountkennedy and Rathnew.

The public representative revealed that his family had been touched by the upheavals of 1914-1918. His grandfather was injured during the disastrous Dardanelles campaign in which thousands of lives were wiped out as they attempted to scale the cliffs of Gallipoli in Turkey.

'He always said that he would never forgive Churchill, it was so horrific,' recalled Cllr Vance. While the grandfather lived to tell the tale, other family members were not so lucky, as the old man's brothers, William and Joseph, both died in France. Pat Vance mused how families must have dreaded that the telegram boy might come to their door with bad news from the Continent throughout that time.

Then, when the gunfire ceased, those who survived were not welcomed home as heroes. They returned to a very different Ireland where politics had been changed forever by the Easter Rising. The notion that Irish people fought for the freedom of small nations was swept away and the war effort became perceived in time as fighting for Britain. They became the forgotten, the often troubled memory of their experience only recently returning to the collective consciousness.

Woodenbridge development association chairman Tom Curran thanked those organisations which have helped to finance the garden and anyone who took part in fundraisers. The place attracts a steady stream of visitors throughout the year. Some call to look for the names of relatives on the stones, some out of a feeling for history and some on a whim out of merest curiosity.

The Armistice centenary crowd witnessed the cutting of the ribbon by Cllr Vance on a permanent exhibition called 'Reflections'. Under the bridge which carries the public road past the site, the exhibition features a series of illustrated panels mounted by contractor Kevin Harpur. Historians Pat Power and Brendan Flynn have compiled thoughtful insights on the panels into the time of the Great War, with a strong emphasis on Wicklow's involvement.

Retired teacher Brendan explained that he has channelled his interest in the past into researching the county's military heritage. He took the lead in compiling the list of the names of the dead, a process which took ten years. The research led him to Dublin and London, as well as to every graveyard across the length and breadth of County Wicklow. Fresh names have emerged since the stones were erected and they have been added in by the engraver - they are the ones which do not fit in with the alphabetical order.

One of the panels is a call-over of the various regiments - 104 of them in total - in which Wicklow soldiers were enlisted. More than 200 of the Wicklow volunteers, for example, took arms with the Canadian army and at least one saw service with the Ceylon Planters Rifle Corps.

However, the majority of the participants were recruited by British regiments, where they stood shoulder to shoulder with their neighbours amidst the horrors of Loos or Passchendaele in response to General Kitchener's call: 'Your Country Needs You'.

'They thought of themselves as the Irish Army,' mused Brendan Flynn.

Wicklow People