From the front line to the home front
Local history round-up: Wings over Wexford: USN Air Station Wexford 1918-19 by Liam Gaul; Messines to Carrick Hill, Writing home from the Great War by Tom Burke; Making It Home edited by Marion Maxwell and Fiona Wright
The launch of a seaplane, from ‘Wings Over Wexford’
In the autumn of 1918 the roar of seaplane engines was heard all over Wexford town. It was the final months of the first World War and the planes were taking off on a quest to find German submarines that were causing havoc in the seas around the coast. The entire east coast of Ireland, from Wexford to Antrim, was known as “U-boat alley”.
Wings over Wexford: USN Air Station Wexford 1918-19 (History Press, €16.99) by Liam Gaul recounts the forgotten story of how the Americans set up an air base at Ferrybank on Wexford harbour. At its peak, the base housed 438 people with its own doctors, hospital, power generating plant and aircraft hangars; it also held American football and baseball matches.
One of the major tragedies at sea, on October 10th, 1918, was the torpedoing in Dublin Bay of the Kingstown-Holyhead mail-boat, RMS Leinster, causing the deaths of hundreds of passengers. The action jeopardised attempts to end the war but shortly afterwards Germany stopped its attacks on merchant shipping, and the armistice was signed on November 11th. Despite the devastation of the loss of the Leinster, the Wexford air station’s achievements – although only in operation for a short period – were significant, protecting many other naval and commercial vessels from U-boats.
One soldier’s account of life on the front line is told in Messines to Carrick Hill, Writing home from the Great War (Mercier Press, €19.99) by Tom Burke. Michael Wall, who grew up in Portmarnock, had an idyllic Edwardian childhood and was a talented young boy. Seduced by thoughts of adventure, he enlisted in the 6th Royal Irish Regiment and was offered a commission as a Second Lieutenant. He trained as an officer and was based on the edge of the Ypres salient in Belgium where reality quickly intruded.
Letters to his mother in a conversational tone chart his experiences and are reproduced in Wall’s original neat handwriting. Burke pieces the correspondence together using many sources to stitch in the background. Wall writes of the boredom and misery of the freezing and muddy conditions of trench life. He gives no detail of the deaths of soldiers around him which was part of everyday life, or raids in which he was involved since this would be removed by the censor. Some of the letters read as though he was on a boy’s own adventure: “The Huns sent over a few whizz bangs . . .” and “. . . bullets zip-zip over the parapet”.
His mother posted out comfort parcels to him of Oxo cubes, cakes, biscuits, “baccy pouches” and copies of The Irish Times since he loved catching up on the news from home, and when he got the paper he was “perfectly content”. Wall wanted to isolate his mother from the horror of war and the stresses of being under artillery bombardment. The author says, “He drifted between two worlds, one of homely peace and another of war and death from which there was no escape”. There was no escape for Michael Wall since at the age of 19 he was killed in June 1917 at the Battle of the Wijtschate-Messines Ridge.
Many of the soldiers who made it back to Ireland bore physical and mental scars as they tried to create a new life. The resettlement of a group of soldiers from Fermanagh and Cavan who served on the Western Front is told in Making It Home (Bellanaleck Local History Group, firstname.lastname@example.org, £8.50, including DVD) edited by Marion Maxwell and Fiona Wright. The book narrates the experiences of 11 ex-servicemen who were resettled to farm on Cleenish, an isolated island in Upper Lough Erne.
The Irish Land Commission was empowered to buy land for returning soldiers all over Ireland. On Cleenish nine new houses were built for them while two older ones were modernised making them superior to other rural houses. Pen portraits of all 11 men are presented. Like so many others, they suffered ill health or were traumatised and unable to shake off the effects of war. Despite it all, one of their number, John Balfour, lived on to the age of 102, earning the title “King of Cleenish Island”.
100 Irish Stories of the Great War, Ireland’s Experience of the 1914-1918 Conflict (Colourpoint, £12.99) by Steven Moore, documents a story from each year that has passed since the war, involving people from many walks of life. Some are based on diaries and letters from those close to the fighting while others provide snapshots of life in Ireland. Mary Cunningham, a daughter of the Belfast stockbroker Josias Cunningham (which this year celebrates its 175th anniversary of trading) met every hospital train that came back to Belfast from the war. On a voluntary basis, she helped provide food, drink and clothes for wounded soldiers, typifying the unsung work that went on at home.