A war-time tragedy on two fronts
An Irishman’s Diary about John and Margaret Naylor
“John Naylor is today remembered on the memorial wall at Loos, where his name is listed with thousands of other war dead. He is presumed buried somewhere near the battlefield, the exact location of the grave now unknown. Until two years ago, the whereabouts Margaret Naylor’s grave was a mystery too, at least to some of her family.”
The years of centenary commemorations now upon us will test the truth of a cynical quotation, attributed to Stalin and others, that whereas the death of one man is a tragedy, the death of a million is just a statistic.
But among the many stories that fall somewhere between the extremes of that grim spectrum, there can be few as poignant as that of John and Margaret Naylor, a husband and wife from Dublin who, at the outbreak of the first World War, were the parents of three children under six.
A grocery shop porter in peacetime, John Naylor then joined the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. And he was to be one of those very unfortunate men who found themselves in the trenches at a place called Hulluch, in northern France, on April 29th, 1916.
It was the second day of a gas attack by Germans that sent hundreds of soldiers, including Naylor (and many of the Germans themselves, after the wind changed) to horrible deaths.
Compounding this one man’s tragedy, meanwhile, although he couldn’t have known about it, was an incident back in his native city earlier that same day. Dublin was at war now too. And on the morning of April 29th, Margaret Naylor had risked the fighting on a mission to buy bread.
Despite much speculation since, it is not known whether she was a victim of crossfire or a deliberate act. Nor, to my knowledge, is it known which side fired the gun. In any case, crossing Ringsend Drawbridge, she was shot in the head and fatally wounded.
She was the first female casualty of Easter Week. And although she lingered for a couple of days afterwards at St Vincent’s Hospital, she too must have gone to her death unaware of the tragic coincidence that united her with her soldier husband, several hundred miles away.
The couple had also had several children who died in infancy. So if there’s a consolation in the unhappy story, it’s that the three daughters orphaned in April 1916 – Maggie, Kitty, and Tessie – all survived. They were taken in by the dead woman’s sister and lived for years over a shop in what is now Pearse Street, en route to adulthood.
The sad symmetry of their parents’ deaths underlines an similarly poignant resemblance in the casualty figures between Easter Week and the atrocity at Hulluch. In fact, somewhat more Irishmen died in the gas attack and associated fighting than did in Dublin during the Rising.
According to a recent report in this newspaper (March 31st), which incorporated new details released by the UK national archives, the Dublin Fusiliers lost 368 troops in the attack, and the Royal Inniskillings 263. This compares with the 466 who died on all sides during Easter Week.
For those who succumbed directly to the gas, the experience has been likened to drowning on dry land. But the gas not only made breathing impossible, it also caused a terrible thirst, to quench which only hastened a victim’s end. An army chaplain spoke afterwards of seeing dead bodies “in every conceivable posture of human agony”.
The suffering might have been avoided with better planning. The Allied lines had warnings of a likely attack from a German deserter (there are also stories of rats abandoning trenches on the German side beforehand, in apparent reaction to leakage from cannisters).
And in fact, the British army had issued gas helmets. But in the event, many of these proved faulty. One respirator, the French-made M2 Mask, did perform well, saving the lives of those who wore it. Production was expedited as a result, and used to good effect later. But it was an expensive lesson.
John Naylor is today remembered on the memorial wall at Loos, where his name is listed with thousands of other war dead. He is presumed buried somewhere near the battlefield, the exact location of the grave now unknown.
Until two years ago, the whereabouts Margaret Naylor’s grave was a mystery too, at least to some of her family. But Frankie McNamee – a son of Kitty Naylor, the middle one of the three orphans – has since taken it upon himself to resurrect a history that, wilfully or otherwise, had been forgotten.
Two years ago, he traced his grandmother to her final resting place, the British war cemetery at Grangegorman, where a handsome headstone now marks the grave of Margaret Naylor, nee Rowe, and unites her, in words on stone at least, to the tragic coincidence of John Naylor’s almost simultaneous demise in the trenches of France.