Allied commander’s tribute to Irish in first World War recalled

New memorial in Glasnevin Cemetery pays tribute to the soldiers who died in France

New memorial in Glasnevin Cemetery pays tribute to the soldiers who died in France. Video: Ronan McGreevy

 

“The heroic dead of Ireland have every right to the homage of the living.” It was almost 10 years to the day after the first World War ended that Marshal Ferdinand Foch wrote his tribute to the Irish who had fought and died in France.

Foch himself, the supreme Allied commander, had accepted the German surrender in a railway carriage in the Forest of Compiègne.

Foch’s tribute came at a time when the new Irish State was busy constructing an alternative narrative. In 1927 the then minister for justice Kevin O’Higgins, though he had lost a brother in the war, ruled out a memorial in Merrion Square in front of Government Buildings to the Irish who had fought in the war.

“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,” O’Higgins said.

In such circumstances many of the hundreds of thousands of Irish men who served in the war must have felt their sacrifices were unappreciated at home. Foch was asked to provide a tribute and responded through the pages of The Irish Times.

Though he never mentions them by name, Foch was clearly referring to the largely Catholic 16th (Irish) Division and the Protestant 36th (Ulster) Division in his tribute. Both of these divisions were involved in the Battle of the Somme. (He must have been mistaken about Willie Redmond who died in Belgium in 1917, not during the Battle of the Somme).

German push

When Foch speaks of the German push, he is referring to the German spring offensive of March 1918 where the Allies came closest to losing the war. Both the 16th and 36th divisions suffered huge losses in that attack before the Germans were eventually stopped and the tide of battle turned.

Understandably, Foch’s words were very warmly received by those who had endured the war. General William Hickie, who had commanded the 16th and was then a Free State senator, said his old comrades would be glad their deeds were “so fully appreciated by the one man in Europe who was most qualified to judge”.

Captain William Archer Redmond, the son of John Redmond, said it was a tribute “no less worthy of the man who has offered it than of the men to whom it has been given”.

Foch’s words did not endure as many had hoped, but prophetically his belief that France would never forget the “heroic dead” of Ireland will be realised on Sunday 100 years after the first World War.

On November 13th, the French government is unveiling a France-Ireland memorial in Glasnevin Cemetery. The memorial, a replica of the Ginchy Cross in the War Memorial Gardens in Islandbridge, Dublin 8, will have etched in stone at its base the final two paragraphs of Foch’s tribute.

Here is an edited version of his words:

From The Irish Times, November 10th, 1928

“The heroic dead of Ireland have every right to the homage of the living; for they proved in some of the heaviest fighting of the world war that the unconquerable spirit of the Irish race, the spirit that has placed them among the world’s greatest soldiers, still lives and is stronger than ever it was.

“I had occasion to put to the test the valour of the Irishmen serving in France, and, whether they were Irishmen from the North or the South, or from one party or another, they did not fail me.

“Some of the hardest fighting in the terrible days that followed the last offensive of the Germans fell to the Irishmen, and some of their splendid regiments had to endure ordeals that might justly have taxed to breaking point the capacity of the finest troops in the world.

“Never once did the Irish fail me in those terrible days. On the Somme, in 1916, I saw the heroism of the Irishmen of the North and South, and arrived on the scene shortly after the death of that very gallant Irish gentleman Major William Redmond.

“I saw Irishmen of the North and the South forget their age-long differences and fight side by side, giving their lives freely for the common cause.

“In war there are times when the necessity for yielding up one’s life is the most urgent duty of the moment, and there were many such moments in our long-drawn out struggle.

“Those Irish heroes gave their lives freely, and, in honouring them on Sunday, I hope we shall not allow our grief to let us forget our pride in the glorious heroism of these men.

“They have left to those who come after a glorious heritage and an inspiration to duty that will live long after their names are forgotten.

“France will never forget her debt to the heroic Irish dead and in the hearts of the French people today their memory lives as that of the memory of the heroes of old, preserved in the tales that the old people tell to their children and their children’s children.

“In the critical days of the German offensive , when it was necessary that lives should be sacrificed by the thousand to slow down the rush of the enemy, in order that our harassed forces should have time to reform, it was on the Irish that we relied repeatedly to make these desperate stands, and we found them respond always.

“Again and again, when forlorn hopes were necessary to delay the enemy’s advance, it was the Irish who were ready for these, and at all times the soldiers of Ireland fought with the rare courage and determination that has always characterised the race on the battlefield.

“Some of the flower of the Irish chivalry rests in the cemeteries that have been reserved in France, and the French people will always have these reminders of the debt that France owes to Irish valour.

“We shall always see that the graves of these heroes from across the sea are lovingly tended and we shall try to ensure that the generations that come after us shall never forget the heroic dead of Ireland.”

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