Burmese Days for Irish soldiers on eve of first World War

Centenary pushes up interest in artefacts that shed light on Irish involvement in the war

Stills from a photo album depicting the Royal Munster Fusiliers on duty in Rangoon Burma, not long before the outbreak of the first World War

Stills from a photo album depicting the Royal Munster Fusiliers on duty in Rangoon Burma, not long before the outbreak of the first World War

Sat, Jul 26, 2014, 00:00

Irish involvement in the first World War – a timely topic as the centenary commemorations get underway – was, for much of the 20th century, largely ignored or forgotten. Much of the associated memorabilia only survived thanks to the enthusiasm and diligence of a small band of dedicated collectors. But there is increasing interest, especially among soldiers’ descendants, in the medals, documents, photographs and other mementoes that turn up at auction.

Earlier this month, an album of photographs depicting the Royal Munster Fusiliers, on duty in Burma, sold at Sheppard’s auction for €380 – above the estimate (€200-€300). It is not known how many copies of the album were made or how many survived. The album contains a brief history of the regiment and some 40 photographs in good condition.

The photographs show the soldiers in Rangoon at the height of the British Raj – the era of imperial colonial rule in the Indian subcontinent – on parade and in various formations including the boxing team, the gymnastics team and the hockey team.

The 1st Battalion of the Royal Munster Fusiliers (RMF) – which recruited mainly in Cork, Clare, Kerry and Limerick – had served in South Africa throughout the Boer War (1899-1902) and then moved to India. The soldiers, who wore a green cloth shamrock badge which was sewn into the side of their sun helmets, were transferred to Burma in 1912 and were stationed in barracks in the capital, Rangoon.

The soldiers sailed to Liverpool and from there were dispatched to Turkey, in 1915, where they fought in one of the war’s bloodiest encounters. Among them was William Cosgrove from Aghada, Co Cork who became famous when he won the Victoria Cross at Gallipoli. The following year, the battalion was sent to the Western Front and took part in the Battles of the Somme (1916), Messines (1917), Passchendaele (1917), Cambrai (1917), Somme (1918), and the final advances of 1918. They suffered terrible losses.

In 1922, the Royal Munster Fusiliers was one of six southern Irish regiments disbanded by the British Army and their regimental colours (flags) were presented to King George V at Windsor Castle. The colours were shown to President Michael D Higgins when he visited the castle during his State visit to the UK in May.

Relatives trying to trace a family member who served with the Royal Munster Fusiliers in Burma – or trying to identify the men in the photographs – may find further information on the website of the Royal Munster Fusiliers Association, rmfa92.org, and can see more images on the separate website royalmunsterfusiliers.org.

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