Recovering the Great War Dead
My father used to tell me stories he got from the Great War veterans who drank in his father’s pub near Custume Barracks in Athlone during the 1930s. Safe among their own, the men could swap yarns about their experiences and my father, like any teenager, eavesdropped and absorbed everything. The stories have stayed with me: German prisoners of war taken behind the lines and killed; terrible mutilations; trench-foot and lice and rats and gangrene.
Private spaces like my grandfather’s pub were the only place the War could then be remembered. The wilful blindness imposed by post-independence orthodoxy cut Ireland off from parts of its past and distorted its connections with what came to be called “the outside world”. Our recovery from that self-inflicted amnesia and isolation, at least where the Great War is concerned, has largely been fuelled by local historians and genealogists.
Again and again, a rediscovered Army grandfather or grand-uncle or second cousin has spurred research that revives the lost memory of much broader groups of soldiers, especially those who died. The official 1929 commemorative publication Ireland’s Memorial Records (see imr.inflandersfields.be) included more than 49,000 names of Irish soldiers who were killed. But detailed, painstaking local research done over the last decade reveals that the true number was much higher, probably close to 100,000. County by county, their names are slowly being brought to light. Some of the publications listing them are at bit.ly/1nON5t5. News of any omissions is welcome
One fact should not be missed in the heat of commemoration. Those who died did not make a willing sacrifice. They were themselves the sacrifice, part of what Pope Benedict XV in 1915 called “the suicide of civilised Europe”. Their lives were cynically wasted by political and military leaders. Respect for their courage and their endurance should not blind us to that.