Trova il tuo prossimo libro preferito

Abbonati oggi e leggi gratis per 30 giorni
Irish Voices from the Great War

Irish Voices from the Great War

Leggi anteprima

Irish Voices from the Great War

433 pagine
6 ore
Jul 7, 2014


This pioneering study, first published in 1995, retains its rank as one of the most powerful histories ever written about Irish involvement in World War 1. This year, the centenary of the war, sees its timely re-publication as the Irishmen who fought in that war re-enter the national memory after decades of indifference and hostility. The gradual softening of attitudes over the last twenty years amid great historic change on the island of Ireland, is due in no small part to the efforts of historians, such as Myles Dungan, to tell thousands of forgotten stories. Drawing on the diaries, letters, literary works and oral accounts of soldiers, Myles Dungan tells some of the personal stories of what Irishmen, unionist and nationalist, went through during the Great War and how many of them drew closer together during that horror than at any time since. This volume deals with a selection of the most important battles and campaigns in which the three Irish Divisions participated.

Jul 7, 2014

Informazioni sull'autore

Myles Dungan is a broadcaster and historian. He presents The History Show on RTÉ Radio 1 and is an adjunct lecturer and Fulbright scholar in the School of History and Archives, University College, Dublin. He has also compiled and presented a number of award-winning historical documentaries. He is the author of numerous works on Irish and American history and holds a PhD from Trinity College, Dublin.

Correlato a Irish Voices from the Great War

Libri correlati
Articoli correlati

Anteprima del libro

Irish Voices from the Great War - Myles Dungan




To Oliver and Sadie Fallon

– two very welcome and adorable grandchildren





First published in 2014 by Merrion

an imprint of Irish Academic Press

8 Chapel Lane


Co. Kildare

© 2014 Myles Dungan

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

An entry can be found on request

978-1-908928-80-1 (paper)

978-1-908928-81-8 (cloth)

978-1-908928-82-5 (PDF)

978-1-908928-83-2 (epub)

978-1-908928-84-9 (mobi)

Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data

An entry can be found on request

All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved alone, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

Printed in Ireland by SPRINT-print Ltd.

I call

And shorten your way with speed to me

I am love and hate and the terrible mind

Of vicious gods

Fragment from War, an uncompleted poem by Francis Ledwidge





1.The Old Contemptibles

2.Gallipoli: The V Beach Landings

3.The 10th Division at Suvla Bay

4.The Drury Diaries

5.1 July 1916: The 36th (Ulster) Division and the Battle of the Somme

6.The 16th (Irish) Division at the Somme


8.1918: From Calamity to Closure






To Conor Graham and Lisa Hyde of Irish Academic/Merrion Press for their faith that a project begun almost twenty years ago was worth reviving in a changed context.

To Martin Harte of the Temple Bar Company for forcing me to pay more attention to the music of the Great War and to Niall O’Flynn, John O’Keeffe, Jonathan Creasy, Sadhbh Burt Fitzgerald and the Brook Singers for making the music real.

To my five children Amber, Rory, Lara, Ross and Gwyneth Owen for their unstinting and unavailing scepticism (as Gwyneth Owen isn’t quite three years old I’m paying this one forward)and to my grandchildren Oliver and Sadie Fallon for being just fabulous.

A number of people are also due my renewed gratitude owing to their contribution to this volume in its first incarnation.

To Kevin Healy, then Director of Radio Programmes, RTé for permission to use material from the Sound Archive, to Kieran Sheedy (from whose work in 1973 the bulk of the taped recollections comes), Joe Little and Jim Fahy for allowing me to use material from programmes they have compiled over the years and to Ian Lee, then of RTé Sound Archives, for patiently winkling out what was there and copying it for me.



‘Lord Kitchener says The time has come, and now I call for 300,000 recruits to form new armies. God save the King’¹

(Recruitment poster, 1914)

When Irish Voices from the Great War was first published almost twenty years ago, Ireland was a very different place. The experience of Irish veterans of the 1914–18 war was the subject either of a culpable amnesia or of what Professor David Fitzpatrick has memorably described as ‘aphasia’.² There was an historiographical, cultural and emotional deficit where Irish participation in World War 1 was concerned. This had, largely, been engendered by the dominant narrative of twentieth-century Irish history, one dictated by the nationalist ‘victors’ of the Anglo-Irish war of 1919–21, forces seen, whether justifiably or not, to be antipathetic or antagonistic towards Irish Great War veterans.³ Indifference or outright hostility had led to the rapid atrophying of ‘memory’. Remembrance or commemoration of the Great War, while it featured to some extent in the culture of the Irish Free State in the 1920s, more or less disappeared from view in the 1930s and played virtually no part in the public life of the subsequent Irish Republic.

In the years following legislative independence it was natural that the writing of Irish history would focus on that prevailing narrative. It was not until the 1950s, and the rise of a generation of ‘professional’ historians like Theo Moody, Kevin B. Nowlan and Robin Dudley Edwards,that such writing began to transcend and interrogate that narrative. Academics like R.F. Foster and Joseph Lee led the next generation of historical ‘revisionists’ and, suddenly, there were no shibboleths left unquestioned. Irish Great War studies was one of the principal beneficiaries. Up to the 1990s there was a paucity of secondary/published sources on which to rely and primary sources had largely been ignored. That began to change with the mining of archive material, firstly in the Liddle Collection (Leeds), the Imperial War museum, the British National Archive (then the Public Record Office) in Kew and the National Army Museum. Latterly a significant quantity of material from private sources has come to light in Ireland and this has been augmented by the use of data from the National Library of Ireland and the Irish National Archives.

What has also changed fundamentally is that there is now a plethora of accessible secondary sources and this is regularly made available to a readership with a new-found enthusiasm and appetite for acquainting itself with the knowledge of Irish participation in the Great War. This upsurge of interest has, in part, been stimulated by the journalism of Kevin Myers, the reconciliation work of Paddy Harte and Glen Barr, the scholarship of David Fitzpatrick, John Horne, Fergus Darcy, Jane Leonard and many others, as well as the rescue efforts of Tom Burke and the Royal Dublin Fusiliers Association and the other Irish regimental associations to have emerged since the 1990s. The role played in the Northern reconciliation process by the exploration of Irish involvement in the Great War, has clearly prompted renewed interest in the subject on both sides of the border. But the increased fascination in this country with all things historical, and the reassessment on the part of modern practitioners of the dark arts of archival research of all received wisdom, means that the forgotten narrative of Ireland and the Great War would have come under scrutiny at some point. What goes around comes around.

Irish Voices from the Great War and its companion volume They Shall Grow Not Old played a small part in the initial upsurge of interest in the Irish experience of World War 1. Both were modest volumes with limited aims. My intention, especially with Irish Voices …, was to make use of a corpus of previously unused material in the Imperial War Museum and National Army Museum in London, supplemented by oral testimony in the RTE Sound Archive. Dozens of Irish veterans had chosen to write about their experiences (almost all were volunteers) and had deposited their memoirs in the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in the 1920s and 1930s. There they remained, largely untapped, until this writer made polite inquiries in 1993 about accessing any memoirs or diaries that the IWM might have in its archive. I was both astonished and excited at what they found for me in their Lambeth Road store-house of memory.

I then set about the task of telling the story of Irish involvement in some of the key engagements of the war, principally the Gallipoli campaign, the Somme offensive, the battle of Messines, 3rd Ypres and the March 1918 German offensive. These were viewed from the perspective of Irish participants, using first-hand accounts from the IWM and other archives, from published memoirs and from testimony contained in the relatively few secondary sources available at the time.

Some of those accounts have been revisited in this new edition based on the surge in scholarship since the book was published in 1995. Mistakes, erroneous assumptions, oversimplifications and generalisations have, I would hope, been removed. Where appropriate, additional material from other primary and newly printed sources has been used. But the volume is fundamentally the same as that which invited readers to examine the testimony of Irish Great War veterans at a time when few were inclined to do so. The corpus of material used then is as valid now as it was in the mid-90s, though it has been supplemented by material from newly-published accounts of the war. Many of the issues raised by historians like David Fitzpatrick, Timothy Bowman, Jane Leonard, John Horne, Catherine Switzer, Donal Hall, Richard Grayson, John Dennehy, Catriona Pennell and many others in their treatment of recruitment, discipline, commemoration, war enthusiasm and memory are beyond the scope of this particular volume, though many were taken up in They Shall Grow Not Old.

This volume still seeks to do what it was designed to do back in 1995, to deal, specifically and in detail, with a selection of the most important battles and campaigns in which the three Irish Divisions (and other Irish regiments of the old Regular Army) participated. It still relies primarily on the memoirs of Irish veterans housed in the Imperial War Museum, the National Army Museum and the Somme Association Archive as well as on the published diaries and reminiscences of soldiers in Irish regiments as well as audio material from the RTé Sound Archive. Of the latter it must be reiterated that while most of it is highly atmospheric and descriptive some of it is factually inaccurate and unreliable. Most of the interviews were recorded at least half a century after the events described. Insofar as possible I have attempted to eliminate the more egregious lapses of memory or descents into special pleading.

It has been enormously gratifying to witness the effective rehabilitation of the nationalist cohort of Irish Great War veterans in the last decade. The era of aphasia is past. The sacrifice of the men of the 36th Ulster division has long been commemorated, though not always without controversy, in Northern Ireland.⁵ Only now are we truly beginning to see an acknowledgment in the Republic of Ireland of the men who chose, for a variety of reasons, to heed the call of Redmond, and join the British armed forces. Many of those men, about 24,000, were members of the National Volunteers, formed after the split in the Irish Volunteer movement in September 1914. The ‘anti-war’ cohort within the organisation founded by Eoin MacNeill in 1913, numbering 10–12,000, retained the original name and actively opposed enlistment.

The primary focus of Irish scholarship had been on the subsequent history of the Irish Volunteers, heavily infiltrated by the IRB and morphing into the IRA of the Anglo-Irish war. In some respects the artificial Civil War-based political structure in Ireland,dominated by two centre-right parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, served to accentuate the ‘aphasia’ surrounding the Great War. The Fine Gael party is clearly more representative of the old Redmondite/National Volunteer strand of Irish political activism. Just as W.T. Cosgrave had less difficulty in recognising and commemorating the reality of the sizeable Irish contribution to the Great War than did Eamon de Valera, so did Garret FitzGerald have a less jaundiced attitude to WW1 commemoration in Ireland than did Charles J.Haughey. Not that the issue was ever high on the agenda of either party, nor indeed of the Labour Party, while the dominant nationalist political force in Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein, long opposed and discouraged Great War commemoration.⁶ The latter party has, in recent years, overcome its historic antipathy. Prominent members or supporters of the party like Alex Maskey, Tom Hartley and Danny Morrison have often participated in ‘neutral’ or nationalist commemorations of the dead of the Great War.

The ‘discovery’ of the potential for Northern reconciliation in the battlefields of Flanders and Picardy elevated the issue on those agendas. The defining moment in that process was the presence of President Mary McAleese, Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II and the Northern Ireland First Minister, David Trimble, at the dedication of the newly constructed Island of Ireland Peace Park – the brainchild of Paddy Harte and Glen Barr – in Messines (Mesen) in Belgium in November 1998. But the first eye-catching moment in that process came in April 1995, when Sinn Fein chairperson, Tom Hartley and Ulster Unionist MP, Ken Maginnis, attended a ceremony at the Irish War Memorial Park in Islandbridge. The irony was that the occasion was unconnected with WW1. The ceremony was being held to honour the victims of World War Two and the Holocaust.⁷ But the association with the country’s premier Great War Memorial was inescapable and is what most people remember about the occasion.

The disappearance of the stigma associated with enlistment in the British Army in the Great War, has unfortunately, come too late for the generation of Irishmen who fought in the conflict. Of course their silence was often prompted by factors other than the reluctance of the society to which they returned to hear their stories. But that silence, enforced or voluntary, means that ‘memory’ can only be restored by the diligent work of historians and researchers. This current volume is but a useful starting point for the interested and engaged reader. The enlarged bibliography reflects much of the more recent narrative and analytical work produced on the subject. I would heartily recommend any of the works cited as the next port of call.


The use of military terminology and jargon is unavoidable in an enterprise like this so herewith some background information that may be of assistance in the reading of this book. Some, but not all, is repeated elsewhere in the text.

Before 1914 the small British Regular Army (comprising fewer than 750,000 regular soldiers and reservists worldwide) was composed of regiments which, to all intents and purposes, consisted of a 1st and 2nd battalion of about 1,000 men each. Third and fourth battalions were often attached to the regimental HQ and were used for training purposes. From 1914 to the beginning of 1918 with the creation by the Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener of a huge volunteer army (compulsory conscription in England, Scotland and Wales came in 1916) the army battalions were augmented by service battalions of fresh, inexperienced troops. Thus the Royal Irish Fusiliers had its two original battalions, a third and fourth battalion based at home and responsible for training and recruiting, and seven service battalions (5th to 11th) at different times during the course of the war.

Battalions, as a rule, were divided into four companies; these in turn were further subdivided into platoons. Before the officer corps became badly depleted a battalion would normally have been commanded by a Lieutenant Colonel, a company by a Major or Captain and platoons by a full Lieutenant. A Second Lieutenant (also known as a Subaltern) might have commanded a ‘section’ within a platoon though, depending on numbers, command of sections would often fall to a Non-Commissioned Officer (Sergeant Major, Sergeant etc.)

Battalions were banded, in groups of four, into brigades under the command of a Brigadier General. In early 1918, because of the extent of casualties, brigades were reduced to three battalions each. Above brigade level was the division, consisting of three brigades. The 10th (Irish) Division, for example, the first Irish volunteer division to be recruited, was made up of the 29th, 30th and 31st brigades. A division was usually commanded by a Major General. Above that again was the Corps; there were three or four divisions within this unit, which was under the command of a Lieutenant General. Four combined Corps made up an Army, under the command of a General. At the outset of the war, in 1914, the British Expeditionary Force travelling to France, had two Armies. This number had grown to five by 1917.

The first commander of the British Expeditionary Force was Field Marshal Sir John French. He was succeeded in December 1915 by General Sir Douglas Haig, who was elevated to the rank of Field Marshal in 1917. He held his position until the end of hostilities in November 1918. When it became clear that the war was not going to be swift and decisive a general proclamation was issued by the British government calling for 100,000 men to volunteer for three years service. This force, raised by Lord Kitchener, became known as K1 and included the first Irish division, the 10th.Further proclamations followed and the second New Army (K2) included the other nationalist division, the 16th. In the fifth New Army was the Loyalist 36th (Ulster) Division.

The battles and campaigns covered in this book have been selected as the most significant involving Irish troops. Others may argue that important engagements (such as the Battle of Loos) have been left out. Given the space available, however, it was not possible to include everything and I felt it better to devote more time and space to a smaller number of key battles. The period from the arrival of the British Expeditionary Force (the bulk of the Regular Army at the time) until just before the First Battle of Ypres saw the beginning of the destruction of the famous Irish units of the old Regular Army. This process continued with the annihilation of the 1st Dublins and 1st Munsters at Gallipoli in 1915 at the ‘V’ Beach landing.

The numbers of Irishmen involved in the war then grew exponentially with the introduction of the first volunteer unit, the 10th Division, at the Suvla Bay landings in Gallipoli in August 1915. Later that year the 36th (Ulster) Division and the 16th (Irish) Division were introduced to the Western Front. These two divisions were Unionist and Nationalist mirror images, based on the politically oriented militias of the Ulster Volunteer Force and the National Volunteers. Both would suffer appalling casualties at the dismal Battle of the Somme in 1916, the 36th on the 1 July, the opening day of the offensive and the 16th in the September attacks on the tiny French villages of Guillemont and Ginchy.

The 10th Division, unlike the two other Irish divisions, became engaged in hostilities against two of Germany’s allies, the far-flung Ottoman Empire of Turkey and the Bulgarians. After being withdrawn from Turkish territory in Gallipoli the 10th found itself assisting the Serbians against an opportunistic attack by their traditional Bulgarian enemies towards the end of 1915. The division was based in Salonika in neutral Greece. By 1917 it had been moved to Palestine to assist General Allenby in removing the last remnants of the Ottoman Empire from the Holy Land.

Meanwhile the two other Irish Divisions found themselves side by side in the 2nd Army of General Plumer (who ranks alongside Allenby as one of the most capable British commanders of the war) and took part in the successful June 1917 offensive at Messines-Wytschaete in Belgium, a prelude to the long, wearisome and bloody Third Battle of Ypres (often referred to as Passchendeale). Here the 16th and the 36th came under the wing of the Fifth Army, led by an Irishman, General Gough (one of the least competent British commanders). The result was a disastrous erosion of morale and manpower and the continuation of the loss of the ‘Irish’ character of the two divisions as events at home (in the aftermath of the Easter 1916 Rising) reduced recruitment considerably.

Things got worse in 1918 when the Western front was almost lost to a massive German advance in March of that year. Fifth Army, with its numbers greatly depleted, bore the brunt of that assault and the 16th Division ceased to exist as an ‘Irish’ unit even in name. Many of the service battalions that had been recruited during Kitchener’s 1914 initiative were merged or disbanded. What was left of the 36th Division stayed together but the battalions which made up the Nationalist divisions (10th and 16th) were spread throughout the Army, giving rise to accusations of lack of trust in their commitment, post Easter 1916, to the cause for which they had signed up to fight.

When the curtain came down on the Great War, in November 1918, few of the men whose stories are carried right through this book and concluded in the final chapter were still with the same units they had started out with.


‘There’s a woman sobs her heart out,

With her head against the door.

For the man that’s called to leave her,

God have pity on the poor!

But it’s beat, drums, beat,

While the lads march down the street,

And it’s blow, trumpets, blow,

Keep your tears until they go.’¹

(Winifred Letts, ‘The Call to Arms in Our Street’)

In the world of paranoid alliances which existed in Europe in 1914 it was not at all illogical that the shot fired by a Serbian nationalist which killed an Austro-Hungarian potentate in modern-day Bosnia should have forestalled a possible Irish civil war. That shot reverberated in Ireland like a loud bang which distracts two men involved in a squabble of their own. It was as if a neighbour’s house was on fire. Both ran to join the chain gang. Neither did so entirely from the purest of motives. They wanted to be seen with buckets in their hands dousing the flames. Both expected the neighbour would reward them once the fire was extinguished.

The Great War had loomed as the country hurried towards war between the supporters of the Union and the advocates of Home Rule. But instead of fighting each other thousands of Irishmen, of Unionist and Nationalist persuasion had joined the British forces and, for very many different and often conflicting reasons, fought the Germans, Turks and Bulgarians in World War One.

It was to take nine months for the uninitiated (and often naive) volunteers of August and September 1914 to begin to be ground through the human ‘sausage machine’ which the Great War quickly became. But there was no shortage of Irish soliders, already in uniform, to meet the Germans in the weeks after they marched into Belgium in early August 1914. These were the men who had chosen (frequently by default) the Army to provide them with a livelihood. Men who did not need to be drip-fed stories of German atrocities, the rape of nuns, the ravaging of ‘Little Catholic Belgium’. These were the Irish soldiers of the Regular Army, often in Irish regiments, which constituted the British Expeditionary Force, despatched to France and thence to Belgium, in August 1914. When war broke out 30,000 Irishmen were serving in the 250,000 strong British regular army, an institution that had long played second fiddle to the ‘Senior Service’, the Royal Navy.²

The men of nine Irish Infantry regiments were represented in that force. The Cavalry regiments, because of the static nature of the fighting, were of little consequence other than in the opening and final days of the war. As casualties mounted many cavalry officers and men were simply drafted into infantry units. Even in the early, mobile stage of the war cavalry was used sparingly enough. John Breen a regular with three years experience in the 2nd Battalion, Royal Irish Regiment, didn’t see many German cavalry charges after he arrived in France. ‘The Germans had cavalry all right but they didn’t like the shell fire or the rapid fire. They didn’t put many of them up. They’d put them up now and again.’³

Eight units, The Royal Irish Regiment, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, the Royal Irish Rifles, the Royal Irish Fusiliers, the Connaught Rangers, the Leinster Regiment, the Royal Munster Fusiliers and the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, each had two active service battalions in the regular Army, some on overseas, colonial duty; the Irish Guards had a single battalion. Each had its own natural recruiting hinterland, some (Dublins, Munsters, Leinsters, Connaughts) are self-explanatory but, broadly speaking, in the case of the Royal Irish Regiment it was mostly the South East; the Inniskillings drew their men from Donegal, Derry and parts of mid-Ulster; the Rifles from Belfast, Antrim and Down; and the Royal Irish Fusiliers from Armagh, Monaghan and Cavan.

Nine battalions of these famous regiments became members of an elite group, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), relatively few of whose members were to be left unscathed by the conflict. They called themselves ‘The Old Contemptibles’, the pejorative nickname being an ironic comment on the (probably apocryphal) order conveyed to the German First Army by the Kaiser as it cut a swathe through neutral Belgium. Incensed by the intervention of Britain he, allegedly, commanded his invading army to ‘exterminate the treacherous England. Walk over General French’s contemptible little Army.’⁴ The ‘Tommy’ in the BEF was not impressed, tending anyway to a comic opera view of the German soldier. ‘The field grey, rather baggy uniforms, comic boots, and helmets amused us. Anything strange or foreign was inferior, to the mind of the common soldier.’⁵ They adopted the ‘Contemptible’ tag as their own and turned it against the Germans.

Field Marshal Sir John French, who had been forced to resign for his pusillanimous approach to the recalcitrant officers of the 1914 Curragh Mutiny, was given charge of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) of around 120,000 men who were mustered from the home-based units. (French lasted just over a year before being replaced by the ambitious First Corps Commander General, later Field Marshal, Sir Douglas Haig.) The BEF was quickly despatched to France by the Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener. Thanks to some stubborn and unexpected Belgian resistance it got there before the Germans did.⁶ The men were pitched straight into action as the hammer blows of the modified Schlieffen Plan descended on the towns and cities of Flanders and Picardy. Within three months 40,000 Irish soldiers,⁷ regulars and reservists, hauled in to fill the gaps left by the earliest casualties, would be involved in the fighting on the Western Front. This figure does not include the thousands of Irishmen in English, Scottish and Welsh regular Army units.

Before their departure for France each soldier recieved a personal message from the Secretary of State for War admonishing him to be on his best behaviour and to treat the French with due respect and deference. ‘Be invariably courteous, considerate and kind. Never do anything likely to injure or destroy property, and always look upon looting as a disgraceful act.’ On the other hand, the French being the French, renowned the world over for moral laxity and ‘fast’ women the innocent ‘Tommy’ was warned to be on guard against ‘temptations’ both in wine and women. ‘You must entirely resist both temptations, and, while treating all women with perfect courtesy, you must avoid any intimacy.’⁸ Such avuncular counsel was to be retained by every soldier in his Army Service Pay Book as a written encouragement to good behaviour. This also contained an ominous form which was to be filled out should a soldier wish to make his last will and testament. More importantly it told ‘Tommy’ that he would get higher pay while in the field risking life and limb. This was a source of some small consolation. Contrary to popular mythology few actually believed that the war would ‘be over by Christmas’, though many thought it would end within twelve months.⁹

John Lucy, a twenty-year-old Corporal, from Cork, had joined the 2nd Royal Irish Rifles, along with his brother, who was a year younger, in January, 1912, shortly after the death of their mother. Studying the men (mostly from Belfast) who formed this battalion Lucy concluded that, on the basis of this representative sample, most of those in the regular army had been driven to the colours by ‘unemployment and the need of food’. There were some exceptions:

There was a taciturn Sergeant from Waterford who was conversant with the intricacies of higher mathematics, and who was very smart and dignified and shunned company. There was an ex-divinity student with literary tastes, who drank much beer and affected an obvious pretence to gentle birth; a national school teacher; a man who had absconded from a colonial bank; a few decent sons of farmers. The remainder of us in our Irish regiment were either scallawags or very minor adventurers.¹⁰

Jack Campbell was one of a family of five brothers all of whom served in the forces during the war. Like Lucy, Campbell was an ‘Old Contemptible’ but he had been attached to a Scottish regiment on enlistment. He arrived in France, a raw private, with the 1st Royal Highlanders (The Black Watch) and served with them until 1918. Campbell and Lucy were fortunate in one respect, both were young and fit. Many of the men who made up the BEF were reservists who had been out of khaki for up to seven years. They were to find the going particularly difficult. Often, because of their return to ‘Civvy Street’, they were under the command of much younger men and tended to grouse more about the absence of home comforts.

The troops of the Irish Regular Army battalions left the country without much fuss or ceremony, the dour Kitchener being more inclined to secrecy than to show. There were a few enthusiastic send-offs in some garrison towns but, by and large, they slipped out of Irish or British barracks, sailed for the continent and were soon traversing the paved roads of Northern France.¹¹ (Some – notably the Connaught Rangers – singing a popular marching song It’s a Long Way to Tipperary as they did so.) Edward Byrne, a Waterford man, who had been assigned to the 72nd Battery Royal Field Artillery in 1912 was 23 years old when Gavrilo Princip fired the shots in Sarajevo which precipitated the global confict. He handed in his dress uniform, like all the others in his unit, got on the train from Waterford to Queenstown and sailed to France – on a ship called the Kingstonian. Bad weather forced the vessel to return to Southampton. But not before having to jettison some terrified and unfortunate horses somewhere in mid Channel.

It was a member of one of the Irish regiments who acquired a dubious distinction. At 7.00 a.m on the 22 August, outside Mons, men of the Royal Irish Dragoon Guards spotted a group of four German cavalrymen. Corporal Edward Thomas, of ‘C’ Squadron, from Nenagh, Co.Tipperary, fired immediately and found his target. It is not known whether the bullet killed or wounded the enemy cavalryman. It was the first shot fired in battle by a soldier of the British Army on the continent of Europe for almost a hundred years and the first of the Great War. Thomas later won a Military Medal and, after surviving the war, was discharged in 1923.¹²

An anonymous Irishman was also the inspiration for one of the first famous recruiting posters. This depicts a British soldier lighting his pipe nonchalantly, while a German cavalry regiment hurtles towards him. The caption reads ‘Half a mo’, Kaiser’. The sketch emanates from a report of an Irish Guardsman who coolly cadged a cigarette from a fellow soldier and lit up with the enemy cavalry approaching.

Had Kitchener, himself the subject of the most famous recruiting poster of them all, been given his way the BEF would have been nowhere near Mons, it would have been deployed much further to the south. The old warlord feared that the small force, by advancing that far north to meet the Germans, would open its account in full retreat.The British Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, on the advice of French, overruled him. Kitchener was proven right. Within a matter of days the BEF was retracing its steps, though at much greater speed. But on their pleasant late summer march in mellow August sunlight to Mons the BEF was feted by grateful French villagers giving a hearty welcome to their new saviours and encouraging them, by means of a universal gesture, to cut the throats of the ‘sale Boche’: ‘Their promiscuous kissing, the cut throat gesticulations, useless presents, mad hatred of the dirty Germans, and their petty pilfering of our cap-badges, buttons, and numerals, browned a good many of us off.’¹³ Astonishingly requests for mementoes continued with the BEF going in the opposite direction, in full retreat, a few days later. It was too much for one Dublin Fusilier in the 10th Infantry Brigade ‘who was wearily dragging himself along in the ranks of his company, hearing the too familiar cry of souvenir turned an angry glance over his shoulder and growled Here, you can have my blooming pack for a souvenir!’¹⁴ Naturally, the cheers were for ‘Les Anglais’, a misapprehension corrected by John Lucy in the case of the 2nd Royal Irish Rifles. ‘Nous ne sommes pas Anglais, nous sommes Irlandais. They liked that and laughed with pleasure, and then shouted: Vivent les Irlandais, and we cheered back at them: Vive la France.’¹⁵

Jack Campbell, who survived the war and died in 1993 at the age of 96, landed at Rouen with the Black Watch and entrained for Mons the following day. ‘It was Sunday evening when we arrived in Mons and as we marched through the town the church bells were ringing, calling the just to prayer, but we weren’t interested in prayer or anything like that because in a matter of hours we’d be engaged with war that would kill thousands and bring hardship and misery to millions all over the world.’¹⁶ A few miles outside the town the battalion left the road and formed ‘a kind of front’ in a wheat field. The stalks had already been cut and lay around the field in sheaves, Campbell and his Scottish comrades made comfortable bedding for themselves and settled in to wait and see what would happen. The calm was shattered at five o’clock the following morning when three batteries of field artillery opened up on a small wood a few hundred yards away from the Black Watch. Campbell quickly found out why:

A horde of cavalry came out of there. I didn’t think there was

Hai raggiunto la fine di questa anteprima. Registrati per continuare a leggere!
Pagina 1 di 1


Cosa pensano gli utenti di Irish Voices from the Great War

0 valutazioni / 0 Recensioni
Cosa ne pensi?
Valutazione: 0 su 5 stelle

Recensioni dei lettori