Fo­rum Big Read

From shoe box to win­dow box, Tom Burke re­calls the jour­ney of Ire­land’s First World War sol­diers on eve of the cen­te­nary of the Novem­ber 11, 1918, armistice

Irish Examiner - - Front Page -

From shoe box to win­dow box, Tom Burke re­calls the jour­ney of Ire­land’s First World War sol­diers on eve of the cen­te­nary of the Novem­ber 11, 1918, armistice.

ON Au­gust 24, 1914, the 2nd Bat­tal­ion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers ar­rived at the train sta­tion in the north­ern French town of Le Cateau.

Late that evening, they fired their first shots in the First World War against ad­vanc­ing Ger­man cavalry scouts. The pre­vi­ous day, they had dis­em­barked from the troop ship SS Cale­do­nia at the port of Boulogne to which they had sailed from Southamp­ton.

A lit­tle over four years later on Oc­to­ber 17, 1918, the same 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers were back fight­ing the Ger­mans near the train sta­tion at Le Cateau.

In be­tween those dates, the lines along the West­ern Front moved back­wards and for­wards like the bel­lows of a melodeon with net gains on ei­ther side of the wire amount­ing to lit­tle or noth­ing.

The loss of life achiev­ing those fruit­less move­ments re­sulted in the deaths of some 9.7m mil­i­tary per­son­nel. Civil­ian deaths amounted to a sim­i­lar neat num­ber. If ever there was a sym­bol that rep­re­sents the fu­tilely of war and the tragedy of the First World War in par­tic­u­lar, it is that quiet and now rarely used train sta­tion in Le Cateau.

The First World War was a civil­ian’s war. The Ir­ish men who en­listed into Kitch­ener’s Ir­ish in­fantry di­vi­sions and women who served as vol­un­teers in the Red Cross and John’s Am­bu­lance Bri­gades came from a cross-sec­tion of so­ci­ety.

Men en­listed for a va­ri­ety of rea­sons, as nu­mer­ous as the men who en­listed. Some joined up out of eco­nomic ne­ces­sity. It is no co­in­ci­dence the high­est num­ber of Dublin Fusiliers who died in the war came from the ten­e­ment build­ings and laneway cot­tages of Dublin’s in­ner city; essen­tially from be­tween the canals.

Oth­ers en­listed for ad­ven­ture, and oth­ers driven by po­lit­i­cal ide­ol­ogy. The re­cruit­ment tac­tics used to en­tice men from sports clubs, so­ci­eties, and work­places into Pals bat­tal­ions such as the 7th and 10th Royal Dublin Fusiliers, worked well for the re­cruit­ing sergeants. “Come along with your Pal” was the re­cruit­ing call.

How­ever, when the killing and maim­ing started in bat­tles with fa­mil­iar names such as The Marne in 1914, Gal­lipoli in 1915, The Somme in 1916, Pass­chen­daele in 1917, and the Ger­man and Al­lied of­fen­sives of 1918, the tragic con­se­quences of the Pals re­cruit­ing tac­tics re­sulted in the de­struc­tion of the sports clubs, work groups, and friends — the build­ing blocks of the so­ci­eties from whence they came.

Al­most ev­ery town and vil­lage had its share of ca­su­al­ties. In­deed, war and rev­o­lu­tion com­bined to hit some fam­i­lies with par­tic­u­lar vengeance.

Mrs McDon­ald from Bride St in Dublin lost her three sons dur­ing April and May 1915 as a re­sult of a Ger­man gas at­tack on the Dublin Fusiliers north of Ypres.

Mrs Mal­one lost one son, Wil­lie, in the same gas at­tack. A year later, an­other of her sons, Michael, was killed fight­ing with the Ir­ish Vol­un­teers dur­ing the 1916 Easter Ris­ing on Northum­ber­land Rd in Dublin.

Mrs Kent from Cork lost her son, Ea­mon, as a re­sult of the same Easter Ris­ing. In April 1917, she lost her other son, Bill, a sergeant in the 1st Royal Dublin Fusiliers dur­ing the Bat­tle of Ar­ras.

Had I been the fa­ther of any of th­ese young men who died, I know what I would have said to those who claimed him to suit their own ide­ol­ogy. I would have said: “To hell with your wars and rev­o­lu­tions, they have cost me my fam­ily.”

AFURTHER hu­man tragedy of the First World War and in­deed all wars through the loss of life or in­jury was the loss of un­ful­filled hu­man po­ten­tial. What could the thou­sands of wasted lives have con­trib­uted to the world around them had they lived?

John Boland was a 19-year-old mes­sen­ger boy from Rus­sel St in Dublin. He en­listed in 1913, the year of the Gen­eral Lock­out, and was killed in Au­gust 1914 with the 2nd Dublins at the Bat­tle of Le Cateau.

Michael Wall was also a 19-year-old lad from Car­rick Hill in Port­marnock, north county Dublin. He en­listed for ad­ven­ture per­haps tinged with a hint of pa­tri­otic duty to king and coun­try.

He was on his way to UCD to study sci­ence or en­gi­neer­ing but de­cided to en­list in­stead. He was killed with his com­mand­ing of­fi­cer, the Ir­ish Par­lia­men­tary Party MP, Ma­jor Wil­lie Red­mond, at the Bat­tle of Messines on June 7, 1917.

Tom Ket­tle, a bar­ris­ter and pro­fes­sor of na­tional eco­nomics at UCD, was killed lead­ing his Dublin Fusiliers at Ginchy dur­ing the Somme cam­paign on Septem­ber 9, 1916. He died for “a dream born in a herds­man’s shed”.

Whether they were mes­sen­ger boys, stu­dent en­gi­neers, or bar­ris­ters, th­ese three Ir­ish men never ful­filled their po­ten­tial. What they could have achieved and con­trib­uted to Ire­land and the world had there not been a war, sadly we will never know. And we Ir­ish did not have the monopoly on the loss of such po­ten­tial. Just think of all the Ger­man or Turk­ish po­ets, doc­tors, and in­deed mes­sen­ger boys who never ful­filled their dreams or po­ten­tial ei­ther.

The Ir­ish men who came back to Ire­land at the end of their war in 1918, one es­ti­mate be­ing 150,000, and in­deed the nurs­ing women, came home to an Ire­land that had po­lit­i­cally

changed. Their place in Ir­ish his­tory trav­elled a jour­ney from ini­tially keep­ing their heads down dur­ing the War of In­de­pen­dence to years of hold­ing their heads up at an­nual re­mem­brance pa­rades, to fad­ing away, to be­ing reborn.

I would ar­gue their fall from Ir­ish mem­ory in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, par­al­leled with the demise of the Na­tional War Me­mo­rial at Is­land­bridge, was partly due to the nat­u­ral process of age­ing along with the of­ten frac­tious re­la­tion­ship be­tween Ire­land and the UK, par­tic­u­larly dur­ing the years of the so-called Trou­bles, re­sult­ing in ne­glect in Ir­ish his­to­ri­og­ra­phy.

IHAVE of­ten com­pared the death and re­birth in mem­ory of the Ir­ish men and women who took part in that dread­ful con­flict to the let­ters, post­cards, and old trin­kets that we put in shoe boxes and bis­cuit tins dumped in our at­tics, dead and for­got­ten; to be dis­cov­ered by a new gen­er­a­tion and placed in our win­dow boxes in the front win­dow, a place we show off the trin­kets of which we are proud.

Their death and re­birth in mem­ory may also be anal­o­gous to the dere­lic­tion of Is­land­bridge in the 1960s and ’70s and its re­de­vel­op­ment and restora­tion as a na­tional mon­u­ment in the late 1980s.

That re­birth is also ex­pressed in the growth of in­ter­est in Ire­land’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in the First World War through the cre­ation of his­tory so­ci­eties such as The Royal Dublin Fusiliers As­so­ci­a­tion, pub­lic ex­hi­bi­tions and sem­i­nars, new books, and Ir­ish peo­ple vis­it­ing the bat­tle­fields of France, Flan­ders, Gal­lipoli, and Salonicka.

En­hanc­ing that process of re­birth is suc­ces­sive Ir­ish gov­ern­ments’ par­tic­i­pa­tion in re­mem­brance projects such as at Messines in 1998 at the open­ing of the Ir­ish Peace Park and The Somme com­mem­o­ra­tions at Thiep­val in July 2016, all of which have con­trib­uted to the Ir­ish peace process.

In fact, there is a line, thin and of­ten dam­aged as it may be, that rep­re­sents suc­ces­sive Ir­ish gov­ern­ments’ re­spect­ful recog­ni­tion of the Ir­ish par­tic­i­pa­tion in the First World War. A line that linked Kevin O’Hig­gins in 1927 when he stated he had “re­spect­ful ad­mi­ra­tion… for the men who went out to France and fought there and died there, be­liev­ing that by do­ing so they were serv­ing the best in­ter­ests of their coun­try”.

To Michel D Hig­gins in July 2014 when he stated: “We can­not give back their lives to the dead, nor whole bod­ies to those who were wounded, or re­pair the grief, undo the dis­re­spect that was some­times shown to those who fought or their fam­i­lies. But we hon­our them all now, even if at a dis­tance.

“To all of them in their si­lence we of­fer our own si­lence, with­out judge­ment, and with re­spect for their ideals, as they knew them, and for the hu­man­ity they ex­pressed to­wards each other. And we of­fer our sor­row too that they and their fam­i­lies were not given the com­pas­sion and the un­der­stand­ing over the decades that they should have re­ceived.

“The suf­fer­ing vis­ited upon our own peo­ple at home had per­haps blinded our sight and hard­ened hearts in so many ways.”

Train sta­tions and rail­way lines across the world have been as­so­ci­ated with the hor­ror of war, such as the train sta­tion at Auschwitz, or the rail­way line built by Al­lied POWs across Burma.

The quiet train sta­tion at Le Cateau may not be as fa­mous as Auschwitz or Burma, but lest we for­get, it is a lit­tle-known re­minder of the tragedy of the war that was sup­posed to end all wars 100 years ago this week.

Tom Burke, chair­man, The Royal Dublin Fusiliers As­so­ci­a­tion, Oc­to­ber 11, 2018.

Top, a medic as­sist­ing a wounded Ir­ish Guards­man in a trench. This im­age was taken by Fr Fran­cis Browne SJ, who min­is­tered to the troops at The Somme, Messines Ridge, Pass­chen­daele, Ypres, Amiens, and Ar­ras. Left and right, posters urg­ing Ir­ish­men to en­list. ‘Come along with your Pal’ was the re­cruit­ing call that en­ticed Ir­ish­men from their sports clubs, so­ci­eties, and work­places.

Pic­ture: Ja­son Clarke

Mu­sic stu­dent James Stone lead a com­mem­o­ra­tive walk at UCD yes­ter­day, re­mem­ber­ing the 488 staff, stu­dents, and grad­u­ates who served in the First World War.

Tom Ket­tle, above, was killed dur­ing the Somme cam­paign, and Michael Wall, be­low, died at the Bat­tle of Messines.

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