Fer­ris vis­its Word War I graves in Ypres

TEENAGER JOINED BRI­TISH ARMY AND FOUGHT IN THE GREAT WAR

Bray People - - NEWS -

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.

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