A history of the Irish in the first World War in two dozen monuments

Ronan McGreevy has unearthed the stories behind Irish WWI memorials in Europe, such as the Malone brothers, who died as heroes, one at Ypres, one in Easter Rising

At a busy crossroads outside the Belgian town of Mons there stands a Celtic cross. The limestone monument, five metres high, is dedicated to the 2nd battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment, a regiment which recruited in the south-east counties of Wexford, Waterford, Tipperary and Kilkenny.

“To the glory of God,” the inscription at the base reads, “and to the memory of the men and officers of the Royal Irish Regiment (18th Foot) who fell during the Great War 1914-1918. Near this spot the 2nd Battalion commenced operations on 23rd August 1914 and finished on 11th November 1918 after being decimated on four occasions.”

It was an act of serendipity which brought me to this place. I was looking for Nimy Bridge, a railway bridge at which Lieut Maurice Dease from Coole, Co Westmeath, won the first Victoria Cross of the war.

Though wounded several times, Dease died at his machine-gun post during the Battle of Mons on August 23rd, 1914 – the first engagement between the British and the Germans in the war.

The cross at a place called La Bascule intrigued me. I thought I knew a lot about the first World War, yet I had never heard of this memorial. Ignorance is an occupational hazard given the scale of this conflict. The more you know, the greater the realisation that there is so much more to know. The war is an unending repository of buried memory which will keep the historians busy forever.

My guide told me about the association between the Celtic cross and one of the great supernatural myths of the war – the angels of Mons.

The myth originated with a short story in a London evening newspaper by the journalist and author Arthur Machen. The Bowmen tells of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) at Mons facing annihilation by a numerically superior enemy. That much was factually correct. The rest was fantasy.

As defeat seemed certain, St George sent heavenly intervention through bowmen from the Battle of Agincourt. “Their cloud of arrows flew singing and tingling through the air towards the German hosts.” Within minutes the Mons battlefield lay carpeted with the bodies of 10,000 dead German soldiers.

The story was a patriotic flight of fancy on Machen’s part. He wrote it to cheer himself up in the perilous opening month of the war when the tiny British army was in full-scale retreat.

Instead, it became an act of wishful thinking on the part of the British public which had no trouble in believing there had been divine intervention at Mons.

After all the British press promulgated the story of the “miracle at Mons” where the BEF escaped a German force which outnumbered it two to one.

Machen protested that his story was not to be believed. At no stage had he mentioned angels, but his protests were in vain when returning British soldiers reported seeing something in the skies above Mons.

The cross is located at exactly the point where a motley outfit of cooks, store men, drivers and dispatch riders, about 50 in all, from the 2nd Royal Irish Regiment, held up the German advance for several hours. Machen had read newspaper reports of the battle and set his story in the Mons salient where the battalion made its gallant stand.

The soldier who inspired the story of the angels of Mons was Quartermaster Sergeant Thomas William Fitzpatrick from Enniscorthy, Co Wexford. Sensing the danger, it was he who gathered together the little band of Irish brothers to man a trench were the cross now stands. From there, they held up the German advance for hours.

He wrote his own gripping account of events that day more than 40 years later. “I saw no Mons angels,” he wrote in The Old Contemptible journal in 1955. “I honestly think that not one of my men had the faintest idea what they were fighting for. In fact, I was not sure myself - which illustrates the unconquerable spirit of the British soldier of that day - the Irish soldier in our case.”

The Celtic cross at La Bascule is one of four monuments in Mons with an Irish theme. The war began and ended for the British Empire at Mons. That fact is bookmarked by two Irish monuments – the first shot memorial at Casteau which is dedicated to the 4th Royal (Irish) Dragoon Guards and the plaque to the 5th Royal (Irish) Lancers which commemorates the liberation of the town on Armistice Day 1918. The Irish were there at the beginning and the end of the war and wherever the firing line extended.

Like many journalists, I had a long-term aspiration to write a book, but no subject matter seemed compelling enough to take that arduous step. I finally resolved to write a book on the first World War if I could find a suitable theme. I found it during that first visit to Mons.

If there are four Irish memorials alone in Mons, how many others are there on the Western Front? And so began my quest.

There are 22 monuments in my book. It is a remarkable heritage. For generations these Irishmen who fought and died in the first World War were more honoured in foreign fields than at home.

My intention was that these monuments together would tell the story of the Irish involvement on the Western Front. Each would be a mini-history of the war. These monuments turned out to be mini-histories of Ireland too.

The aforementioned 4th Royal (Irish) Dragoon Guards had been involved in the Battle of the Boyne and the 1798 Rebellion; the 5th Royal (Irish) Lancers had a Zelig-like propensity to be at so many significant events in British and Irish history, most notably the 1798 Rebellion and the Easter Rising. Its officers were also mixed up in the Curragh mutiny incident.

The Dease story does not begin or end with Maurice Dease’s death at Nimy Bridge. This Anglo-Norman family has been in Ireland since the 13th century.

An ancestor, the Catholic Bishop of Meath Thomas Dease, incurred the wrath of Rome for his failure to support the rebels in the 1641 Rebellion. After Maurice Dease's death, his parents left Ireland for good, but a relative, Peter Bland SC, bought back the family seat at Turbotston in Co Westmeath 16 years ago and restored it. This week saw the unveiling of a VC plaque in memory of Dease in the churchyard at Coole.

There are three monuments which are as much about the Easter Rising as they are about the first World War. The cross at Limburg in central Germany is the only monument in my book which is not in France or Belgium. It remembers 46 Irishmen who died in Limburg prisoner-of-war camp and was erected by their comrades in 1917.

These were the same men who Roger Casement tried to recruit for his Irish brigade in 1915. Of the 2,200 Irish prisoners-of-war in Limburg, Casement only recruited 55. One, Maurice Meade, fought with the German army, was caught by the British after the war and sentenced to death. He was reprieved and came home to fight with the IRA during the War of Independence during which he executed two Black and Tans. He then joined the National Army and died at the age of 81 in 1972.

The smallest monument in my book – a bronze plaque about the size of a shoe box – symbolises the complexity of Irish identity at the time.

This plaque, fixed to the wall of Mouse Trap Farm outside Ypres, was put there by the sculptor Willie Malone in 2005. It remembers his grandfather Sergeant William Malone who was killed during the Second Battle of Ypres in May 1915.

Sgt Malone is hardly known outside his own family. His brother Michael, though, is remembered as the hero of Mount Street Bridge. He and fellow volunteer Seamus Grace ambushed the Sherwood Foresters from a house in Northumberland Road, inflicting the worst casualties on the British army during Easter Week 1916.

The Malone brothers died within a year of each other, one fighting for the British, the other against. How their mother must have mourned. A similar fate befell the Kent (Ceannt) family. Less than a year after Proclamation signatory Éamonn Ceannt was executed for his role in the Easter Rising, his brother William died at the Battle of Arras in April 1917.

The other monument which relates to the Rising remembers the 532 Irishmen who died on the Western Front during Easter Week 1916. These men suffered an agonising death when the Germans released chlorine gas into the trenches occupied by the 16th (Irish) Division at Hulluch in northern France.

Little remains of the Irish presence in this part of France other than a beautiful marble statue in the old mining village of Noeux-les-Mines.

The statue, an exact replica of Notre-Dame-des-Victoires in Paris, was paid for by the men of the division to remember their comrades who died in the area.

Just minutes before it was due to be placed in the Église Saint-Martin on Passion Sunday 1917, a German naval shell penetrated the walls and blew the church to pieces. The statue was kept safely behind the lines and finally placed in the church when it was rebuilt in 1921.

Monuments, like commemorations, are as much about the present as they are about the past. The Ulster Tower, perhaps the best known Irish monument, was dedicated in 1921 and was the first major memorial to be erected on the Western Front. It was opened just a year after the creation of Northern Ireland and remembers those who died preserving the link between Ulster and the British Empire.

Unlike the Ulster Tower, the Island of Ireland Peace Park recognises both traditions in Ireland. It was opened coincidentally, but appropriately, in 1998 by President Mary McAleese and Queen Elizabeth II just a few months after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

It is a reminder that the dream of reconciliation between nationalist and Unionist who fought together in the trenches never happened after the war.

It was the neglected state of another Irish memorial, the granite cross to the 16th (Irish) Division at Guillemont on the Somme, which compelled the then Fine Gael TD Paddy Harte to action.

He was outraged by the casual neglect of the memory of Irish nationalists who were killed in their tens of thousands during the war. He resolved to build a round tower and to dedicate a park in Flanders to the Irish war dead of both traditions.

The tower, an ancient symbol of pre-Reformation Irish Christianity, will, he suggests, “last for centuries and be as meaningful in 500 years time as when it was built”.

From conception to dedication, the Island of Island Peace Park took exactly two years. The round tower is now there. The graves, the cemeteries and the monuments were there long before it. As long as they stand in silent sentry they will tell of the men who left Ireland’s shores never to return.

These monuments are a reminder never to forget. These monuments are forever Ireland.

Ronan McGreevy's book Wherever the Firing Line Extends: Ireland and the Western Front is published by The History Press, at €20. John Horne of Trinity College Dublin reviews it in The Irish Times tomororw

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