Ceremony honours forgotten soldiers

Sat, Nov 10, 2012, 00:00

Background:Headstones have been given to war dead airbrushed out of Irish history

A meeting of the old world and new has reunited one Dublin family with their forgotten great uncle who died after enduring the brutal conditions on the Western Front almost a century ago.

Tom Rapple was a fresh-faced 19 year old from Phibsboro in north Dublin when he joined the British army in his native city in 1906. He would die just a decade later after being gassed on the Western Front in 1916 and contracting tuberculosis. But after being "airbrushed" from the family history, his final resting place has now been discovered and marked with a headstone nearly a century after his death.

His two great-nephews, cousins Dave O'Brien and Declan Rapple, yesterday stood shoulder to shoulder in the bitter cold of Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, and laid a wreath to honour the rekindled memory of the man they call Tommie.

Their great-uncle's grave is one of 205 war dead resting places that lay unmarked until the Commonwealth War Graves Commission set about marking them with headstones in recent years. The final 104 newly marked graves were officially unveiled at a ceremony in the Dublin cemetery yesterday.

"We didn't know as a family that Tommie existed until a couple of years ago," said Declan Rapple, who is originally from Cabra in Dublin but now lives in Oranmore, Co Galway.

"We accidentally found his name and we tracked him to here. It was my youngest son who traced him. We were visiting Collins Barracks Museum and there's a little computer in there set up by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. And you can put in your name and see if you have a relation [who died in the wars].

"Tommie Rapple's name came up, and the fact that he was my grandfather's brother."

Pte Rapple was reared in a tenement on Church Street in inner city Dublin before he joined the 11th Hussars in his poverty-stricken native city in 1906. He served in Dublin for a short period before being deployed to India for service with the 13th Hussars in 1907 as part of the 7th (Meerut) Indian Cavalry Brigade. When the war broke out his regiment was dispatched to France. They arrived in Marseilles in November 1914 to face the French winter still wearing their summer uniforms from India. After being gassed in 1915, he developed TB and was sent home to Ireland to be discharged in February 1916. He never regained his full health and died of TB in October 1918 at 31.

Gradually forgotten

Gradually he was forgotten, though Declan Rapple believes not because of any sense of family shame. Rather, he says his great-uncle's involvement in the war was, like that of many Irish men, "airbrushed" from the family history.

As well as the unveiling of those previously unmarked graves with new headstones at yesterday's ceremony, others that had headstones which omitted any mention of the role played in the wars by those buried there, have been given "Gallipoli markers" - small plaques marking their rolls in the war.

Among them is a family plot containing the remains of brothers Gerald and Arthur Neilan from Mount Harold Terrace, Rathmines & Rathgar West, Dublin 8. Gerald died in the service of the British army when he was wounded during the Easter Rising. Arthur fought with the rebels that day, though he survived and lived until 1944, at which time he was buried in the family plot.

In attendance at yesterday's ceremony were: Robert Fox MBE, commissioner of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which maintains the graves of those killed in the World Wars; British ambassador to Ireland Dominick Chilcott; John Green, chairman of the Glasnevin Trust; and Shane McEntee, Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture. Journalist Kevin Myers delivered a commemorative lecture.

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