He was the youngest Allied soldier to die in the war and he joined up voluntarily... there was no conscription
THE IRISHMEN WHO GAVE THEIR LIVES 100YRS AGO
HE was born in Waterford city in 1901. He died 13 years later and a thousand miles away in a field of mud and blood in Belgium. John Condon is said to be the youngest Allied soldier killed in action in the First World War – and one of 49,500 Irishmen who perished in the four-year conflict.
His headstone in Poelcappelle Cemetery, Belgium, is the most visited of all the memorials to those killed in WW1.
And it reminds us the 100th anniversary of the end of the war should mean just as much to Ireland as it does to Britain, France, the US, Germany and the other participants.
What is even more astonishing is none of the 210,000 Irishmen who served with the British forces had to do it. There was no conscription. Instead, they volunteered for a variety of reasons.
WW1 researcher Austin Cheevers said: “There was a lot of poverty at the time so people joined up because it was a job and they would get fed and clothed.
“There was also a tradition of Irishmen fighting in the British Army long before the First World War.
“Some did it for glory and adventure. People rarely left their own village so to go to Europe was a big plus.
“Some saw the bigger picture, that Germany was a threat to the whole of Europe. And others did it for political reasons. John Redmond believed if a lot of nationalists fought for Britain they would advance the cause for Home Rule.”
It was probably for glory and adventure John signed up. He had two brothers and two sisters and all the males were employed. He himself had a job at Sullivan’s Bottling Stores in the city.
William “Sonny” Condon, whose father was a cousin and friend of John, said: “He always wanted to be a soldier.
“He used to play hurling and use the hurl as a rifle and he said when he was old enough, he’d become a soldier.”
So on October 24, 1913, he turned up at the recruiting office for the Royal Irish Regiment, took the oath and signed up for six years. He gave his age as 18.
Legend claims he was actually five years younger and his medical form, completed at the time, shows he was average height for a 13-year-old – about 5ft 3ins. At 8st 4lbs, he was only slightly heavier.
John joined a reserve battalion of part-time soldiers who could be called up fulltime in the event of war.
His training lasted four months and he returned home at the end of February 1914. More instruction followed in
April and May before he was again released. Then on July 28, war broke out. John was called up just 10 days later and in March 1915, he left Ireland for the first time in his life, never to return.
He was posted to the Western Front where his battalion fought in the Second Battle of Ypres – a series of engagements between April 22 and May 25 to control the Flemish town.
It was the first time the Germans made extensive use of poison gas, chlorine fumes designed to force enemies out of the trenches.
The chemical reacts with moisture in the eyes and lungs to form burning hydrochloric and hypochlorous acids, which eat away at the skin. It blinded and even killed
He used to use his hurl as a rifle.. he said when he was old enough he’d become a soldier WILLIAM CONDON SON OF JOHN CONDON’S COUSIN AND FRIEND
within minutes. John fought in the last of the six battles, at Bellewaerde, six kilometres from Ypres.
In the early hours of May 24, 1915, the Germans released a gas attack that took the Allies by surprise.
Troops had just enough time to get respirators on before the deadly green cloud swept over them, although these poorly-made devices were barely effective. Many of the ranks were overcome.
The Germans took a nearby farm and blasted the trenches with hand grenades. The Allied troops fought for two days but were eventually forced to retreat.
By the end of the last engagement John was dead – killed in the gas attack. His family didn’t even know he was in Belgium until they were contacted by the British Army and told he was missing in action. It was another 10 years before his body was discovered by a farmer and he was given a proper burial in what is now a huge war cemetery.
In 1922 John was posthumously awarded the British War Medal, the Victory Medal and the 1914-15 Star.
Two years later his father was sent a piece of his son’s boot – the only link his family in Waterford had with the brave young lad buried in a foreign field.
For the Irishmen who made it through the war, their return home was bittersweet.
They thought they would come back as heroes but instead had to hide their medals as anti-british sentiment soared following the Easter Rising executions.
But many were secretly proud of their service – not who they were fighting for but what they fought against.
Austin, a guide at the Somme Centre in Newtownards, Co Down, said: “Martin Doyle fought for the British Army and was awarded the Victoria Cross.
“After the war he joined the IRA and fought for independence. But when he was close to death he asked to be buried in his British uniform in Grangegorman Military
“The IRA didn’t like it but what could they do? It was his dying wish.” One hundred years after the end of WW1, Ireland appears to have come to terms with its role in the conflict.
Austin added: “Lots of places are recognising the sacrifices made and have put up memorials to the local men who fought and died in the war.
“The Dublin Fusiliers have a museum where you can learn the history of that regiment’s role. Things are changing.”
So now young John Condon can rest in peace, knowing he is as much of a hero as any of the brave men lying alongside him in that foreign field.
RESEARCH Austin Cheevers
TRIBUTE Ronnie Armour