The Avondhu - By The Fireside
FOUGHT IN WW1
Thomas O’Dea from Mitchelstown died 100 years ago in a Civil War engagement in County Kilkenny fighting with the Republicans as a machine gunner. Thomas is buried in Old Brigown graveyard under a fine Celtic Cross headstone commemorating his life. Although only 26 years old when he passed, Thomas had been involved in three wars being a soldier of note. Certainly, a life worth exploring further.
Thomas O’Dea was born at Robert Street, Mitchelstown on May 12th, 1896 to John and Agnes O’Dea. His father John, a baker working in Mitchelstown, had been married previously to Kate O’Halloran of Ballinwillin in 1878 who unfortunately died a year later, aged only 25. John re-married 14 years later in 1892 to Agnes Walsh, who at the time was working in Mitchelstown, but was from Waterford city, her father John being a tailor. The first born came the following year and in thirteen years, seven children were born at Robert Street. However, by the time the last arrival Walter was born in 1905, two children had already died Mary Kate aged 5 in 1893 and John aged 1 in 1897. Unfortunately, at the time, this was a common occurrence, and Mitchelstown was no different in this respect.
And indeed, more tragedy was to follow only 6 years later in 1911, Agnes O’Dea’s husband John passed away from a heart attack in 1908 in his mid-40’s and the second named daughter Mary Kate passed away in 1911 aged 10, from meningitis. Agnes was now widowed aged 45 with 3 children and this no doubt led to Thomas leaving school early and taking an apprenticeship in his early teens as a baker in Mitchelstown, following in his father’s footsteps and indeed his grandfather, Thomas O’Dea’s footsteps, who was also a baker.
Aged 18, Thomas joined the British Army in 1914, like many young Irishmen at the time influenced by both economics and the Irish Parliamentary Party exhortations to enlist into the British Army and assist in its fight in WW1, this being promoted primarily by its party leader John Redmond. Whichever influenced Thomas in his decision making, we will never know, but by now due to family circumstances he was the main income source for his mother and three siblings.
Thomas joined the Royal Irish Regiment and while initially based in Devonport, England the regiment was mobilised for war and landed in Boulogne, France in August 1914. The brutality of WW1 is well documented, with combat and civilian deaths surpassing 14 million and the Royal Irish Regiment’s efforts mirrored this involvement in battling at the Western Front for 4 years, gaining at times minuscule territory with a horrendous number of casualties, only to lose it again.
The regiment saw action on the Western Front in 1915 and in 1916 at The Battles of Albert and Le Transloy in northeast France. 1917 saw The Battles of Messines and Langemark, followed in 1918 by The Battles of Albert (again), Bapaume, Drocourt-Queant, Canal du Nord, St Quentin, Cambrai, Grand Honelle and the Final Advance to Picardy, the majority which were part of the Hundred Day Offensive that ultimately ended the war on November 11th, 1918. At this stage Thomas’s regiment had reached Spiennes, south of Mons, Belgium close to the French border.
While Thomas O’Dea would have seen service in most of these battles, two stand out for different reasons: Messines for the brutality of war and Canal du Nord for Thomas’s bravery. The Battle of Messines itself took place from 7th to 14th June, 1917 resulting in the capture of the 16km Wytschaete-Messines high ridge by the British forces from the German forces. A year in planning, the British had dug 22 tunnels, the longest being 658 metres under the German lines to the ridge itself. At 3:10am on 7th June, 1917, 19 of the mines exploded in a 30 second period which comprised 400 tonnes of explosive. The resultant explosion registered on Swiss seismographs and was heard as far away as Dublin. The explosion resulted in 10,000 of the German forces being killed instantly. Thomas O’Dea would have been one of the soldiers that went over the top after the explosion.
Battle after battle ensued for the remainder of 1917 and into 1918. The Battle of the Canal du Nord was fought over 5 days from 27th September to 1st October, 1918, on the first day Thomas’s unit had advanced towards Graincourt-lésHavrincourt, a farming village with a population just over 600 in the north of France, close to the Belgian border. As the company advanced over the last ridge, they met severe German gunfire, and this is where Thomas O’Dea’s courage came to the fore. It is best quote the London Gazette entry in January 1920 which documents Thomas’s bravery, “On the 27th September 1918, during the attack on the Sugar factory near Graincourt, he displayed marked courage, coolness and devotion to duty. When his company advanced to the attack over the last ridge, it was met with extremely severe machine-gun fire, and a great many casualties occurred. He unhesitatingly went forward, and pulled several badly wounded men into shell holes, dressing them as he did so. He behaved splendidly.”
For this 5640 Private Thomas O’Dea, 2nd Battalion, Royal Irish Regiment (Mitchelstown) was awarded The Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM), the second highest bravery award.
The advance continued and WW1 ended on November 11th, 1918 where Thomas’s company ended the war in Belgium. Thomas was demobilised from the British Army and returned home to Mitchelstown.
LIFE MOVES ON
While Thomas was away for the 5 years fighting the war, his sister Ellen passed away in 1915 aged 20 and the following year, his brother James passed away aged only 16 years. Of the 9 that once occupied the O’Dea