They’re Irishmen (and boys). How could we disown them?
by Neale Richmond As we mark the centenary of the end of the Great War tomorrow...
ON St Patrick’s Day in 1914, the rugby team from my old school, Wesley College, played in the final of the Leinster Senior Cup in Lansdowne Road. The following September, every single player from that team returned to Lansdowne – but not to play rugby. This time they came to enlist: to fight in what was called ‘the Great War’.
Four of them would never return. All four of the boys who died were just 19 years old when their mothers received the telegrams informing them that their sons had been killed.
Three of them died in 1916, one year after enlisting in the army.
Lieutenant Dickie Davis from Drogheda was killed in the Battle of Dujaila near Kut in Iraq in March 1916; Lt William Green from Portadown, a member of the Royal Irish Rifles, died at the Battle of the Somme but his body was never recovered; William Rudd from Roscrea was one of 242 members of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers who died on November 13, 1916, at the Battle of the Ancre near the Somme. Lt Frederick Dowling from Clontarf, meanwhile, was also a member of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, and although he survived the Battle of the Somme, he was killed at Ypres in 1917. His body was never recovered, but his name is inscribed on the memorial at the Menin Gate.
When I lived in Belgium for two years, I had the opportunity to visit a number of the historic battlefields, the memorials such as the Menin Gate, and the many, many graveyards that are strewn across Belgium and France – the final resting place of so many young men.
Yesterday, I had the honour of delivering the annual Armistice Assembly at Wesley College, in Dublin’s Ballinteer. Over the course of the Great War, some 86 boys who had attended the school made the ultimate sacrifice. On average, the school’s wartime principal – whose own son had enlisted – announced the death of a past pupil every fortnight.
These were all pupils who had just left Wesley, brothers and friends of those who were still there, attending classes, playing sport and still being children. More than 600 boys who had left the school went to fight in the Great War.
These past pupils from Wesley College were really no different to the young men I stand beside on the Luas nowadays, on their way into college, posting updates on Instagram or Snapchat of their nights out and trips away. Just imagine how horrific the Instagram stories would have been from the Western Front.
APART from my Wesley connections, I also have family associations that reach right back to the trenches of World War One. Two of my grand-uncles were killed on the Western Front. The first one to die was Leo Charles Richmond, known as Charlie. From Cavan, Charlie Richmond fought with the 2nd Batallion of the Irish Guards and he lost his life, as thousands of other men did, at the Battle of Somme, dying from his wounds on November 19, 1916, the very day after the Somme offensive officially ended.
Family details about Charlie Richmond’s life are somewhat sketchy, but a bit more is known about my other granduncle who also, sadly, never made it home. Robert Richmond was also from Cavan, from Belturbet, and at the outbreak of the war in 1914 he travelled North and joined the 9th Battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. Mainly made up of men from Co. Tyrone, this battalion landed in France as part of the 109th Brigade in the 36th (Ulster) Division in October 1915, ready to serve on the Western Front. My grand-uncle was killed in action on October 20, 1918, less than a month before the war’s end. He was just 30 years old and is buried at the Harlebeke Cemetery in Belgium.
At ceremonies across the country tomorrow, many of us will pause on the 11th hour of the 11th day to remember the centenary of the Armistice that ended the Great War. Great, not because it was something worth celebrating, but because the length of the war and the scale of the loss of life was so great, and unlike anything that went before.
Over the course of this bloody conflict, with battles that raged mainly in Western Europe for over four years, more than 16million soldiers and civilians died in what was supposed to be the war to end all wars. Amongst that number stand 50,000 Irish men, my granduncles among them, and with so many of the dead really no more than boys. Over 8,000 of those who died came from Dublin, including three brothers from Kilternan in what is now my home constituency of Dublin Rathdown.
One-hundred years ago tomorrow, the guns of the Great War finally fell silent and the many families impacted by this conflict began to try to come to terms with the horrible effects of this war.
They lost husbands, sons and fathers – both physically on the
battlefield, but also mentally, as so many soldiers returned home permanently broken by this horrendous conflict, diagnosed with crippling shell shock or with what has nowadays been identified as posttraumatic stress disorder.
However, here in Ireland, due to the rapidly changing political climate of the time, many did not come home as heroes or even as pitiful souls.
Instead they returned as traitors forced to hide their war service, their pain, their grief. Families were afraid to openly mourn the loss of their loved ones and ever so quickly the nascent Irish State began to write out of history the legacy of the 200,000 Irish who went off to fight in this war.
For some of us, we were raised to remember. Our schools, sports clubs and churches bore large memorials to the memory of those who fell.
The tales of family members who went off on what, at the time, was sold as a great adventure were retold over and over again, albeit in the privacy of the family home.
From my own family, with its war legacy of Charlie and Robert Richmond, and that of my other two grand-uncles who were lucky enough to make it back home, details may have faded over time, but some effort was always made to keep their names alive. My aunt still speaks of her four uncles – the two who returned and the two who never made it home again.
The story of my grand-uncles is, quite frankly, somewhat alien to me. I don’t understand what they felt or even how their death was conveyed to heartbroken family members.
The world today is incomparable to that of 100 years ago, and as time passes, there is a temptation to allow those memories to fade. But if we let this happen, we risk the possibility of repeating the same mistakes that led to such a conflict. It is therefore important not to celebrate but to properly commemorate those who fought and fell in the Great War and to try to imagine what the people of Ireland went through at the time.
Today it is extremely hard for us to imagine how awful life must have been for those who fought during the Great War.
Apart from living under the permanent threat of being sent up out of the trenches and over the top to charge into the fire of machine guns, life in the trenches themselves was absolutely terrible. Squalid conditions that were wet and cold, wading through sodden ground made up of mud, excrement and some of the casualties of war, while also constantly alive to the possibilities of attack by shells, mustard gas or the advancing enemy.
For too long, these experiences and the Irish contribution to this conflict were simply airbrushed out of our collective history.
Memorials were allowed to decay or were taken down while, in our schools, history teachers simply skirted over the details in the course of a solitary lesson.
Remembrance services were private affairs, while the wearing of the poppy was simply not done on the streets of Dublin, Cork, Limerick or anywhere else in this State.
Painstaking work by many brave historians and writers as well as efforts by politicians such as the late Paddy Harte, or, indeed, today by my colleague Senator Frank Feighan, have come some way to bringing the commemoration of the Great War back into the public consciousness.
We are now in a very difficult decade of commemorations as we mark the centenary anniversaries of so many events that shaped the fortunes of our small country. Nothing about this period will be easy, nothing will be straightforward and nothing will be simple. However, it is vital that we do remember and that we remember everything.
By doing so we can take true stock of where we are as a country, and of where we want to go.
SO it is important, therefore, that we remember the 200,000 young Irish men and boys who fought in the Great War, just as much as we remember those who fought in the 1916 Rising, in the War of Independence, and in the Civil War. They are all part of our history.
For too long, it was accepted that those who made the ultimate sacrifice on the largest possible global stage could simply be forgotten, and that we could dismiss too those who sought to remember them.
If we truly value our status as an open and tolerant republic, then we must remember those Irish people who gave their lives in the Great War. The schoolboys who ran out on that Lansdowne pitch in the spring of 1914, little knowing that by the end of the year they would find themselves facing the unspeakable horrors of the Western Front. Or young men such as my own grand-uncles, Charlie and Robert Richmond, who left these shores for Flanders’ fields, never to return.
This weekend’s centenary marking the end of World War I is a massive event. We must mark it well, and we must use it to remember. To remember all those men and boys who paid with their lives and who sacrificed their today for our tomorrow.
Senator Neale Richmond is the Fine Gael spokesman on European affairs and the chairman of the Seanad’s Brexit Committee.
Courage: Every player from the Wesley team of 1914 enlisted for the war
Never forgotten: Memorial to the fallen Robert Richmond