Family revisits site of fallen war hero

Cork family’s trip to WWI burial site sparks journey into the history of war

The impact of the First World War on Irish history was enormous.

Home Rule was put on ice and rebellion was festering. By 1916, about 100,000 Irishmen had volunteered. By the end of the war, that number had risen to 200,000.

For those men who survived the dreadful carnage, there was more hardship in store when they returned home, often to a less than enthusiastic reception.

The end of the war had coincided with a changed political climate.

Today, many relatives of those who didn’t make it are attempting to trace their final resting places to honour their memories.

Some joined up out of economic desperation. James Connolly claimed it was “economic conscription” that had attracted large numbers of recruits from the tenements of inner city Dublin.

Others joined for what they imagined was going to be a great adventure.

“For no other reason than to see what war was like, to get a gun, to see new countries and to feel like a grown man,” said future IRA leader Tom Barry.

Life in the trenches, all-consuming mud, rats, poison gas, and non-stop bombardment quickly put pay to such cheerful bravado “There is nothing for you to do except to keep a firm grip on everything and wait till the bombardment stops” wrote one soldier.

“This is not a war. This is an exploration of how far men can be degraded,” Sebastian Faulks wrote of the conflict in Birdsong.

I have a great reference book. The Chronicle of the 20th Century is a hugely thick volume and to take it down is to risk a lost weekend, such is the extent of the fascinating information it contains. Its coverage of the First World War is engrossing.

It records Field Marshall Sir John French, who was to be in charge of the British expeditionary forces, blithely declaring in August “It will all be over by Christmas”. The Chronicle reveals that by November, British chancellor Lloyd George was announcing that taxes would have to be doubled to pay for the war.

By 1915, concern was being expressed at the heavy drinking that went on among armament workers — apparently slowing down production.

Britain’s king stepped in and declared that the royal household was now teetotal, in support of the workers. Lloyd George claimed that Britain’s three main problems were Germany, Austria, and drink.

How successful their campaign was is not recorded.

Wealthy and aristocratic families were asked to shut down part of their stately homes and release their servants to work for the war effort. Meanwhile news from the front seemed to get steadily worse. As the Somme campaign opened, soldiers were ordered into No Man’s Land, carrying 70lb of equipment. Thousands were mowed down in the first five minutes.

And closer to home, on August 3, Roger Casement was hanged in London.

In April 1918, there was a strike in Ireland against the suggestion of conscription.

In Cork, 20,000 people signed an anti-subscription pledge after hearing Fr Mathew, a Franciscan friar, lead the attack on plans to extend conscription here.

“It would be in direct violation of the rights of small nations to self-determination — what the English say they’re fighting for” he said.

On November 18, Germany signed the Armistice and the war was over. But 10m souls had died in this “war to end wars”.

Many of those relatives who have been intrigued by the lives and deaths of some of these forgotten Irish men have found their ancestors.

English teacher Aedin Johnson is one of them.

Aedin, how did your interest in the story of your great uncle James O’Connor come about?

“I was always aware that my grandmother had a brother called James. But I knew nothing about him. He was never talked about.

“I was about nine when we first went on family holidays to France, and while we were there, we always searched graveyards in the hope that we would find him.

“It became a sort of family tradition that anyone who went to France did the same thing.

“My cousin James was on a bus tour in Europe when he went into the Flanders Museum and he found out that Great Uncle James was buried in Boulogne France. But he had to rejoin the bus tour.”

That must have been exciting news for you?

“It really was, because by then, I had done a significant amount of research myself. I wanted to find out who Great Uncle James was.

“Many of the First World War records were destroyed in the last war, but I found records in Kew and discovered that he was gassed in 1918, near the Belgian border.

“It was very sad, because he had only been married for 10 months and he never got to see his child who was born after he left.”

So what happened then?

“After getting this news, I was desperate to visit his grave. My husband was fantastic. He knew how much it meant to me and he decided to give me a very unusual birthday present that year – a trip to a graveyard. It was the 90th anniversary of Great Uncle James’s death and it was incredible.

“We organised a family group to travel there – grandson, great-granddaughters and everyone, and we went to his grave. It was a moving and unforgettable experience. We gathered round his grave and we sang the National Anthem. Of course, he would never have heard it. Those men who did survive came back to a very different world.”

I believe you started hearing from other people who were searching as well?

“Yes. I’d started giving talks and was active on the Internet and there were so many people from Cork who had suffered similar losses and who wanted to reclaim these brave men who were nearly lost to time. My Great Uncle James was from Blackpool in Cork. He was a brave man who worked as a farm labourer and who loved his family.

“But we didn’t even have a photo until quite by chance, thanks to the Echo, I found one. I did this for James, for my father and for my own kids, so they can know, remember and respect him and now I’ve written a book called Finding James so his story will never be forgotten.”


Aedin Johnson

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