The golden locket, the hidden grave and the forgotten soldier
History refuses to be done with the fate of Guy Pinfield, an English officer killed in Dublin Castle on the first day of the Easter Rising
An Edwardian gold locket holding an image of Guy Vickery Pinfield of Bishops Stortford, who was commissioned as a second lieutenant into the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars in August 1914. He was killed aged 21 in the Easter Rising in Dublin. Photograph: Sworders Fine Art Auctioneers
British soldiers keep watch at Dublin Castle for members of the Irish Volunteers in November 1920. Photograph: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
An engraving from the headstone of Guy Vickery Pinfield, who was reburied in Grangegorman cemetery in Dublin in 1963 after his temporary grave in Dublin Castle was discovered in 1962.
On Easter Monday, April 24th, 1916, as the independent Irish Republic was being declared from the steps of the GPO in Sackville Street, a young British army officer was preparing to go on duty.
Lieut Guy Vickery Pinfield was 21 years old, a rugby-playing former student of Cambridge University. He had received his commission as a second lieutenant into the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars at the outbreak of war in 1914. A year later he was posted to the 10th Reserve Cavalry Regiment at the Curragh Camp in Co Kildare.
Born in Bishops Stortford, Hertfordshire in 1895, Pinfield came from a successful and prosperous family that had made their money through tea plantations in the Indian province of Assam. Like many other young men of the regiment, he was waiting for his orders to move to the front. The conflict had been raging for two years and he was concerned that the war would be over before he got a chance to join in.
On April 24th, 1916, news reached the Curragh that a rebellion had erupted in Dublin city and reinforcements were needed urgently. Pinfield was posted to the city by train and was sent to Dublin Castle.
Shortly before midday, a section from the Irish Citizen Army commanded by Abbey actor, Séan Connolly, occupied City Hall and other strategic positions in the area. An unarmed RIC man, James O’Brien was shot dead as he attempted to close the gates of Dublin Castle. The guardroom of the complex was rushed by a number of armed Volunteers.
From these posts, Connolly’s men kept up a relentless fire against British forces in the Castle. Pinfield was ordered to lead an attack with the objective of securing the main gate of the Castle and the guardhouse. Under heavy fire, the platoon moved towards the gate but Pinfield was shot and fell to the ground mortally wounded.
A section of his unit moved forward and laid down strong covering fire while another group of them managed to pull their dying officer into cover. Francis Sheehy Skeffington, the well-known pacifist, braved the hail of gunfire to bring aid to the stricken officer, but it was too late. The platoon fell back having suffered one officer killed, another officer wounded and roughly 30 ordinary ranks wounded.
As the rebellion raged throughout Easter Week, those that had fallen were hastily buried in the grounds of the complex. Pinfield’s body was wrapped in a winding sheet and interred in a temporary grave in the Castle gardens like many other British soldiers.
After the Rising, the families of the dead came to the Castle to reclaim the bodies and at the end of the month, those unclaimed were reinterred at the British military cemetery at Blackhorse Avenue, Grangegorman. However, the bodies of Pinfield and another four officers, Godfrey Hunter (26), Algernon Lucas (37), Philip Addison (20) and Basil Worsley-Worswick (35), remained in Dublin Castle, unclaimed. Granite slabs recorded the names, regiments and dates of death of the five officers.
There they remained, as the formal garden slowly succumbed to the elements, over decades of neglect. Their temporary graves were rediscovered by chance in 1962 on what was by that time deemed waste ground. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission made arrangements for them to be exhumed and reburied within Grangegorman cemetery. On May 17th, 1963, the five men were buried with the distinctive Commonwealth War Grave headstones marking their final resting place.
Pinfield was not forgotten. Soon after his death in 1916 the Illustrated London News published his photo on their Roll of Honour. His obituary in The Times announced the much loved only son of Mrs P Russell had been killed in action in Ireland. At Marlborough College his name appears with 742 others who lost their lives during the Great War. Fellow officers erected a plaque to his memory within St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, the only plaque in the cathedral connected to the Easter Rising.
In his home town of Bishops Stortford, his name appears in the local church and town war memorial. His old rugby club at Rosslyn Park also have his name on their memorial. But for the wider world he would have remained another unknown statistic of the Irish Easter Rising if it were not for the 2011 auction in Essex of a locket which prompted a number of researchers to investigate his story.
The 15-carat gold memorial locket sold for £850 (€1,008) and carries his image. It is engraved with the words of the Hussars’ motto “ Pristinae Virtutis memores ” (the memory of former valour). His initials “GVP” and his place and date of death, Dublin April 24th, 1916, are also to be found on the locket which his mother wore throughout her life.
A letter to her from a brother officer may disclose one of the reasons why his body was not removed from the castle and repatriated to England. The officer states that Pinfield’s remains were to be buried within the Castle environs in consecrated ground, a fitting resting place as it was just a few feet from where he fell. It is possible that Pinfield’s mother took solace in this and left the remains of her son where she believed they would be tended by the military.
To most of the world the 1916 Easter Rising was overshadowed by events on the Western Front later that year. The Battle of the Somme followed that summer and the 116 British soldiers killed during the insurrection in Dublin city were listed as “killed at home”. The British military and government were reluctant to remember soldiers killed in Dublin during the rebellion, as the event had caused some embarrassment.
The locket sold to an unknown Irish bidder.
Paul O’Brien is author of Shootout, The Battle for St Stephen’s Green, 1916 , the penultimate title in his series of six detailed histories on the key engagements of Easter 1916.