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...

Irish Daily Mail - - News -

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

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