100 years on, Willie Redmond’s final resting place in a Belgian battlefield

Like Redmond, Francis Ledwidge was to die on the first day of a battle

Willie Redmond’s grave. Nearby, in  Locre Hospice Cemetery, his   former comrades repose beneath the more conventional headstones of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Willie Redmond’s grave. Nearby, in Locre Hospice Cemetery, his former comrades repose beneath the more conventional headstones of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission

 

Among the countless war graves along what used to be the Western Front, Willie Redmond’s is accidentally unique. It stands alone in a field, for one thing. For another, its headstone takes the shape of a cross with a Marian shrine on top.

Nearby, in the small Locre Hospice Cemetery, Redmond’s former comrades repose beneath the more conventional headstones of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). The principal, there and elsewhere, is uniformity: row on row of identically-shaped rectangles of white Portland Stone, recording name, rank, and regiment, but otherwise devoid of distinguishing features in a great democracy of death.

Redmond would probably not have welcomed his posthumous eccentricity. In life he was a warm, gregarious man, anything but a loner.

And the manner of his demise, as one of the few sitting MPs to die in the first World War, was proof of his wish not to be treated differently.

A nationalist firebrand in youth, he mellowed in middle age to support Irish Home Rule within the empire. When in 1914, his brother John called on the movement’s members to enlist as a demonstration of good faith, Willie signed up, although age would have excused him.

Even in the army, because of who he was, his superiors would have kept him as far away from danger as possible. Instead, at his own assistance, he went “over the top” with troops on the first day of the Battle of Messines, 100 years ago this June, and was quickly wounded. A younger man might have survived, but being 56 and out of condition, Redmond died the same day.

As was the practice, he was buried near the convent-run hospice where he had spent his final moments. After the war, when the CWGC sought to move the local dead to a centralised cemetery, Redmond’s widow preferred to leave his grave alone, under the care of nuns.

Famous memorial

In later years it fell into neglect. Then, as the commission resumed its interest, a local priest campaigned against moving the remains, in keeping with Mrs Redmond’s original wishes.

And maybe, finally, another factor ensured the grave would never be moved. As one of the most famous memorials in Flanders, for a whole century now, it has become a tourist attraction.

If Redmond himself might have preferred the company of those in the adjoining walled cemetery, he does at least have the consolation in eternity of being a symbol for reconciliation.

It has been suggested that, depressed by the events of Easter 1916 – during which he was at home on leave – he returned to the war in 1917 with a death wish: wanting to heal by his own sacrifice the division that had opened between the two political traditions in Ireland.

That may have been a hopeless task, but the process began at the moment he was wounded on June 7th, 1917, when he was carried off the battlefield by a fellow soldier from the unionist north, Private John Meeke, who defied machine gun fire to try to save him.

And 96 years later, in 2013, Redmond’s grave hosted yet another instalment of an epic peace process when Enda Kenny and the then British prime minister David Cameron laid wreaths together.

Redmond is not the only Irish victim of the war to be uniquely commemorated. Although the other famous casualty of 1917, Francis Ledwidge, was given a standard CWGC grave near where he died, the exact spot of his death is marked by a memorial: a distinction given to no other Irish soldier.

Ledwidge’s story is not unlike Redmond’s in that he too was a nationalist who, after initial reluctance, followed Redmond Snr’s call to enlist.

He was from a much poorer background that those Wexford patricians, however. And he felt so wrong-footed by the Rising, and the executions of his friends Thomas McDonagh and Joseph Mary Plunkett, that he had no desire to return to the war, from which he too had been on leave.

Different battle

Even so, he did go back. And like Redmond, he was to die on the first day of a battle, albeit a different battle and in very different circumstances.

Ledwidge was helping to build a road just outside Ypres on July 31st, 1917: the start of what became known as the Battle of Passchendaele. His group had stopped for a tea break when a German shell landed. A chaplain arriving at the scene shortly afterwards wrote: “Ledwidge killed, blown to bits.”

Among the poet’s reactions to the Rising had been Lament for Thomas McDonagh. Its opening lines now serve as an epitaph for Ledwidge too, written on his monument in English and Flemish: “He shall not hear/the bittern cry/In the wild sky,/Where he is lain.”

Redmond’s death aside, the Battle of Messines was an Irish triumph. Indeed, it was also one of the few clear-cut allied victories of the conflict, with all immediate objectives achieved.

Even by the standards of war, it began with a bang, or a whole series of bangs. Before the battle the Germans were in possession of Messines ridge, the nearest thing to high ground in that part of Belgium, which was very strongly defended.

So for months allied forces had been tunnelling underneath the ridge. And by June 1917, 26 massive mines were in place along a seven-mile stretch, ready to blow. A British general quipped the night beforehand that while they might not make “history” next day, they would certainly change the “geography”.

Sure enough, the explosions of June 7th were loud enough to be heard in London (and by one account in Trinity College Dublin), in the process leaving craters that a century later look like the result of meteorites.

Only 19 went off, in some cases because the German evacuation was so rapid that unexploded mines ended up behind what had become the new allied lines.

Some were just left in place, buried. One blew up decades later, after the second World War, killing a cow.

To this day a 50,000-lb (110,000kg) mine remains somewhere under farmland at Messines and, above ground, locals live their lives regardless, confident it will not go off now.

Man-made earthquake

Back in 1917, meanwhile, Irish troops from north and south advanced rapidly in the wake of the man-made earthquake and left their own impact on the front lines with fierce fighting courage. One of their greatest victories was in taking the village of Wytschaete (nicknamed “Whitesheet”), where a large Celtic cross now records the heroics of the 16th Irish Division.

But as usually happened in that hopelessly bogged-down war, the breakthrough at Messines was followed by failure. What the name of the Somme was to the year before, Passchendaele became for 1917: an enormous military effort gaining a tiny amount of ground at great length and at a vast human cost.

By the time it ended in November, after 100 days, the gloomy statistics recorded that the allies had lost 500,000 men killed, wounded or missing for an advance of 8km.

Among the results today is Tyne Cot cemetery, barely 10 miles from Willie Redmond’s resting place but its opposite in design and scale. A vast, silent city of the dead, the largest of its kind, it includes 12,000 identical white gravestones. It also takes up where the Menin Gate left off, adding to the latter’s 55,000 names another 35,000 allied soldiers presumed to have died in or around Ypres but whose remains were never found.

Frank McNally travelled as a guest of GTI Ireland, which conducts group tours of the battlefields of both world wars, including return flights to Brussels and Paris. More details at GTI-Ireland.com

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