Kevin Myers on Ireland’s Great War
In this extract from his new book, the former Irish Times writer explains how he sought to disinter a forgotten chapter of our history
Kevin Myers and Bobby Campion, grand-nephew of Victoria Cross winner Jack Moyney at the official opening of the snug at Bob’s Bar in Durrow, Co Laois,which has been transformed into a pub museum in Moyney’s honour. Photograph: Alan Betson
Irish Guards with a wounded man in a trench near Wytschaete, Belgium. Photograph: From Father Browne’s First World War by E E O’Donnell (Messenger Publications)
Members of the Inchicore Ledwidge Society during the poetry reading and wreath laying ceremony at the National War Memorial Gardens, Islandbridge in Dublin, in July 2003. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Kevin Myers at the Service of Commemoration for those who served in the second World War, at Monkstown Parish Church, Co Dublin. Photograph: Eric Luke
The first time I went looking for the Memorial Gardens for the Irish dead of the Great War, almost no one in Kilmainham seemed to know where they were. The year was 1979, 80 years on from the Treaty of Versailles and after the meeting of the First Dáil, and the first shootings of the “Anglo-Irish War” (in which both sides were of course Irish).
In 1919 Europe had gone one way, and independent Ireland had gone another, the journey of the latter taking it to a condition of utter amnesia about the very war that was central to its foundation myths. For without the Great War, there could have been no Easter Rising, and no gallant allies to support it. Yet it had nonetheless been completely forgotten, and so totally that not merely had people forgotten, but they’d forgotten that they’d forgotten. So complete was the eradication of any knowledge of Irish involvement in the war, that yards away from the great park to honour Ireland’s war dead, no-one admitted to knowing of its existence.
Or maybe they just didn’t think of it as a park, because by that time it had been turned into an urban tip-head, with Dublin Corporation lorries disgorging the city’s rubbish onto vast mounds of spoil. A score or more tinkers’ caravans were parked on the edges of the park, and alongside them were the rusting hulks of scrapped cars. Piebald ponies grazed in the foot-high weeds, children scavenged through the waste, and Lutyens’ great granite columns were covered with graffiti. In the muck, almost invisible, lay the two elegant granite obelisks meant to represent lapidary candles, now felled, and almost invisible.
The plinth beneath the memorial obelisk declared then, and declares still, that 49,400 Irishmen died in the Great War. This foundation-falsehood has survived the decades, and is even now being recited as a fact by government Ministers. It simply could not be true, for with casualty-rates running at 11 per cent, this would imply that 500,000 Irish had served – out of an island of under four million. However, the figure has served as an interesting example of how an attractive myth – 49,400 gives the appearance of fact, because it is so close to 50,000, yet scrupulously isn’t – survives deconstruction.
For as I cycled away from the tiphead that the park had now become, I made a vow to do what I could to get it turned into a decent park again. And the first thing I had to do was to get the facts right – so I spent months going through the Memorial Records that had been compiled in the early 1920s at a staggering cost (then) of £5,000 to assess who was actually Irish amongst that 49,400.
The records had been put together under a committee led by Eva Bernard, of a prominent unionist family, and it seemed that – to put it mildly – she wanted to maximise Ireland’s involvement in the war, and thereby maximise Ireland’s devotion to the union. So, the memorial records counted as Irish anyone who had served in an Irish regiment, regardless of where they were from. Admittedly, the question of who is Irish is not easily resolved. Many Irish people – such as Willie Redmond MP, who was born in Liverpool – cannot be called non-Irish simply because of their place of birth. Infuriatingly, one primary source for the Memorial Records and for all subsequent analysis of this time, Officers Died in the Great War, unlike the companion volumes, Soldiers Died in the Great War, does not give the place of birth of the men it lists.
The figure I came up with, first published in a feature article in The Irish Times in November 1980, was roughly 35,000. Such is the power of the press, and of my colossal influence therein, that this figure of 35,000 has had absolutely no impact whatever. Quite simply, people still prefer the mythic – and perhaps Vedic: who knows? – number of 49,400. But having since discovered the disgraceful War Office pension-saving policies of discharging injured soldiers from the army, and then not counting their deaths from war-related injuries as meriting a place in SDGW or ODGW, I feel 35,000 is too low. Furthermore, it is now clear that the military bureaucracy – like the War Graves Commission, a generally meticulous organisation determined to honour the dead – was sometimes overwhelmed by the scale of the catastrophes confronting it. And this is understandable, for it had to record the same basic details for every single dead man: name, rank, number, regiment, battalion, cause of death, date of death, location of death, place of birth, place of residence, place of enlistment, decorations and former regiment. That is at least 240,000 separate facts for the 20,000 dead of the first day of the Somme alone, and without a pause for counting, because on the second day, there were 1,438 dead, and on the third, 2,338, and on the 135th day, November 13th, there were 2,504 dead; and from July 1st to November 13th, covering the duration of the Somme, there were 122,466 British dead alone, yielding at least 1,469,592 details to be recorded in S/ODGW. How does any organisation, using just clerks with fountain pens and paper, manage such a feat, while all able-bodied men are being sent off to war? So, allowing for such human failings, I would now confidently say Ireland’s war dead number 40,000.
Glimpsing such appalling statistics is, however, like a doctor peeling back a bandage, noticing a wound but then smelling gas-gangrene, for there’s far worse than you can see. It has been the besetting sin of belligerent Anglophone countries, in which community Ireland has now claimed full membership, to see matters only through their own experiences. On August 22nd, 1914, the very day that the 2nd Battalion, the Royal Irish Regiment suffered their first casualties near Mons, 27,000 blue-coated, red-trousered French soldiers were killed, in the first day of the “Battle of the Frontiers”. The cult of the uninhibited offensive à l’outrance was now treading out its daily harvest of garnered youth through the wine-press of war. By August 29th French losses totalled 260,000, with 75,000 dead. The British army never had a week like that or even a month in the entire war.
Consider the night-assault by the Ottoman army, starting on Christmas Eve 1914, at Sarikamish high in the Caucasus. At minus 35 degrees Celsius, the troops had been ordered to discard their greatcoats and backpacks for greater speed. Some 25,000 men disappeared in the advance, and those not butchered by the waiting Russians froze to death in the rout that followed. The Russians found 30,000 bodies in the snow, and another 25,000 wounded apparently dragged themselves away and perished on the mountainside. That is, over 50,000 men froze to death over a just a couple of nights. Come the spring thaw, the wolves of the Caucasus grew exceeding fat.
Sacrifices like this could only have been possible if human attitudes, and especially those of men, were unrecognisably different from what we know today. This was true of all nations. Ludwig Frank, a Socialist Deputy in the Reichstag, who had feverishly (and successfully) lobbied for his party to abandon its pacifist policies and support of the war, wrote on August 23rd: “I am happy; it is not difficult to let blood flow for the Fatherland, and to surround it with romanticism and heroism.”
Frank was a Jew, and was the only Reichstag Deputy to die in the war, whereas three Irish MPs, two nationalist and one unionist, were to die. (Lt Tom Kettle of the Dublin Fusiliers, who is often cited as an MP, was no longer one when he was killed at the Somme.) Even that most clinical of Austrians, Frank’s fellow Jew, Sigmund Freud, admitted to the almost insuperable power of what he called the libido that he felt for his homeland.
Yet what perhaps distinguishes Ireland most from all of the subject territories in what, after all, was an imperial war, or rather, wars, was its exemption from conscription. Poles were especially lucky, for, depending on where they lived, members of an extended family could be forced to fight for the Romanov Tsar and the Hohenzollern Kaiser and the Habsburg Emperor. On mobilisation, Czech conscripts marched away bearing (the rather Czech) banners, declaring, “We are marching against the Russians and we do not know why”.
They were not the only unhappy soldiers that summer. Dublin gunners on exercise in Athlone in early August 1914, demonstrated, in uniform, against the Bachelors Walk shootings in Dublin, but they of course were not conscripts. Moreover, public anger at the shootings seems to have been largely dissipated with the public enquiry that followed within a fortnight, and which resulted in the now forgotten dismissal of the Deputy Head of the DMP who had illegally mobilised the army, and the reinstatement of policemen who had mutinied rather than obey what they considered illegal orders. The only political demonstrations of Irish soldiers from that point onwards were by groups of uniformed Dublin Fusiliers in the pubs and streets of Naas in September 1914, celebrating the passage of the Home Rule Bill into law. These nationalists would then of course serve and die for crown for which many felt little or no loyalty, and would duly be forgotten by all.
Readers of the pages that follow might be forgiven for criticising any apparent lack of analysis of the motives of the Irish soldiers who served. This is not a careless omission so much as an admission of utter incapacity. I am quite unable to explain my own motives for almost any aspect of my life, including this book: it would therefore be slightly presumptuous of me to impute motives to long-dead Irishmen of whose culture and personal circumstances I know nothing. Indeed, it cannot be repeated enough how different people were, even in European “democracies” (though no real democracy would exist in Europe until after the war). Most working-class people lived in tenements without privacy or personal privies, washed seldom, ate no fruit, were cold from September to April, shared a toilet with a hundred strangers and used scraps of newspaper if they were “well-to-do”, and their imaginations if they weren’t, wore filthy, shit-encrusted underwear (if they wore any at all) and for much of winter lived in the dark, which they shared with vermin, bodily and rodential.
Untold women’s tales
In those tenements, as in the great houses of Rathmines and Rathgar, and the Georgian palaces of the gentry, lived another matter for general omission from this selection of thoughts on the Great War. It is the women: the mothers, the wives, the sisters, the sweethearts, whose tale is still untold, and indeed might never properly now be told, such was the silence about grief – through reticence, pride, social status, illiteracy or nationalism – that governed so much Irish life. I have referred to some of the women: to Agnes Montresor, who lost both her father and her new husband within a couple of days early in the war, to Mrs Bruce, lover of Henry Desmond O’Hara, to Kathleen Shine who lost all three of her sons, and Agnes Collins, who lost four of hers.
In no way, however, could that satisfy my own expectations of how properly to convey any sense of a woman’s grief, bereavement, loss and emptiness, never mind those of a women’s group. Quite simply, it is beyond my power to talk about the emotions these women must have felt.
I am reminded of a woman in Rathgar whose brother Reggie had been wounded in the war. Her name was Violett and poor Reggie (my reason for visiting) was well beyond any useful interview. After I had spent an hour trying to talk with him, she and I had a cup of tea, and I made to go. But we stayed talking at her front door, on the high granite stoop of her house on Frankfurt Avenue.
She told me how she had lost her fiance Nigel in the battle that had maimed Reggie.
“I don’t wish to be rude,” she said, “but my bowels were never right after the telegram arrived. Never. A terrible impediment. I couldn’t really trust myself to go out. So you see, I know so little. These days, of course, Nigel and I would have … you know … but we were God-fearing folk, very proper. So we never. Anyway, I never had a boyfriend after that – just as well, really, because Reggie was never right again after he got home. And he couldn’t hold down a job. So I looked after him. God’s will, I suppose. We have a little money put by. Just a little.”
Her social life consisted solely of attending Rathgar Presbyterian Church on Sunday mornings, sometimes with Reggie, sometimes not, the only time she had the confidence to stray far from a lavatory. Most of her family and friends had emigrated; now the pair of them lived in decaying gentility in a house that smelt of urine and mothballs.
“I must be going,” I said. “It’s been a real pleasure.”
I leaned down and kissed her cheek, and she reeled in astonishment. She was silent for a moment or so.
“No man has kissed me, even like that, since my Nigel kissed me goodbye at Kingstown,” she whispered.
He died in 1917; it was now 1980.
So, no I cannot do justice to the feelings of women in the war. I have neither the emotional clarity, the imaginative powers nor the language to undertake such a task. I confess my guilt, and move on. However, I feel a little more confident when dealing with the many trite and commonplace judgments on how stupidly the war was conducted. For this was a new kind of war, that was begun with cavalry and four years later was finished with computer-ranged artillery, tanks directed by radio-equipped spotter aircraft, while ground-attack aircraft ranged deep behind enemy lines, dive-bombing targets of opportunity. The blitzkrieg was born in 1918, after four years’ fighting that had begun with dragoons’ sabres along the Sambre, and in those 48 months, every single general, battalion commander, platoon subaltern, section leader, from top to bottom, was a novice, and the only lessons that could be learnt were through the grievous expenditure of human life. The alternative, against an adamant foe – and all the participants were certainly that – was unilateral surrender, and such capitulation is not in the nature of great or imperial powers. One can deplore this fact, just as one can the vileness of human nature, but not usefully.
Begging your pardon
It was a depressing reminder of the Irish appetite to find themselves the most oppressed people ever that one of the first manifestations of an awareness that the Irish had served in the war was when our political classes started campaigning for the British to “pardon” the executed Irish. Now I confess I have a certain proprietorial interest in this subject: aided by the researches of those two admirable men, Julian Putkowski and Julian Sykes, in 1989 I published the first ever list of Irish soldiers who had been executed. It was quite beyond my imagination, even at its most fevered, to have predicted that a political class that had come into existence on a campaign of murdering often unarmed and helpless policemen, and which had assured the safety of the fledgling institutions of new state by “executing” – ie murdering – 77 captives, could now get exercised about the deaths of a few British soldiers who happened to be Irish.
The first execution of a British soldier (an Englishman, actually) occurred within two weeks of the first outbreak of fighting. Contrary to much mythology, the British army had in general fought extremely badly in its first encounters with the Germans; the mix of a battalion consisting of between 40 per cent regulars and 60 per cent reservists simply didn’t work. The reservists were often unfit, slow and reluctant to do anything, except hobble homeward on blistered feet. Armies are not nursing homes. They will employ any device to make their men fight, including murder: 10 per cent of all executed soldiers were not even represented at their trials, three of which are dealt with in this volume.
The issue of the executed Irish is not simple as nationalists/republicans today apparently believe. In the new wartime divisions, two men of the 16th (Irish) Division were executed; both of them in Northern battalions, and certainly one of them, Wishart, was a Protestant. Four men of the 36th (Ulster) Division were executed. That means all six of these war-time recruits were northerners, and certainly five of them were Protestants. Looking at the executions from a regimental point of view, five of the executed came from the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, five from the Royal Irish Rifles and two from the Royal Irish Fusiliers – that is, 12 from Northern regiments. Eight men from the southern regiments were executed during the war, three Dublin Fusiliers, three Leinsters and two Munsters.
The execution of poor James Daly in 1920 in India, for leading a munity in which an innocent man was killed, quite simply does not belong in the same category as wartime executions for desertion, which is a far lesser crime. However, the really large question over the executions is raised by the 29th Division, in which there were never more than three Irish battalions, more often two, out of initially 12 battalions, more latterly nine: six of the eight executions were of men from Irish battalions, a grossly disproportionate number. However, the initial charges were brought by the men’s own officers, who were themselves usually Irish, which complicates matters somewhat. Were Irish officers more unforgiving than officers from Britain? In the absence of more work on the subject, I simply cannot say.
Initially when looking at this unbearably painful subject, I suspected the anti-Irish hand of Lt Gen Aylmer Hunter-Weston, who had commanded the 29th Division in Gallipoli, before passing command to Lt General H de Lisle, a well-known savage, but still answerable to Hunter-Weston, commanding officer of VIII Corps. I am grateful to Julian Putkowski for the following story, about one particular Irish-English soldier from Yorkshire.
On August 19th, 1917, 19-year old Gunner William Casey, from Sheffield, married Margaret Connor at St Mary’s Catholic Church, Newcastle upon Tyne. She was eight months’ pregnant, and Gunner Casey had deserted his unit at the front to ensure that the baby would be born in wedlock. On returning to his Royal Field Artillery unit, he was tried by Field General Court Martial for what was a capital offence. Margaret Casey, who was illiterate, persuaded her mother to write a letter to Casey’s commanding officer, pleading for clemency. The letter was read out to the court and after news of the proceedings reached Gen Sir Aylmer Hunter-Weston, he wrote to Margaret Connor.
“Allow me as the commander of the Army Corps in which your husband is serving to send you a cheque with which to buy a wedding present … your husband’s Court-Martial happened to come to my notice, & though of course his commanding officer had no option but to try him for the very heinous offence of being absent without leave & the Court Martial on the evidence had no other course but to condemn him and sentence him to severe punishment, yet, I am glad to say, it has been possible to commute the sentence and suspend its execution. So your Husband will not be punished. I rejoice that when he was forced with the necessity of committing a fault, your Husband had no hesitation in choosing that fault which would bring punishment to him and not to you. You fully realise, I hope, that in coming home thus to marry you he ran a very great risk of being found guilty of desertion & being shot; so he faced death for your sake.
“Though I do not know him personally, I feel sure he must be a fine fellow & a good soldier, & I congratulate you very heartily on having gained his love. He went through much and took great risks in doing the right thing & coming home to marry you. I respect him for doing this & coming back again to do his duty straightway thereafter, & I am certain that you will always remember his fine qualities & this great proof of his love for you, and that you will make him a real good wife… I feel confident that you must be a really nice woman, and I think he is a lucky man to have you for a wife. “Send your husband my greetings and best wishes for his success as a soldier.’
No stereotype survives a letter such as that, complete with a cheque; nor their aftermath, for Gen Hunter-Weston took his own life in 1940. Moreover, I repeat, armies are not nursing homes. In August 1914 the French government accorded its military authorities the unquestioned right to use the death penalty whenever necessary. On September 1st, after some French units had broken under fire, the French Ministry for War instructed officers to carry out death penalties within 24 hours of any offence, with no trial needed. That autumn, faced with the very real prospect of his army collapsing and the last corner of his country capitulating, King Albert of the Belgians issued an Order of the Day that declared that any soldier who fled the battlefield would be shot by special marksman posted to the rear, whose duty was solely that; officers claiming to be sick would be court-martialled, and general staff officers shirking their duties would instantly posted to the front line.
Since executions have become something of an obsession both in Ireland and in Britain, it is worth remembering that during the war, one and forty thousand men deserted from a British army totalling seven million. Twenty thousand British soldiers were convicted of offences carrying the death penalty. Three thousand were sentenced to death. Three hundred and twelve were shot. By contrast, 493 RIC men were shot by the IRA, 1919-22, and 77 IRA prisoners shot by Free State firing squads, 1922-23. People who justify such killings are perhaps on slightly questionable ground when they complain about executions by the British.
Perceptions of the war, and not just in Ireland, have in recent decades been almost hopelessly contaminated by an entertainment industry that prefers spurious fiction to sober fact. First World War generals – who actually managed to inflict military defeats on the Germans and sent them packing across the Rhine, to be followed by an allied army of occupation – are still widely seen as being a legitimate target for lampooning in a way that contemporary politicians, and later generations of British generals that had achieved no such victories, are not.
The wanton lies of agitprop theatre such as Oh What a Lovely War! and of the Blackadder television caricature, have a ready market, which is in itself a cultural curiosity: for though it cannot be healthy to worship war, it cannot be much healthier to revere such falsehoods. Yet these perceptions are as widespread as those other caricatures, “the lions led by donkeys”, and “chateaux generals”. No German generals ever accused the British army of being led by donkeys: how could they, who had lost the war? As for chateaux generals, well, that’s exactly where generals should be – behind the lines, just like Henry Ford then, or Bill Gates today. Nonetheless, over one hundred British generals were killed in the Great War.
The war poets are another matter, because they have been hopelessly traduced by subsequent politico-critics who have often imposed a pacifist or left-wing agenda on their words. For the most part, these men were warrior-bards; they were sensitive humans who were aware of the barbarism of war, yet nonetheless served as bravely as possible in a cause that they thought right. The most cherished of them all, Wilfred Owen, won a Military Cross for seizing a German machine-gun, turning it on its former owners, and killing them. His biographers have usually turned this into “capturing them”. Our own Francis Ledwidge (see elsewhere in this volume) is a fine example of the warrior-bard, for he expressed so many of the conflicting emotions of the thinking man engaged in a righteous war. Naturally, Irish cultural republicanism, while implicitly denying the very existence of the main body of his wartime poetry, nonetheless conscripted his Lament for Thomas MacDonagh, as if that was his poetic and moral essence. It wasn’t. He was proud to be a soldier in the allied cause.
It is too late now to retrieve
A fallen dream, too late to grieve,
A name unmade, but not too late
To thank the gods for what is great;
A keen-edged sword, a soldier’s heart
Is greater than a poet’s art
And greater tha a poet’s fame
A little grave that has no name,
Whence honour turns away in shame.
The war, after all, was actually being fought in Belgium and France, which had not generously lent some neutral jousting-ground for the two sides to test their imperial martial prowess, but instead were the unwilling hosts to a war of both conquest and liberation. Now, one can certainly argue that the liberation of those lands was not worth the dreadful price that was paid. That very valid point does not – and cannot – answer, the questions that follow: what would have become of Europe if Germany had been allowed to hold onto the conquered territories of Belgium, with all its ports looking out onto the North Sea, and much of the industrial heartland of France?
Perhaps, even more serious, what would Germany have been like if the barbarous war of conquest launched by the Kaiser and his military caste had triumphed? Are such people sated by victory, or made hungrier? And how else does one explain the ferocity of the worst battle on the Western Front, Verdun, where France was fighting for the survival of itself as country, and Germany was fighting against a defeat which, it knew – considering its many crimes in the conquered territories – would result in a ruinous settlement?
I have stood at Hulluch where 500 Irishmen were gassed to death in April 1916 by an army that the Easter Proclamation in Dublin was simultaneously hailing as “our gallant allies”. I have walked the bleak plain of Flanders, where in mid-August 1917 hundreds of Dublin Fusiliers set out across the mud to seize Beck Farm and Borry Farm, most of them never to be seen again. But in neither place did I encounter the poisoned atmosphere of Verdun. A stranger, ignorant of the history there, would know it is infused with evil. No birds sings even in springtime, nor crops grow in that corrupted landscape. Tangled shrubs cover a soil teeming with those ancient and implacable foes of man: the viruses and bacteria of gangrene and rabies, tetanus and sepsis.
Other than the death camps of the Third Reich, there could be nowhere in Europe where the remembered stench of human sacrifice is as strong. For it was perhaps the first battle in history which had no strategic objective other than mass killing. In his memorandum to the Kaiser, Field Marshall Falkenhayn stated: ‘Within our reach behind the French sector of the Western Front there are objectives for the retention of which the French General Staff would be compelled to throw in every man they have. If they do so the forces of France will bleed to death … whether or not we reach our goal.”
On the first day of the battle, 80,000 shells are said to have fallen not on the entire battlefield but on one corner of 500 yards by 1,000. Even if apocryphal, the assertion contains a metaphorical truth. Henri Barbusse wrote: “Men squashed, cut in two, or divided top to bottom, blown into a shower by an ordinary shell, bellies turned inside out and scattered anywhere, skulls forced bodily into the chest as by a blow with a club.”
At Fort Vaux in June 1916 the French garrison was trapped waterless in the lower chambers; their wounded lying in the pitch-dark amid their own excrement and blood, their injuries untended and gangrenous for days, while nearby, their colleagues defending the fort were being poison-gassed, or charred alive by flamethrowers. Putrefaction filled the underground air, and men breathed it, sleeping, resting, fighting. Those outside the forts toiled over ground compacted from soil and human flesh and bone and tooth and tissue; and men desperate to escape the endless attentions of the guns dug through human remains. Human flesh was parapet and fire-step. This was a sort of edible Hansel and Gretel-land, but for rats.
By December all medical supplies exhausted, operations on the wounded French defenders were conducted without anaesthetic; if their wounds were too dreadful, they were simply left out in the winter cold to die, like old Eskimos. Water supplies for the French were one with the medical provisions. “I saw a man drinking avidly from a green scum-covered marsh where lay, his black face down in the water, a dead man on his stomach and swollen as if he had not stopped filling himself with water for days.”
“Humanity is mad!” wrote a young French officer who had arrived at the front to the strains of Tipperary: “It must be mad to do what it is doing! What scenes of horror and carnage! I cannot find words to convey my impressions. Hell cannot be so terrible. Men are mad!”
Those who passed through this Golgotha of human slime, of dispersed eyelids and entrails and sundered skulls, joined a unique fellowship. “Whoever floundered through this morass full of the shrieking and the dying, whoever shivered in those nights, had passed the last frontier of life, and henceforth bore deep within him the leaden memory of a place that lies between Life and Death, or perhaps beyond either,” wrote one German of Verdun. And without respite, the two armies remorselessly fed tens of thousands of men a week into this mincing-machine. The French supply line was a single road, La Voie Sacree, The Holy Way, along which a lorry trundled every 14 seconds, with no stopping. If a lorry in front was hit by artillery, the one behind had to keep going, even if it meant driving over the wounded.
At one point the French commanders decided to reinforce a fort they did not know had been lost. A regiment of Zouaves from North Africa was assembled but was spotted and wiped out by artillery before it even started its attack. But another regiment of fellow North Africans, Moroccans, went ahead with their assault; 75 per cent were killed or wounded before they reached the fort; but unknown to them, inside that fort the embrasures were now held by German machine gunners. And these held their fire until the surviving Moroccans, innocently panting with relief that their ordeal was just about to end, were at point-blank range.
Moroccan and Algerian, French and German, entered the food-chain of the fields of Verdun; 420,000 men died there and another 800,000 were gassed or wounded. There is not a tree or animal or leaf on those bleak and poisoned acres that is not composed of something which was human just over a lifetime ago.
It is surely rather peculiar that Irish republicans should have chosen as strategic partners and gallant allies the authors of such condign awfulness. But then, very little of this period makes any sort of sense to the modern mind; for once the war was over, with some 40,000 Irish dead, Irish republicans decided that what the island really needed next was even more violence. In the killing spree that followed, some two hundred returned ex-servicemen were killed, most of them by the IRA, but also some by the RIC/Auxiliaries for having joined (or suspected thereof) the IRA. A few were simply abducted, killed and secretly buried.
After independence, the political heirs of the insurgency were mixed in their attitude to the ex-servicemen. Kevin O’Higgins, one of whose brothers Michael Aloysius was killed in France with the 2nd Leinsters, and another, Jack, served as surgeon-commander on Admiral Beatty’s flagship HMS Lion, was both conciliatory but adamant: “No-one denies the sacrifice and no-one denies the patriotic motives which induced the vast majority of those men to join the British army to take part in the Great War, and yet it is not on their sacrifice that this state is based, and I have no desire to see it suggested that it is.”
Every single one of those assertions could be contested. Many republicans did – and furthermore would increasingly – deny that the very term “sacrifice” could apply to those who had served in a foreign army which they had themselves (if only intermittently) fought. Many within republicanism most emphatically did deny the patriotic motives of those who had served the crown, as did, at the time, Sean Lemass – an attitude for which, some 40 years later, he was to regret and also offer, rather generously, public contrition. As for the third assertion, I would maintain that it was the very evidence that so many nationalists had served the crown in the Great War that made the creation of an independent state, on boundaries agreed by John Redmond in 1915, tolerable for the British. I am, I accept, on challengeable grounds here.
Bipolarity of British imperial psyche
Either way, given the bipolarity of the British imperial psyche, it was surely better for the Irish to address, and be addressed by, the malleable democratic pole than the purblind imperial one, which, almost without blinking, in the summer of 1920 had lost the lives of over 8,000 of its own soldiers in the subjugation of the new-found imperial booty that was Mesopotamia. Moreover, the treaty was largely being negotiated on the British side by a leadership that had supported Home Rule Bill, and was also aware of the losses nationalist Ireland had suffered in the Great War. The faith in that Ireland must have generated a goodwill in the heart of the democratic pole that outweighed any military threat that was posed to the ruthless imperial pole by the likes of Tom Barry and Dan Breen. It was this latter pole to which Lloyd George was (and not very obliquely) referring when he effectively finished the Treaty talks with his promise (flourishing an admonitory envelope), “If I send this letter, it is war, and war within three days.”
However, post-independence Ireland was not composed solely of Kevin O’Higgins, as he himself was to discover. Several county councils, including Wexford, Cork and Tipperary, voted not to employ ex-servicemen, and also, in a particularly noble gesture, even to withhold all educational scholarships from their children. Thousands of unionists, unwilling to stay in a state created by the violence that had claimed so many of their own number, departed, causing a housing slump in their former strongholds of Rathgar, Rathmines and Pembroke. Since up to 40 percent of all Irish-born infantrymen – it varied with the regiment: higher in the west than in the east – were themselves emigrants who had been recruited in Britain, to where, presumably, they would have returned after the war, and since diminished job-opportunities at home would have caused higher emigration amongst returned ex-servicemen, the number of veterans remaining to participate in Irish life, and most of all, to tell their story, must have been disproportionately far smaller than the Irish experience of war actually merited.
So, though 1920s Ireland was deeply aware of the losses in the war, and - as Keith Jeffrey pointed out in his wry study on the subject, Ireland the Great War (Cambridge, 2000), 20,000 veterans paraded in front of 50,000 people in Dublin on Armistice Day in 1924, and the British Legion announced that it had sold half a million poppies in Dublin. As for this last figure, I rather think it compares with the highly creative statistic of “49,400 war-dead”.
Yet over time, it simply became firstly unfashionable, and then impossible, for ex-servicemen to speak out. The redoubtable Jack Moyney VC told me that he had long since learnt to keep his mouth shut unless utterly sure of his company. When I first tried to get veterans of the war to discuss their experiences, some told me that they were in were in fear of their lives from the IRA. Absurd though that might now seem, that was the culture that had emerged. Moreover, neither schools nor universities – not even Protestant ones, or Trinity, which between them must have lost a thousand officers killed – broke ranks with the emerging nationalist orthodoxy of silence.
In a land that was most comfortable with an all-embracing consensus, forgetting the missing 40,000, and the equally accomplished vanishing trick with the 200,000 that survived, proved to be relatively easy. Official Ireland had no problem studiously not knowing about the uncomfortable part of its history: and southern Protestants meekly went along with the new fiction, reserving their memories for the semi-secret rites of Remembrance Sunday, and the poppy discreetly sported under the overcoat. When I started writing about the Irish and the Great War, and repeatedly, in The Irish Times, the then editor Douglas Gageby sent his deputy, Ken Gray, to ask me to desist.
I readily agreed to do just that – the moment when the Irish state acknowledged the dead of the war.
“Good man,” whispered Ken, patting me on the shoulder, and returning to put some gloss on my reply to Douglas Gageby – who, to be fair, never spiked a single column on the issue, even though he heartily disliked what I was doing. Perhaps he thought that my efforts were in vain and quixotic – and for good reason, for it is hard now to convey the utter ignorance that was the norm. When I spoke to a women’s group in Killester in Dublin in 1990 about the Irish in the Great War, not a single person in the room was aware that Killester had orginally been founded in the 1920s as a home for ex-servicemen. And likewise in Athy, a garrison town that had lost about one hundred men killed in the war, but by 1993, when I went to discuss its role in the war, the local sheet was blank, the slate wiped clean: I could have been talking to Peruvians about their granddads’ time in Flanders.
The transformation since then has been extraordinary. Right across Ireland, community groups have been striving to rediscover the hitherto forgotten names of the local war-dead of a century ago. That phenomenal beast, the Irish collective memory, has been stirred from its artificial slumbers and, alert and keen once again, is examining its inner recesses, as tales whispered long ago are compared with the written record.
It is almost impossible to exaggerate the raw power of this amazing memory. At around the time of my trip to Killester, I came across the grave of 47-year old Private Thomas Carthy, Royal Irish Regiment, killed in April 1915, in Poelcappelle Cemetery in Begium. The cemetery register said he was the husband of Mary Carthy, of 34 River Street Clonmel. I wrote to the occupants of that house, asking if they knew what had happened to the Carthy family. In due course I got a letter from a woman in Nenagh, who was the great-grand-niece of Thomas Carthy. She told me the family history. The Carthys were poor, small-town Protestants, and her great grandmother had been Carthy’s youngest sister. That girl was already married when Carthy died, but with a new name, address and religion, having become a Catholic on marrying and later moving to Nenagh.
Such is the might of the Irish collective memory, which through the long dark centuries of dispossession cherished the tales of the Fianna and Knights of the Red Branch, and helped, not always constructively, the Ireland of the 20th century. Now, one hundred years on from the war that everyone once forgot, it is reminding us that amnesia in Ireland can sometimes be no more than a deep morning mist on an entire landscape of personal knowledge, which yet might yield before the warming sunlight of honesty and disclosure.
Ireland’s Great War by Kevin Myers is published by Lilliput Press