Book review: The Glorious Madness: Tales of the Irish and the Great War

Andrew Melsom on a collection remembering Irish soldiers’ often heroic roles in World War I    

Book review: The Glorious Madness: Tales of the Irish and the Great War

The Glorious Madness: Tales of the Irish and the Great War

Gill & Macmillan, €29.99

WHAT DID the Irish do in the War of 1914 to 1918? The motivation behind the Irish nation going to war in 1914 is supremely complex.

At the time the soil of Ireland was in the possession of an unpopular (to say the very least) oligarchy; so why would this country that was in the middle of its revolutionary period and using all its might to resist being a part of the British Empire, go to war with the same intensity as their landlords. But Ulster or Munster, catholic or protestant, republican or unionist, the Irish did go to war where over 200,000 fought and at least 49,000 died — if you include those that fought in the armies of Canada and the USA.

The Irish volunteer and poet, Francis Ledwidge said “I joined the British army because she stood between Ireland and the enemy of civilisation and I would not have to say that she defended us while we did nothing but pass resolutions.”

Turtle Bunbury has pulled together a sumptuous collection of stories that show the Irish contribution to the Great War with extraordinary tales of derring-do. This is the book you must give your father, and when he opens it on Christmas day there will be stories that will surprise even him.

There’s Private Kit Conway, the Blackadder-type character who joined the British Army in 1915, but decided the army life wasn’t right for him, so he feigned lunacy by “pretending to eat his cap, beating himself with his rifle and pouring buckets of water over himself until he was eventually booted out”.

The same man became a guerrilla fighter during the Troubles, fighting both the Black and Tans and later the National Army of the Irish Free State. He eventually died defending the Spanish Republic in 1937, still attached to an Irish unit known as the Connolly Column.

Many Irish rugby players went to war on the Western front. Fred Harvey of Athboy, County Meath who made his debut for Ireland in 1907, (a team that also featured Cecil Parke who became world number 3 at tennis), Harvey was a part of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade when it was taking part in an attack on a German- held village when a party of Germans seized control of a low- lying machine gun post and opened fire.

Despite being surrounded by three rows of barbed wire entanglements, “Lieutenant Harvey leapt over all three rows, shooting the gunner stone dead and capturing the machine gun.”

Inspired by one man’s supreme act of leadership, the cavalry won the day. Harvey later added the Victoria Cross to his Irish cap.

British soldiers prepare for a World War One recruitment rally at Western Road, Cork in 1917. Picture: Irish Examiner archive

Edward ‘Mick’ Mannock from Co Cork joined the Royal Flying Corps in 1916 when life expectancy was short. Of 14,000 airmen who died in the war, more than half died in training. Mannock showed some aptitude for a French Nieuport biplane in 1917 and shot down a balloon to get his eye in, and then followed this by a further 60 or 70 kills becoming the most prolific air ace of the conflict.

He was awarded three distinguished service orders, a military cross and ultimately — and posthumously, the Victoria cross.

The white feather brigade did not escape Ireland and some fanatics recruited often pretty young women to award a white feather to men who were not in uniform.

The movement became fanatical when a ship of Irish emigrants were jeered in Liverpool and shown white feathers as they tried to disembark to the USA. Perhaps the most surprised recipient was Seaman George Sampson who was ‘served’ a white feather in his civilian clothes when he was on his way to collect his Victoria cross for helping to secure barges while the Munsters and the ‘Dubs’ were being annihilated at Gallipoli.

One of the strangest stories is about Flora Sandes who was the eighth child of Irish parents, born in Yorkshire.

She developed a liking for bawdy behaviour as a young woman; drinking, smoking and driving fast cars around country lanes. She was inspired by the Tennyson poem The Charge of the Light Brigade and all she ever wanted to do was charge an enemy while in some glorious action, somewhere. She didn’t fight for British army or for Ireland for that matter. She joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry and then the St John Ambulance Service and went to Serbia. In her wish to take up arms, Flora went native and joined the Serbian army, rising up the ranks to become a decorated soldier, and she eventually went over the top against the Bulgarians.

She married a man 10 years her junior in 1927, but not before demonstrating her laddism by visiting a brothel with the troops where she allowed things to reach a certain point, but left before things became too tricky.

Soldiers, sailors and airmen returning home from France, Greece, Palestine, Serbia and Gallipoli were welcomed back with mass unemployment as well as a war of independence in 1919. Some used their military skills to fight for the republican cause, and some to torture and interrogate republicans.

Those that chose not to join either side were under suspicion and intimidated by the IRA for having pledged allegiance to the British Empire. At least 30 ex-servicemen were shot dead in Co Cork as suspected informers.

A comprehensive chronicle such as this would be expected to include Geoffrey Studdart Kennedy, known as Woodbine Willie, the poet and priest who calmed soldiers with cigarettes and then rescued them when stranded in no man’s land, or William Orpen the famous war artist who painted apocalyptic scenes of Passchendaele and, after the war, both Winston Churchill and President Wilson sat for him. It does!

This is not a ‘deep dive’ history book, but it is a colourful record of Ireland’s Great War and a tribute to many of her heroes.

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