Life and potential lost on the battlefield: Ireland’s First World War soldiers

From shoe box to window box, Tom Burke recalls the journey of Ireland’s First World War soldiers on eve of the centenary of the November 11, 1918, armistice.

Life and potential lost on the battlefield: Ireland’s First World War soldiers

From shoe box to window box, Tom Burke recalls the journey of Ireland’s First World War soldiers on eve of the centenary of the November 11, 1918, armistice.

ON August 24, 1914, the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers arrived at the train station in the northern French town of Le Cateau.

Late that evening, they fired their first shots in the First World War against advancing German cavalry scouts. The previous day, they had disembarked from the troop ship SS Caledonia at the port of Boulogne to which they had sailed from Southampton.

A little over four years later on October 17, 1918, the same 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers were back fighting the Germans near the train station at Le Cateau.

In between those dates, the lines along the Western Front moved backwards and forwards like the bellows of a melodeon with net gains on either side of the wire amounting to little or nothing.

The loss of life achieving those fruitless movements resulted in the deaths of some 9.7m military personnel. Civilian deaths amounted to a similar neat number. If ever there was a symbol that represents the futilely of war and the tragedy of the First World War in particular, it is that quiet and now rarely used train station in Le Cateau.

The First World War was a civilian’s war. The Irish men who enlisted into Kitchener’s Irish infantry divisions and women who served as volunteers in the Red Cross and John’s Ambulance Brigades came from a cross-section of society.

A selection of posters urging Irishmen to enlist.
A selection of posters urging Irishmen to enlist.

Men enlisted for a variety of reasons, as numerous as the men who enlisted. Some joined up out of economic necessity. It is no coincidence the highest number of Dublin Fusiliers who died in the war came from the tenement buildings and laneway cottages of Dublin’s inner city; essentially from between the canals.

Others enlisted for adventure, and others driven by political ideology. The recruitment tactics used to entice men from sports clubs, societies, and workplaces into Pals battalions such as the 7th and 10th Royal Dublin Fusiliers, worked well for the recruiting sergeants. “Come along with your Pal” was the recruiting call.

However, when the killing and maiming started in battles with familiar names such as The Marne in 1914, Gallipoli in 1915, The Somme in 1916, Passchendaele in 1917, and the German and Allied offensives of 1918, the tragic consequences of the Pals recruiting tactics resulted in the destruction of the sports clubs, work groups, and friends — the building blocks of the societies from whence they came.

Almost every town and village had its share of casualties. Indeed, war and revolution combined to hit some families with particular vengeance.

Mrs McDonald from Bride St in Dublin lost her three sons during April and May 1915 as a result of a German gas attack on the Dublin Fusiliers north of Ypres.

Mrs Malone lost one son, Willie, in the same gas attack. A year later, another of her sons, Michael, was killed fighting with the Irish Volunteers during the 1916 Easter Rising on Northumberland Rd in Dublin.

Mrs Kent from Cork lost her son, Eamon, as a result of the same Easter Rising. In April 1917, she lost her other son, Bill, a sergeant in the 1st Royal Dublin Fusiliers during the Battle of Arras.

Had I been the father of any of these young men who died, I know what I would have said to those who claimed him to suit their own ideology. I would have said: “To hell with your wars and revolutions, they have cost me my family.”

A FURTHER human tragedy of the First World War and indeed all wars through the loss of life or injury was the loss of unfulfilled human potential. What could the thousands of wasted lives have contributed to the world around them had they lived?

John Boland was a 19-year-old messenger boy from Russel St in Dublin. He enlisted in 1913, the year of the General Lockout, and was killed in August 1914 with the 2nd Dublins at the Battle of Le Cateau.

Michael Wall was also a 19-year-old lad from Carrick Hill in Portmarnock, north county Dublin. He enlisted for adventure perhaps tinged with a hint of patriotic duty to king and country.

Michael Wall died at the Battle of Messines.
Michael Wall died at the Battle of Messines.

He was on his way to UCD to study science or engineering but decided to enlist instead. He was killed with his commanding officer, the Irish Parliamentary Party MP, Major Willie Redmond, at the Battle of Messines on June 7, 1917.

Tom Kettle, a barrister and professor of national economics at UCD, was killed leading his Dublin Fusiliers at Ginchy during the Somme campaign on September 9, 1916. He died for “a dream born in a herdsman’s shed”.

Tom Kettle was killed during the Somme campaign.
Tom Kettle was killed during the Somme campaign.

Whether they were messenger boys, student engineers, or barristers, these three Irish men never fulfilled their potential. What they could have achieved and contributed to Ireland and the world had there not been a war, sadly we will never know. And we Irish did not have the monopoly on the loss of such potential. Just think of all the German or Turkish poets, doctors, and indeed messenger boys who never fulfilled their dreams or potential either.

The Irish men who came back to Ireland at the end of their war in 1918, one estimate being 150,000, and indeed the nursing women, came home to an Ireland that had politically changed. Their place in Irish history travelled a journey from initially keeping their heads down during the War of Independence to years of holding their heads up at annual remembrance parades, to fading away, to being reborn.

I would argue their fall from Irish memory in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, paralleled with the demise of the National War Memorial at Islandbridge, was partly due to the natural process of ageing along with the often fractious relationship between Ireland and the UK, particularly during the years of the so-called Troubles, resulting in neglect in Irish historiography.

‘We honour them all now’

I HAVE often compared the death and rebirth in memory of the Irish men and women who took part in that dreadful conflict to the letters, postcards, and old trinkets that we put in shoe boxes and biscuit tins dumped in our attics, dead and forgotten; to be discovered by a new generation and placed in our window boxes in the front window, a place we show off the trinkets of which we are proud.

Their death and rebirth in memory may also be analogous to the dereliction of Islandbridge in the 1960s and ’70s and its redevelopment and restoration as a national monument in the late 1980s.

That rebirth is also expressed in the growth of interest in Ireland’s participation in the First World War through the creation of history societies such as The Royal Dublin Fusiliers Association, public exhibitions and seminars, new books, and Irish people visiting the battlefields of France, Flanders, Gallipoli, and Salonicka.

Enhancing that process of rebirth is successive Irish governments’ participation in remembrance projects such as at Messines in 1998 at the opening of the Irish Peace Park and The Somme commemorations at Thiepval in July 2016, all of which have contributed to the Irish peace process.

In fact, there is a line, thin and often damaged as it may be, that represents successive Irish governments’ respectful recognition of the Irish participation in the First World War. A line that linked Kevin O’Higgins in 1927 when he stated he had “respectful admiration… for the men who went out to France and fought there and died there, believing that by doing so they were serving the best interests of their country”.

To Michel D Higgins in July 2014 when he stated: “We cannot give back their lives to the dead, nor whole bodies to those who were wounded, or repair the grief, undo the disrespect that was sometimes shown to those who fought or their families. But we honour them all now, even if at a distance.

“To all of them in their silence we offer our own silence, without judgement, and with respect for their ideals, as they knew them, and for the humanity they expressed towards each other. And we offer our sorrow too that they and their families were not given the compassion and the understanding over the decades that they should have received.

“The suffering visited upon our own people at home had perhaps blinded our sight and hardened hearts in so many ways.”

Train stations and railway lines across the world have been associated with the horror of war, such as the train station at Auschwitz, or the railway line built by Allied POWs across Burma.

The quiet train station at Le Cateau may not be as famous as Auschwitz or Burma, but lest we forget, it is a little-known reminder of the tragedy of the war that was supposed to end all wars 100 years ago this week.

Music student James Stone lead a commemorative walk at UCD yesterday, remembering the 488 staff, students, and graduates who served in the First World War. Picture: Jason Clarke
Music student James Stone lead a commemorative walk at UCD yesterday, remembering the 488 staff, students, and graduates who served in the First World War. Picture: Jason Clarke

TIMELINE: 1914-1918

June 28, 1914 - Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austria-Hungarian throne, is shot dead in Sarajevo by a political dissident.

July 20, 1914 - Austria-Hungary sends troops to the Serbian border.

July 25, 1914 - Serbia and Russia mobilise their armies.

July 28, 1914 - Austria-Hungary declares war on Serbia.

August 1, 1914 - Germany declares war on Russia.

August 3, 1914 - Germany invades Belgium.

August 4, 1914 - Britain declares war on Germany after they invade Belgium.

August 12, 1914 - Britain declares war on Austria-Hungary.

August 23, 1914 - Japan declares war on Germany and British Army troops see their first land action in the Battle of Mons.

October 19, 1914 - First battle of Ypres begins as Allied and German troops attempt to reach sea ports in Belgium.

November 5, 1914 - Britain and the Ottoman Empire declare war on each other.

December 16, 1914 - German battleships bombard Hartlepool, Whitby and Scarborough, killing 137 civilians.

April 25, 1915 - Allied troops land at Gallipoli under heavy fire.

May 7, 1915 - German U-boat torpedoes British liner Lusitania, drowning around 1,200 people.

May 31, 1915 - The first Zeppelin raid on London kills seven.

September 25, 1915 - Battle of Loos begins and the British forces use gas for the first time, however wind blows it back onto their own troops, killing seven and injuring 2,625.

September 27, 1915 - The third day of the Battle of Loos sees the highest British death toll of any battle so far, with 8,246 men being killed.

February 21, 1916 - The Battle of Verdun, which causes almost a million casualties over 10 months, begins.

July 1, 1916 - The Battle of the Somme begins, with 750,000 Allied soldiers going over the top of their trenches.

March 15, 1917 - Tsar Nicholas II abdicates as Moscow falls to the Russian Revolution.

April 6, 1917 - America declares war on Germany and begins to mobilise troops immediately.

November 10, 1917 - The Battle of Passchendaele ends with the Allies having advanced five miles and suffering half a million casualties.

March 3, 1918 - The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk sees Russia agree a peace deal with Germany and its allies.

July 18, 1917 - Britain’s royal family drops its Germanic name Saxe-Coburg-Gotha in favour of Windsor.

October 29, 1918 - Sailors in the German High Seas Fleet mutiny and refuse to fight the Royal Navy.

November 8, 1918 - Armistice negotiations begin.

November 9, 1918 - The King of Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm II, abdicates and flees to Holland.

November 11, 1918 - 5:00am: The Armistice is signed, ending the war between Germany and the Allies.

10:59am: Henry Gunther, a US soldier of German descent, is the last man to be killed in action in World War 1.

11:00am: The Armistice comes into effect.

June 28, 1919 - The Treaty of Versailles is signed.

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