The bravery of the amateur soliders of Gallipoli must be acknowledged

When I was a teenager, most of my musical tastes were different from those of my parents, but there was one act we all loved. That was Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy.

The bravery of the amateur soliders of Gallipoli must be acknowledged

The highlight of their live show was Liam singing ‘And the band played Waltzing Matilda’, a song about a young Australian soldier at Gallipoli during the First World War.

Until this week, I thought it was only soldiers from Australia and New Zealand who fought in Gallipoli, but there were also thousands of Irish soldiers.

David Davin-Power, from RTÉ, produced an amazing documentary about the battle and I would encourage you to view it on the RTÉ Player. Watching it, I felt a range of emotions — sadness at the horrors of war, admiration for the bravery of these men, and gratitude that I never had to go through a war like that.

In 1915, Ireland was still part of the British Empire and the push for Irish independence was strong. Many thousands of Irish men volunteered, believing that it would help with the push for independence. The men who signed up were ‘amateur soldiers’— farmers and bank clerks, who had never held a gun in their lives. There were Cosgraves from Cork, Purcells from Tipperary, and Powers from Dublin. Many of these men played rugby together.

They signed up thinking they would be sent to France and they got some basic training in England. In a change of strategy, Churchill decided to attack Turkey and then move onto Germany.

Some of the postcards were sent from the boats on the way to Turkey and the soldiers wrote of giving the Turks a ‘bloody nose’. Little did these poor men know what awaited them.

The boats that were meant to drop the men on the beaches could not get close enough and the men were pushed into deep water while carrying 60 pounds on their back. Many were drowned and never made it ashore.

Those that made the beach were met with rows of machines guns up high on the hills and they were gunned down in their thousands. So many were killed that survivors spoke of the sea and sand turning red with their blood.

Liam Clancy’s song was right in so many sections: “We were butchered like lambs at the slaughter”, he sang, and they were.

Those who survived the beach ended up in shallow trenches, as the ground was too hard to go down further and the Turkish snipers had a field day.

The conditions were horrendous, with rotting bodies in the heat, flies and very little food or water. Plus, soldiers had to watch their comrades being shot by snipers and not know if they would be next.

One regiment, from Galway, arrived to a trench full of rotting bodies. The regiment’s first job was to separate Turks from Allies, carry the bodies out and bury them. What an introduction to war for these farmers and clerks.

Strategically and logistically, Gallipoli was a disaster. Winston Churchill was one of the main architects and his reputation somehow survived, and he went on to be an inspirational leader during World War 2. Maybe key lessons were learnt from Gallipoli? Kitchener visited Gallipoli, saw it was a disaster and ordered a withdrawal. One of the last men out was a doctor from Dublin.

Some lucky ones survived the battle because they were injured and sent back home for recuperation. Not sure how lucky they were, as the survivors suffered from shellshock for the rest of their lives. Many turned to drink to forget the horrors witnessed and others never spoke about the war.

The human body and mind is not designed to witness those horrors.

David Davin-Power’s own grandfather survived Gallipoli, only to be killed in London during a bombing raid in 1941. Davin-Power’s documentary was a great act of public service, as these men deserve to be remembered.

3,000 Irish men died at Gallipoli. Remarkably, this is more than the number from New Zealand who died.

Over 150,000 Irish people died in both world wars, including my uncle, who served with the US Navy during the Second World War

When I was growing up, I could never understand how my country did not acknowledge or commemorate these brave men properly. Only now is that starting to happen.

Of course, I understand that after Irish independence everything British was uncool and most of these people died fighting for the British Army, but that was 100 years ago.

It’s time we, as a country and as a people, acknowledged the men and women who died so bravely, so that we can all have a better life today.

It’s the least they deserve.

Neil O’Brien

Oakmount

Tower

Co. Cork

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