Remembering the war dead
An Irishman’s Diary: A service medal tells a story
‘My inquiry to the ministry of defence in Wellington yielded more information. Private James Drummey enlisted in the Auckland Infantry, 23rd Reinforcements, New Zealand Expeditionary Force in November 1916. He had been a second officer on the schooner Huia . . . We got a photograph of Jimmy - the only one the family has.’
Jimmy Drummey slipped quietly from his home in the Waterford village of Abbeyside on a spring morning in 1907. He was 17 years of age. Jimmy told nobody where he was going and his family never heard from him again. Ten years later, in October 1917, the local RIC sergeant called to the family home. He told Jimmy’s sister Alice that her youngest brother had been killed “fighting with the British army in the war”.
Jimmy was my grand uncle and Alice was my grandmother.
I knew everything about my grandmother but I never heard of Jimmy until 70 years after he died. Like many others who died in that war “fighting with the British” Jimmy Drummey was mourned quietly, remembered fondly but not talked about very much. The irony in Jimmy’s case was that while he did indeed die in the first World War, it was not with the British army. Jimmy served with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force – something I discovered in 1989 not too long after I found out about Jimmy in the first place.
My mother kept family heirlooms in a “box under the bed” and in the late 1980s I came across a War Service medal which I was very curious about but which my mother didn’t want to talk about. Eventually she told me that the medal was “Uncle Jimmy’s”, that he had run away to sea, joined the British army, died in the war and that they didn’t talk about him very much. Nobody knew exactly where he had died and nobody knew where he was buried.
I wrote to the British War Graves Commission. They told me that the serial number on the medal showed that Jimmy had enlisted with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force and was never in the British army. This information astounded my mother – not least the fact that in running away to sea, Jimmy had managed to get all the way to New Zealand – “the same fella couldn’t find his way home from Mass”!
My inquiry to the ministry of defence in Wellington yielded more information. Private James Drummey enlisted in the Auckland Infantry, 23rd Reinforcements, New Zealand Expeditionary Force in November 1916. He had been a second officer on the schooner Huia. He was five feet six inches, weighed 11 stone and had a fair complexion, blue eyes and brown hair. He was 27 years of age and single. We got a photograph of Jimmy – the only one the family has.
Jimmy embarked for England in March 1917, left for France in June of that year and joined the 1st Battalion Auckland Regiment in the field in July 1917. At the end of that month he was injured while evacuating casualties and after hospital treatment rejoined his unit on August 11th. Just two months later, on October 4th, 1917 he was killed in action in the 3rd Battle of Ypres.
According to the war records Jimmy had no known grave but was commemorated on the memorial wall at Tyne Cot Cemetery near Ypres.
In 1989 I decided to visit.
Tyne Cot is the biggest military cemetery on the continent and for many people the most poignant. There are 11,956 soldiers buried there and the names of a further 34,957 soldiers with no known graves are engraved on the great memorial wall. The wall wraps itself around the graves and a stone altar bearing Kipling’s words “Their name liveth for ever more”.
I found Jimmy Drummey’s name among the others, said a prayer, remembered our family to him and laid a small bunch of flowers on the plinth. Just yards away a tiny Belgian lady was placing a single rose on a grave and silently crying, 70 years on.
It was October 15th, 1989 and it was my grand uncle Jimmy’s 100th birthday.
On Sunday October 6th, in Jimmy’s hometown, I will remember him again. Beside the ancient castle in Dungarvan, and facing across the harbour to the village that Jimmy slipped out of that spring morning back in 1907, the Waterford Memorial will be unveiled. It lists the names of all the men and women of Waterford who lost their lives in the first World War. Standing proudly in the Abbeyside section will be the name of Jimmy Drummey. He will not be alone. Jimmy will be in honoured company with several others from his own village and with the 1,100 from all over Waterford who died in that war.
For far too long we “didn’t talk about them very much”. On Sunday we will. Not before time.