My hairbrush once belonged to a man called Alan Appleby Drew, an uncle of my paternal grandmother, who was working as a teacher at Mostyn House School in Cheshire when the Great War broke out. Alan was a man who liked to sing and entertain. He had travelled a good deal and spent a few years in Shanghai. His father was on the Scottish team who took on England in the world’s first rugby international. Alan evidently felt sufficiently Scottish to join the Cameronians, aka the Scottish Rifles.
Lieut AA Drew arrived on the Western Front in February 1915 and lasted four weeks. The 31-year-old was killed at Neuve Chapelle, alongside most of his fellow officers from the Cameronians. I found his grave in the Royal Irish Rifles cemetery at Laventie and I thanked him for his hairbrush.
After his death, his distraught parents gifted a carillon of 31 bells to Mostyn House, one bell for every year of his life. When that school closed a few years ago, the bells were offered to Charterhouse in Surrey where Alan had been at school. Considering that Alan was one of a staggering 687 past pupils from Charterhouse who died in the war, the school was very keen to take on the bells. And so it was that on a sunny afternoon in May 2014, I stood beneath a belfry at Charterhouse, alongside my father and my oldest brother, listening to the clanging melodies as AA Drew’s carillon rang anew.
My maternal grandmother also lost two uncles in the war. Guy Finlay and his younger brother Bobby grew up at Corkagh House near Clondalkin, Co Dublin. Their father was Lieut Colonel of the 5th Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and not surprisingly both sons joined the regiment. So too did their eldest brother Harry who succumbed to dysentery in the Anglo-Boer War. Bobby was the first to die, killed in Flanders during a failed attempt to capture the German trenches at Aubers Ridge in May 1915. Fourteen months later, Guy fell at the Somme, caught out by the German counter-attack at Bazentin Ridge.
Three years ago, my brother and I went to find our great-great-uncle’s graves on the Western Front. Before we left, I dashed into the woods of Corkagh on a whim, seeking something from the old family home that I might place on the Finlay brothers’ graves should we find them. Rather pathetically the best I could come up with were two leaves from a majestic old horse chestnut tree that they had perhaps once played beneath as boys. The bodies of Bobby and Guy were never found so they had no graves. However, I found their names on the memorial walls at Ploegsteert and Pozieres and I wedged the chestnut leaves alongside them.
It was exceptionally moving to find Alan’s grave and the names of the two Finlay brothers. But it was at the cemetery in Tyne Cot in Flanders that the immensity of the war overwhelmed me. I walked alone down a path through line after line of those proud white headstones, with a wall blocking the view to my left. I thought I might have become immune to all the death by then, but any jauntiness in my stride vanished and I found myself walking ever slower until I ground to a halt just at the point where the wall beside me ended. And then I turned my eyes to the left and I slumped. Behind the wall, the field of graves was replicated again and again as far as I could see, like the saddest dream ever dreamt. Endless rows of white upright slabs, 12,000 all told, framed at one end by the Memorial to the Missing upon which were written the names of another 35,000 whose bodies were never identified.
Most veterans of the Great War felt compelled to submerge their experiences in grim silence, creating an emotional void that would torment their wives and their children to such an extent that I think the repercussions of that war will be felt by unknowing generations for many decades to come.
For those who returned to Ireland after the war, the horror of their experience was magnified by the realisation that everything they fought for amounted to nought and that anyone who thought otherwise was no longer welcome. Although many of those who won independence for the Irish Free State had formerly served in His Majesty’s forces, there were powerful elements within the new order that would obligate the country at large to throw an unforgiving eye upon ex-servicemen of the British Empire. In time the hostility became amnesia and the Ireland of my youth in the late 20th century seemed to have a history in which the only war the Irish ever fought was for freedom from Britannia’s rule.
Tom Kettle was one of Ireland’s most brilliant nationalist politicians when the war erupted. He chose to fight because he believed the Kaiser’s army would destroy the very fabric of Europe. And yet he was also intuitively aware of how the truth could coil upon itself. In the wake of the Easter Rising, he wrote, “Pearse and the others will go down in history as heroes, and I will be just a bloody English officer.” When President Michael D Higgins addressed the Houses of Parliament in Westminster in the spring, he spoke of Kettle specifically, and acknowledged the hundreds of thousands of Irish men and women who served. It was another coming-of-age moment for Ireland, an end to decades of silent schizophrenia.
There are no clear-cut figures as to how many Irish actually fought or died. By the time you combine all the Irish or half-Irish who served in the British, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand and US armies, there was probably more than quarter a million. Tempers tend to rise during the guessing game of how many Irish-born actually died but at least 40,000 appear to have been killed or died during the war while God only knows how many veterans perished after the war from the effects of their wounds, alcoholism, depression and unidentified psychological trauma.
The Irish war dead remain almost entirely forgotten in most of the towns and villages from whence they came. In the small town of Tullow, Co Carlow, where I wrote this book, at least sixty-four men perished in the war but very few people in the town have ever heard of those 64 dead men.
The Glorious Madness is not a definitive book of Irish involvement in the war. It is simply a collection of Great War stories with an Irish twist. From the generals and field commanders through to the troopers and nurses on the frontlines, the Irish served at every turn. They tore through the skies in flimsy bi-planes. They soared across the seas in battleships. They charged across the tortured earth with bayonets fixed. They wrapped bandages and dabbed softly in the field hospitals. They prayed, they sang, they killed, they wept and they died.
Many of these men and women were unbelievably courageous. Others seem to have been pathologically designed for war. And there were some who loathed every second of it.
My aim was to look at war from the perspective of the people. When I walked the stark lines of Tyne Cot and all those other cemeteries, the war slowed down. Every headstone represented a human being; their names stared at me like eyes from another world. Their cheerless fate was decreed by the simple fact that their abbreviated lives coincided with one of the most brutal conflicts our world has ever known.