Honouring Ireland’s war dead – by counting them accurately at last

Irish Army veteran Tom Burnell is a man with a mission – to establish the true death toll of Irish soldiers in the first World War, which he believes is 50 per cent higher than the official figure

Irish soldiers erect a statue to the Virgin Mary amid debris with an unexploded shell underneath in Mazingarde, France in  1916. Photograph: From Father Browne’s First World War by E E O’Donnell (Messenger Publications)

Irish soldiers erect a statue to the Virgin Mary amid debris with an unexploded shell underneath in Mazingarde, France in 1916. Photograph: From Father Browne’s First World War by E E O’Donnell (Messenger Publications)

 

Several years ago I set out to rewrite Ireland’s memorial records. The memorial records, which were compiled in 1923, list the names of 49,400 Irishmen who died in the first World War.

That figure has been accepted as definitive by many people, especially politicians, though it is wrong.

To date my research has found that the Irish Memorial Records has underestimated the number of Irish war dead by at least 50 per cent. For instance, the records state that 4,918 men from Dublin died in the war. The true figure, according to my research is 8,479. Similarly, 2,244 men from Cork died in the war, but I have fought 4,338 fatalities. All the counties I have examined to date have a similar pattern.

The memorial records, which are digitised at imr.inflandersfields.be, accepts every man in an Irish regiment in the British Army as an Irishman though thousands were not. It also has double entries, vague additions and outright errors. It leaves out many Irishmen who fought in non-Irish regiments too.

How could this mammoth task of finding out the proper figure for the Irish war dead be done? What have we now that did not exist in 1923 when they were compiled?

Fortunately, databases such as Soldiers who Died in the Great War, digitised books, online newspaper archives and newspapers on microfiche in ocal libraries are in common usage now but they did not exist when the memorial records were being compiled.

Local newspapers too are a treasure trove of information. Many published voluminous accounts of the war and casualty lists.

To date I have visited every library within a three-hour driving distance of my home in Holycross, Co Tipperary.

Any mention of a soldier, officer, battle or war report was photographed, brought home and typed out. This became a new digital database that would be so invaluable in the quest to ensure that all those Irishmen who died in the war are not forgotten.

It is hard to believe that two of the most informative newspapers of the Great War period became obsolete so quickly after the armistice, namely the Offaly-based King’s County Chronicle and the King’s County Independent.

Of all the newspapers of the period, they and The Irish Times were the only ones in the south that did not decrease war coverage after April 1916 when the events surrounding the Easter Rising made the war increasingly unpopular. The Irish Times ran a Great War roll of honour for a decade after the war ended.

The Irish provincial newspapers gathered articles from soldiers on furlough here at home, letters from the battlefront, quirky stories of lunatics escaping, suicides, drunken soldiers’ wives, charlatans, real poverty, escapes from death and firsthand accounts of friends and how they died.

I came across questions from anxious relatives asking when their boys would come home, what a battlefield looked like and how mines and torpedoes worked.

There are accounts of Germans burning their dead, letters from POWs and even ghost ships. These were beautifully written, incredibly informative and immensely interesting. There were battle reports of Irish regiments and reports contained in the missing pages of long-lost war diaries. It was truly the information motherlode of the war from an Irish perspective, by the Irish for the Irish.

I put it to the well-known military publisher Pen and Sword that these stories must have a place in our “Decade of Remembrance”.

They agreed, and the first of these books, covering the articles of 27 newspapers from August to December 1914, is now available, entitled Irishmen in the Great War – Reports from the Front 1914 (€26.95).

If I were to pick out one story that touched me most it has to be the following letter, penned in 1915 by 31-year-old Andrew Heffernan, Royal Munster Fusiliers, who lived in Kilmallock, Co Limerick, with his wife Anne and their children.

The Trenches, 8th May, 1915.

Dear Little Girl, I believe your kind and welcome letters on the 6th and 7th, and was glad to see by them that you and the children were in good health, as I am at present, thank God. This will be the last letter for a long time, but do not be uneasy about me, for I will come out of this the same as I always did, with the help of God and his Blessed Mother. We have a frightful piece of work to do. As I said before it is the last letter for a while, and it may be the last ever, but if I fall in this big battle I will haunt the Kaiser for the rest of his life. If anything happens to me I know there is no fear of the children with you – but, little girl, I bind you to no promise, but mind the children. I could not tell you what it cost me to write this letter to you, if I go down this time the War Office will give you whatever is belonging to me, and will send you my watch or any little things I have. When you receive this letter I will be back in the thick of the fun; it is a glorious life, only for you and the children, I would not ask for a better death. Goodbye, and may God bless you, little girl, and the children. Mind Eileen for me whatever you do as she is a girl. Tell her father was asking for her, and kiss mamma for me. Good-bye once more. Love to you and the children. Remember, no matter what will happen, I died like a soldier and a man. – From your fond husband. Andy.

Corporal Andrew Heffernan was killed in action the day after his letter. He has no known grave and is listed on Panels 43 and 44 on the Le Touret Memorial in France.

I explained to the publishers that after the Easter Rising in April 1916 the war coverage dwindled to a fraction of previous times. Occasionally there were a few items but it was obvious to all that the increasing coverage of the rebellion elbowed out the war reports.

With this in mind Pen and Sword decided that a run of three books was called for, 1914, 1915 and 1916.

The first book is now published and 1915 and 1916 just await the final finishing by their design team.

As an ex-Irish serviceman and historian, I have no opinion on the rights and wrongs of the war or its relationship to the revolutionary period in Irish history. I just record the facts.

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