Ferris visits Word War I graves in Ypres
TEENAGER JOINED BRITISH ARMY AND FOUGHT IN THE GREAT WAR
PRIVATE JOSEPH Brien from Little Bray was one of the young men who died in World War I, with their remains never brought home.
Private Brien died on the battlefield from wounds he received in September 1918.
Deputy Anne Ferris, a member of the Oireachtas Commemoration Committee, travelled to Ypres in Belgium this month to visit the grave of Private Brien and some other Wicklow men who died there.
‘He enlisted on St Patrick’s Day 1915, which I understand to be just five days after his 19th birthday,’ said Deputy Ferris. ‘Nineteen was the minimum age for enlistment to go overseas. This young man who had probably never travelled any further than Dublin on the train from Bray was immediately sent to fight in France,’ she said.
‘ Tens of thousands of young men like him signed up out of a sense of adventure. Many, like Joe Brien, were Catholics from very modest backgrounds. Some were nationalists who enlisted in hope of Ireland gaining self-governance after the war, some were unionists but I suspect that the vast majority were young people curious to see places beyond Ireland. Most were taking what they believed to be a step out of poverty.’
Joseph’s brother Michael was a year older and also joined up. Michael died first, in France in August 1916.
By then the political scene in Ireland was changing. The execution of the 1916 Rising leaders had hardened attitudes at home. The world war which many had expected to end quickly was into its second year.
Many soldiers and their families were beginning to question the sense of sending so many young men to their deaths on foreign battlefields. For many of the young men the adventure was turning into a horror story, with their comrades and friends lying dead and wounded around them.
‘It is very clear from the records that Private Joseph Brien suffered a great deal during the war,’ said Deputy Ferris. ‘He was hospitalised on at least four occasions, first with shellshock shortly after he arrived in France, later with physical injuries.’
On one such occasion when suffering from a leg injury, he managed to be transferred to the Princess Patricia Hospital in Bray.
‘It must have been a great relief for his parents Mary and Michael to have him close by for that six week period in 1917. They were to see him just once more before his death when he returned on leave for a week in April 1918.
‘During that week in 1918 there was an incident with a superior officer which ironically almost saved his life. I can just imagine the sense of frustration that this young man felt more three years into a senseless war that resulted in 16 million deaths and 20 million injured people. He struck the superior officer. In the official record it seems that the physical act was considered secondary to the offence of using insubordinate language towards a senior officer. I can only imagine what he said.
‘Private Brien was convicted before a military court and received a sentence of 12 months detention for his words and actions. Had he served that sentence he would have been spared from a worse fate.
‘I can imagine that under these circumstances his mother would have been pleased to see him in prison,’ said Deputy Ferris. ‘What mother would want to return him to the battle- fields which had already claimed the life of another son who was buried in faraway France?’
But Brien served just weeks of his prison sentence when he was suddenly released and compulsorily transferred to a different regiment fighting in Ypres and to what would turn out to be a death sentence.
‘By all accounts the situation was pretty desperate in Ypres. According to the records, on the morning that Joe Brien was fatally wounded his battalion had no food. The army diary discloses that the men were sent out to fight in the cold without any breakfast because rations had become so depleted.’
Joe Brien died of his wounds, in Ypres on a cold day in early October 1918 barely a month before the end of the war.
He is buried in a graveyard close to where he died.
He wasn’t the only young Wicklow man to be fatally wounded in that battle. Another young Catholic man, Patrick Kinsella aged 30 from Woodenbridge also lost his life with Joe Brien. But unlike Joe Brien, his body was not found.
‘As we enter this period of commemoration from 1914 to 1922, I believe it is important not to idealise war,’ said Deputy Ferris. ‘World War I had a devastating effect on families in County Wicklow for generations.
‘Often the pain was hidden and borne silently because of the domestic political situation. Yet there is not a town or village in Wicklow that wasn’t affected by that terrible war. It is important for the 20 year olds of today to recognise the madness of conflict. That is part of the reason why I made this visit to Private Brien.’
Above: Soliders in the trenches during the horrors of World War I. Below: The cemetery at Ypres in Belgium where Private Joseph Brien from Little Bray is buried. Right: Deputy Anne Ferris at the memorial wall in Ypres.