A book lent to me before the 80th anniversary of the start of WWII on September 1 was Dark Times, Decent Men: Stories of Irishmen in World War II. They from the North and South of Ireland and were in the British army, navy and the RAF and armies and merchant navies of the USA, Canada, Australia etc.
One of them was Maurice French from Wellingtonbridge, Co Wexford.
In November 1943, aged 40, he was a lieutenant-colonel and commanding officer of the 2nd Royal Irish Fusiliers. They tried to stop the Greek Aegean island of Leros being taken from the Allies by the German forces who invaded after an intense 50-day aerial bombardment of Leros and nearby islands which began on September 26. At dawn on November 14 while leading two depleted companies Maurice French was killed in action. Allied forces on Leros surrendered on November 16.
Colonel JC Coldwell Horsfall of the Royal Irish Fusiliers wrote: “[Maurice French] had the deposition and faith of a saint, but he was a warrior none the less. And he was true to form to the end, with all things lost, the island collapsed, and entirely on his own. No Irish Fusilier officer, nor any other in our army, ever died better and he ranks with Leonidas.”
Leonidas I (540BC to 480BC) was a warrior king of the Greek city-state of Sparta. He led the allied Greek forces to a last stand at the Battle of Thermopylae at a narrow pass to stop an invading Persian army. He, alas, didn’t succeed.
Maurice French’s thoughts of his wife were never far away. In a letter of October 12, 1943; “If anything should happen to me, remember that our separation is only temporary... It is cruelly hard that we should have been four and a half years apart, but the remaining separation will only be like a continuation of this and I will be close to you dearest Di -- always.”
He was laid to rest in the Leros War Cemetery with 162 soldiers, 13 sailors and 4 airmen of the United Kingdom, 2 airmen from the Royal Canadian Air Force, and 2 soldiers from South African Forces. Over 50 of approximately 183 men buried there could not be identified. On his headstone is the inscription “Underneath are the everlasting arms” from the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 33:27. The pretty cemetery is near the sea on the east side of Leros, 197 miles and a 45-minute flight from Athens. Its population today is around 8,000 in the winter and 15,000 in the summer.
Women and men like Maurice made the ultimate sacrifice in WWII against a Nazi regime to protect democracy and regain freedoms for the peoples of Europe. I think we forget the EU in its original form was to encourage economic cooperation and friendship to prevent another largescale war in Europe.