Fighting for the Crown

Michael O’Driscoll was among the many thousands of young men who chose to serve in the British army and fight in the first World War


When Michael O’Driscoll joined the British army at the age of 20 in 1912, nearly two years before the outbreak of the first World War, there was a serious confrontation between him and his future brothers-in-law, and he was thrown into the Liffey.

It was in their eyes an inappropriate choice of career for a young man from a Catholic, Dublin family.

Michael – my great-grandfather – enlisted as Private 8771 with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers on October 26th of that year and would later fight alongside fellow Irishmen and British soldiers against Germany in the first World War.

As it happened that assault by Mary O’Brien’s brothers cemented the young couple’s intention to pursue their relationship.

His son Daniel (Dan), now 82, recalls in an account of his father’s life written for his family that “joining the army was seen by some as a last resort for young unemployed men, and the O’Brien family were not pleased with Mary keeping company with a soldier ”.

But Michael proved to be a “fine, upstanding proper gentleman” and the families were reconciled.

His choice to join the British army was prompted by a sense of adventure, as much, perhaps, as a desire to escape the more mundane job he had been in since he left school at Strand Street – at Smith’s umbrella shop on Essex Quay.

Of about 200,000 Irishmen who served in the first World War, some 30,000 died. Many more, including Michael, were to suffer the lifelong effects of the mustard gas that wracked their lungs.

“At the time of the Easter Rising in Dublin, the 16th Irish Division, including the Dublin men, suffered appallingly from a German poison gas attack in the Hulluch sector, near Loos in France. I believe that was where my dad was first exposed to the poison gas – the effects of which he suffered for the rest of his life,” Dan remembers.

Fearful time
While Dan does not recall his mother speaking of the turbulent days of the Rising, it must surely have been a fearful time. She was a young woman with a “good, secure job” in Jacob’s biscuit factory – occupied by Thomas MacDonagh and his men that Easter Monday – and the young man she loved was fighting alongside British soldiers hundreds of miles away.

After service in France, during which he was hospitalised suffering exposure after fighting in the trenches of the Somme in the winter of 1916-17, Michael was promoted to sergeant on January 2nd, 1917, and returned to Dublin for a brief rest period.

That month he married Mary in the parish church of St Michael and St John in the old heart of the city, a stone’s throw from where they were born and reared on Wood Quay and Fishamble Street.

In August 1917, Michael was involved in the British offensive at the Battle of Passchendaele where two Irish divisions suffered heavy casualties. His 108th Brigade with the 36th Division was involved in further battles from the early part of 1918 and the men were finally withdrawn in October. According to army records, Michael suffered exposure, scabies, dysentery and the lingering effects of the gas.

“On one of the very rare occasions when my dad spoke about the war, he told my brother and I that many of the troops had no gas masks. They would keep a bucket of urine close at hand and if there was a sudden gas attack, the urine would help to save their lives,” says Dan.

Michael’s war came to an end 10 days before the armistice on November 11th, 1918, when he left Calais on a hospital ship. He spent 45 days in hospital in London before he was fit to return to Ireland.

The country wasn’t so welcoming to returning Irishmen who had fought for the crown and some were intimidated and killed as informers during the War of Independence.

“Mary and Michael and their first child May were living on Wood Quay and their house was raided by the Black and Tans. Michael was not there at the time and lucky that his three guns were in Dublin Castle. Nothing incriminating was found, but the Tans were intimidating and did a lot of damage in the house,” says Dan.

Relinquished commission
Michael, by then a first lieutenant, relinquished his commission on June 17th, 1920.

Dan recalls a gun mounted on the wall in the family home but it was years before he learnt the story behind it.

At his mother’s funeral in 1948, a man who had served alongside his father told how Michael had gathered volunteers for reconnaissance missions past the front lines.

“One particular night, my father heard a German voice from behind cry out ‘halt, halt!’ As my father dropped his weapon, a shot was heard and the young German dropped to the ground. One of my father’s comrades was near by and had shot the German. The rifle belonged to that unfortunate German soldier.”

When the second World War broke out in 1939, Michael took the train to Belfast to enlist, telling his family that for a man of his experience to do nothing against Hitler would be “a betrayal”.

Failed the medical
He failed the medical and was offered a desk job, which he declined. He had held jobs with Todd Burns department store and later at the Provincial Bank on Grafton Street, although he was in constant poor health.

Dan remembers Michael and Mary as “busy, inventive and industrious parents”. His mother sewed; his father made a dining table and stools, a hallstand and a “tall, delicate flower pot stand which stood proudly in our front window”.

Michael founded a branch of the Catholic Boy Scouts and a house where he often trained them still stands on West Essex Street.

After his death in January 1941, he was buried as he had wished: in a British military cemetery in a plain grave with no flowers.