An appetite for war

A peaceful graveyard and Irish soldiers’ graves ... how Germany wrote a “blank cheque” to Austria-Hungary for its revenge on the Serbs and the corner of a German field that is forever Irish

Wed, May 14, 2014, 01:00

A field of lush grass and a 3m-high Celtic high-cross in the German countryside are the last clues to a sad chapter of Irish history. A century ago this field outside Limburg, near Frankfurt, was the site of a camp for 10,000 prisoners of war, including 2,200 Irish officers in the British army.

The Irish men captured by German forces in the opening months of the first World War were collected here at the request of diplomat and revolutionary Roger Casement. He travelled to Berlin in October 1914 and found German officials were agreeable to assisting in his Irish liberation struggle in the hope of destabilising the British empire.

Key to Casement’s mission to Germany was establishing an “Irish Brigade”, drawing recruits from the Limburg camp. He travelled at least twice to the camp but sceptical Irish prisoners booed him out and Casement secured only 56 conscripts.

In the Limburg town archive, silvery images show how the empty field outside town was once a sprawling camp with half-timbered, single-storey barracks, a tidy hospital and even an ornate chapel.

Other propaganda images in a crumbling photo album show smiling men exercising or taking disinfection showers. A striking picture shows a coffin being carried to its grave with full military honours as a brass band plays.

That was the scene the day before Christmas eve in 1914 at the funeral of Fredrick Reilly. The 50-year-old Irish officer in the British army succumbed, records indicate, to a lung infection.

Before the war ended in 1918, at least 44 more Irish prisoners would die in the Limburg camp. All were buried with full military honours by their German captors. Today, a Fredrick Reilly Strasse overlooking the camp remembers its first Irish casualty. “It was a completely different attitude to war that’s hard for us to fathom today,” says local man Bernd Eufinger. “In the war a century ago, death ended the enmity.”

The respect shown to the Irish dead didn’t end there. On May 25th 1917, Irish prisoners in the Limburg camp were allowed to erect a Celtic cross in the graveyard to honour their fallen comrades. Financed by the prisoners and created by a German stonemason the Nassauische Bote, a local paper, praised its “glorious” depiction of St Patrick. The cross was a worthy memorial both to the fallen soldiers and of British colonial oppression, the report said before concluding: “May the hour of liberation beckon soon for the Irish people.”

In a yellowing school chronicle, in a hardbacked ledger, a Limburg school teacher also records the unveiling of the cross. “The dog (on the cross) is the emblem of alertness and looks to the future,” he wrote in a fine copperplate script. “The Irish people want to remain alert for the suitable moment for their liberation from long suffering.”

For town archivist Christoph Waldecker, these reports about the camp and its Irish internees indicate the prominent role both played in the area. “Having the camp has kept the first World War alive for people here, more so than elsewhere in Germany,” he said.

The lead-up to war
For most Germans the first World War is many worlds away. Reaching pre-1914 Germany is a reverse obstacle of historical hurdles: German division and unification; the chill of the Cold War; the shadow of the Third Reich and the humiliating chaos of the Weimar Republic. Only then do you reach the moustached, bombastic figure of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the Prussian king and unpredictable German emperor.

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