THE SOLDIERS' SONGS
Inside an unassuming Berlin building lies a collection of recordings made in German prisoner of war camps during the first World War. Among the thousands of shellac discs are recordings of Irish soldiers and their songs, poems and stories. A century on, they come to life again here: the soldiers’ songs, and how they came to be sung
Words by Derek Scally. Profiles by Ronan McGreevy.
Next door to Angela Merkel’s Berlin apartment lies a little-known treasure trove. It’s a treasure far less spectacular to behold than the Ishtar Gate of Babylon, on display in the Pergamon Museum opposite. But this treasure’s value lies in its sound, not its looks. Enter the quiet courtyard of the building on the banks of the River Spree, climb two flights of steep stairs and you arrive at a long room. There’s a wall of windows to the left, tables cluttered with dusty boxes and files in the middle and, along the right-hand wall, 13 bottle-green filing cabinets. Inside each drawer are tight rows of cardboard sleeves.
Extract a yellowing paper sleeve marked PK 1071 and you hold in your hands a piece of Irish history, preserved on a fragile 78 rpm shellac record. I sit down to listen and, after some loud scratches, a hesitant voice comes to life.
In my native home, Liscarrol/There lives a cailín who is blind;
And her name is Kitty Farrell/To her the neighbours are all kind...
It’s a goose-bump moment to hear reedy, northern vowels a century later.
She’s the pride of Liscarrol is sweet Kitty Farrell,
Cheeks as red as roses and teeth as white as pearl.
The singer’s name is John McCrory, born April 24th, 1881. He was a shoemaker from Belfast and was 36 years old when the recording was made at 10am on September 19th, 1917. I know all this from the remarkably complete file accompanying his recording, filled out in spidery script at the German prisoner of war camp in Giessen, 70km north of Frankfurt. In the file is a questionnaire listing his education – national school – and his religion – Catholic. On a separate page, in careful script, McCrory has written down the song lyrics. There’s even a second, phonetic script transcript documenting the idiosyncrasies of the his accent.
McCrory is one of 35 Irish soldiers serving the British army imprisoned in Giessen and whose voice was recorded by visiting researchers from Berlin as part of an ambitious linguistic project.
The Berlin collection of their voices is known only to specialists. McCrory is long gone, as are other comrades in the camp whose voices were recorded: James McAssey, Martin Kelly, Patrick Sullivan and Edward Duggan.
But who were these men, why were their voices recorded in September 1917 and what are these recordings doing in Berlin?
John McCrory, though listed in documents as being from Belfast, sings The Pride of Liscarroll with distinctly Cavan vowels and, like James McAssey, without any musical accompaniment.
“Years ago when she was courting her young sweetheart Ned Molloy
One night as they were both out walking hearts like children full of joy
A storm came on and Kate got frightened she threw her arms around sweetheart Ned
When both of them were struck by lightning they found her blind and he lay dead"
Private John McCrory of the Royal Irish Fusiliers was born in Belfast and is listed in the 1911 census as living at Conway Street, Falls, Belfast, with his mother Mary Jane McCrory, sister Maggie (McDonnell), her husband John McDonnell and their five children. He is described in the census as a general labourer but unemployed.
Sometime between 1911 and 1914 he joined the British Army and would have been a regular at the outbreak of the war as he was captured at Caudry near Le Cateau on August 26th, 1914. The Battle of Le Cateau near the Belgian border was a short but bloody encounter between the retreating British II Corps led by General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien and the advancing German army. It cost the British army 8,000 casualties, as many as on D-Day. The plan was to deal the Germans a “stopping blow” and slow their advance into France.
The 1st battalion of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, known as the Faugh a Ballaghs (Lead the Way) was only in France four days before it became caught up in the fighting. During the Battle of Le Cateau it was ordered to retreat, but the message never got through and the battalion was trapped. “It was simply hell. If you can imagine the worst hail storm you ever saw, and every bit of hail, a bullet or a shell, you will understand what it was like,” a survivor Private McCauley told the Armagh Guardian. Those who were not killed or wounded were captured by the Germans.
Such was Private McCrory’s fate. By the time he was captured, he was already married and had a child. He married Mary Ann Moylan on October 2nd, 1913 in Belfast. The couple were Catholics. Their first child, Catherine, was born on August 9th, 1913, two months before the couple were married. When war broke out, Private McCrory’s wife was pregnant with their second child, Mary Jane (named after John McCrory’s mother), who was born in January 1915 while he was in a German POW camp.
John and Mary Ann McCrory waited for 12 years before having their next child. Cecilia was born in 1927. She was followed by Theresa, Sarah, John, Julia, Hannah, William, James and Thomas, 11 children in all. Theresa, who was born in 1933, lives in Canada where many of the extended McCrory family now reside. Mary Jane, the second eldest, married Robert Stewart and they had five children. Their eldest, Marie Stewart, married James Dempsey. With The couple were living in the Springfield Park area of Belfast when the Troubles broke out. Their daughter Moira Dempsey (now Porter)) was standing beside Fr Hugh Mullan when he was shot by a British soldier during riots which followed the introduction of internment on August 9th, 1971. Two days later James and Marie Dempsey and their six children decided to emigrate to Canada.
They ended up in Hamilton, an industrial town south of Toronto. Marie Dempsey told the Belfast Telegraph reporter Alf McCreary how glad they were to leave Northern Ireland. “It is no place to bring up children. My eldest boy was beaten up because he was a Catholic. If he had stayed I suppose he would have ended up throwing stones like the rest of them.” What would her grandfather, who spent four years as a British soldier in a German POW camp, make of it all? Would her eldest son have been beaten up had his attackers known his great-grandfather had served King and country in the first World War?
John McCrory died in 1947 from stomach cancer at the age of 65. His occupation is listed as nightwatchman. His son William was with him when he died. William McCrory had 10 children of his own. His father, whose plaintive and unmistakably Belfast voice singing The Pride of Liscarroll can be heard echoing across the generations from the confines of a German POW camp, now has many descendents. “My father [William] Billy had five boys and five girls,” says Jim McCrory, Pte John McCrory’s grandson. “His children now have children. There must be 40 great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren.”
John McCrory’s great-great-daughter, Moira Porter, who is originally from Belfast, knew vaguely he had been a prisoner of war during the first World War until contacted by The Irish Times when the connection was confirmed.
“The tape of him singing was awesome. Oh my God. It made me cry and made me proud that my great-great grandfather was involved in that part of history. To think he was sitting there as a prisoner of war singing that song. My aunt was really taken by it too,” she said.
Moira Porter’s family left Northern Ireland shortly after the introduction of internment in 1971. She was just 14. She has never been back.
“I’m shellshocked to this day. I dread that we were taken away from our home and all we knew. I was just getting established in my life. I’m still sad and mad that all of this was taken away from us,” she said. “When I hear the word Ireland my stomach flips. I have a great love for it, but even now I have the fear. When I hear bombs going off in films, I have to leave the room.”
Canada, though, has been good to her and her family. She is married to a retired Canadian soldier. Her three sons are in the Canadian army. Two of them served overseas. The tradition of army service is now in its fifth generation.
“I hope my boys never have to go through what John McCrory had to go through,” she said.
Back in Berlin, a second scratchy recording kicks in and a hesitant voice comes to life. Though it's 1,700km to Carlow and 98 years later, this Carlow man sounds as melancholic as he did in 1917:
“No one to welcome me home far away/no one to welcome me home;
For when I return to old Ireland again/I’ll have no one to welcome me home.”
James McAssey was born two days before Christmas 1890. He was a farmer with 30 acres of land, according to his questionnaire -- typewritten this time. He played the “cagpipes” (sic) and, according to the form, had a “good middle voice with adequate consonance”. The recording was made at 9am in the morning.
Pte McAssey was born on December 23rd, 1890. He was from Leighlinbridge, Co Carlow. His attestation papers suggest he joined the 8/Kings Royal Rifles (reserve) in 1906. He would later have joined the regular Royal Dublin Fusiliers as Carlow was part of its recruitment district. He was captured at Ligne, Belgium, in December 1914. He must have been attached to the 2nd battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers as they were the only one on the Western Front at the time.
The battalion was involved in the infamous “surrender of the colonels” at St Quentin on August 27th, 1914. Lt Col Mainwaring, the commanding officer of the 2nd battalion of the RDF, and Lt Col Elkington of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment surrendered to the local mayor after he told them they were surrounded and any decision to fight would only lead to the Germans shelling the town, killing innocent civilians. They were unaware that two Irish cavalry regiments, the 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards and the 5th Irish Lancers, were acting as a screen, keeping the Germans back. In a celebrated incident, the Dragoon Guards commanding officer, Maj Tom Bridges, persuaded the exhausted men to march by rousing them with musical instruments he borrowed from a shop in the town.
Mainwaring and Elkington were cashiered out of the British army in disgrace. Elkington rehabilitated his reputation by joining the French Legion. He was decorated for bravery. Mainwaring disappeared from public view. The incident was the subject of a book by former British defence secretary John Hutton entitled The Surrender at St Quentin.
When recording PK 1068 kicks in, it’s surprise to hear that this time there’s no song, but Martin Kelly from Tipperary reading a passage from the Bible.
“Bring hither the fatted calf and kill it and let us eat and be merry.
For this my son was dead and is alive again he was lost and now is found . . .”
His questionnaire contains little other information besides his name.
Martin Kelly was born on March 3rd, 1894, in Carrick-on-Suir, Co Tipperary. The son of Martin and Nora Kelly from Kickham Street and one of five children, he was educated at the local national school and listed his occupation, when called up, as a farmer with 26 acres. Kelly may have been a reservist at the start of the war. So many men from the town signed up to fight that the Nationalist MP John Dillon told the House of Commons in January 1916: “The town of Carrick-on-Suir has sent a larger proportion of its population than, I think, any town in England has done.”
Kelly was part of the 2nd battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment, which was based out of Clonmel. He was captured at the Battle of Le Pilly, which took place on October 19th and 20th, 1914, about 20km south of Lille in the Pas-de-Calais. It was part of the “Race of the Sea”, as the British and French attempted to block the Germans from occupying the channel ports. The battle was one of the biggest catastrophes to affect any Irish battalion in the war.
Martin Kelly’s life was blighted by tragedy, which began with the Battle of Le Pilly. The battalion captured the village of Le Pilly on the afternoon of October 19th but could not hold it. Sensing the Irish were isolated, the Germans surrounded the battalion and exacted a terrible price. Some 177 were killed including Martin Kelly’s brother Michael (26), who left behind a wife and two children. His body, like those of 164 other men in the battalion, was never found. Their names are recorded on the walls of the Le Touret Memorial in nearby Rue-du-Bois. Martin Kelly was one of 303 soldiers from the battalion taken prisoner and he spent the rest of the war in a PoW camp.
Martin and Michael Kelly married two sisters, Nancy and Ellen (Nell) Drohan. Nell was 21 when Michael was killed and was left to raise two children, Mickey and Molly. Mickey Kelly fought in the Royal Navy during the second World War. His ship was torpedoed but he was rescued and after the war, suffering from shellshock, he returned to Carrick-on-Suir.
Martin Kelly settled back in Carrick-on-Suir after the war. He was good at tailoring and shoe repair, eventually landing a job in the Pollack & Plunder tannery in the town. He was interested in boxing and opened a gym. He and his wife Nancy had 10 children, one of whom died. In 1941, Nancy Kelly died from cancer and his widowed sister-in-law Nell helped raise the remaining children. The youngest, Mary, was just five. Martin Kelly died in 1950 at the age of 56. The cause of death is listed as heart failure.
Mary Kelly’s daughter, Ann Marie Sinem, lives in London. Life was tough for her mother’s family. “The Kellys didn’t have much. They struggled to survive. That’s why most of them went to England to live,” she says. Her grandfather was clearly affected by the war and went on drinking binges. His behaviour now makes sense, she says.
“I found it very emotional listening to this voice. I knew he was in the war, but I never realised he was a prisoner of war. I feel proud of what he did during the war. His personality made a lot of sense when he came back from the war. I would imagine being in a prisoner of war camp for four years would change anybody.”
Patrick Sullivan from “Charlevelle” (sic) had a colourful life as documented in his questionnaire: after the local Christian Brother school he joined the army where, after rising to the rank of sergeant after 20 years, he was degraded for drinking. The recordists note that his voice is “high, bright” voice with “little consonance”. The questionnaire ends: “Can only read with effort, thus some errors in the spoken text”.
He recites, in an unmistakable Cork brogue, the poem Caoch the Piper:
"Poor Caoch and Pinch slept well that night and in the morning early
He called me up to hear him play 'The wind that shakes the barley'
And then he stroked my flaxen hair and cried 'God mark my dearie'
And how I wept when he said 'farewell and think of Caoch O’Leary'"
He was born on September 28th, 1877, and was from Charleville, Co Cork. There are at least 12 Patrick Sullivans listed in the International Red Cross database of first World War prisoners of war. Further research failed to shed light on his story.
Before leaving the Lautarchiv I pull out one last recording – PK 1057 - of Edward Duggan from Waterford. He was taken prisoner in November 1914 in Ypres and, three years later, was still living in limbo in the Giessen prisoner of war camp. The recordists noted that he had a “medium-strength voice with medium consonance and indolent sibilance”. But it’s difficult not to be affected by his clear tenor, heavy with homesickness, as he sings “Where the Shannon Flows Down to the Sea.”
“There’s a pretty spot in Ireland/that I’ll always claim for my land
Where the fairies and the blarney will never, never die
It’s the land of the shillelagh/and my heart goes back there daily.
To the girl I left behind me/when we kissed and said goodbye.”
He was born on August 17th, 1888, in Tramore, Co Waterford. His parents were Thomas and Mary Duggan, who had five other children: Michael, Bridget, Mary, Kate and Rose. He grew up at 20 Main Street and was educated at the Christian Brothers school in Tramore and was still living in the town at the age of 20. It is unclear when he joined the Irish Guards, but it is certain to have been before war broke out in 1914. He was captured at Ypres on November 6th, 1914. According to Rudyard Kipling, who wrote the definitive history of the 1st battalion of the Irish Guards, a company from the battalion was caught out in the open at Klein Zillebeke, south of Ypres. For days, the Irish Guards had stopped the Germans making a breakthrough in their sector. However, one company was left exposed when a second company and the French support withdrew on November 6th. “This left No 1 Company practically in the air, and at the end of the day the greater part of them were missing,” Kipling wrote. Pte Duggan was listed as a prisoner of war in the Waterford News in May 1915.
These Irish soldiers’ voices are just a handful of the recordings in the Lautarchiv, or sound archive, owned by Berlin’s Humboldt University. It holds 7,500 shellac records, wax cylinders and tapes containing voices of famous historical figures, such as Kaiser Wilhelm II and his “Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck. But most recordings are of little-known men and women, now long dead. The idea of recording PoW voices in imperial German camps was the idea of the teacher and linguist Wilhelm Doegen.
Like Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, Doegen was intrigued by the new recording technologies of the day, and saw their potential in preserving the human voice for later study, in particular for language teaching. In early 1914, Doegen approached the cultural ministry in Berlin with his proposal to “record “the languages . . . and song of all peoples of the earth”. Travelling the earth to record human voices would be an onerous and costly task, but not with tens of thousands of soldiers from far-flung countries now the involuntary guests of the kaiser in German PoW camps. “There was a scientific obsession in this era with collecting as much as possible from around the world,” said Dr Britta Lange, a cultural historian and researcher of the Lautarchiv.
Carl Stumpf (top)
Wilhelm Doegen (bottom)
In 1915, the ministry approved Doegen’s proposal and established the Royal Prussian Phonographic Commission. At its head was not Doegen, however, but the philosopher and psychologist Carl Stumpf. He was a pioneer of comparative musicology, taught at the University of Berlin and was a founder of the Berlin Phonogram Archive established in 1900.
Prof Stumpf appointed the musician and musicologist Georg Schünemann to go on the road with Doegen. For recording work each man had their own equipment. Schünemann favoured the phonograph, invented by Thomas Edison in 1877. It allowed sound to be recorded for the first time on rotating wax cylinders. By 1915 it was relatively mobile, required no electricity and could be operated by one person. Subjects spoke into the device’s horn, a needle recorded the sound on the cylinder and the operator could immediately play it back.
Doegen's recording apparatus
Wilhelm Doegen at work
Doegen had different plans and different equipment. He used gramophone technology, invented in 1887 by Emile Berliner, that produced superior recordings but recording sessions were a more cumbersome affair. More businessman than academic, Doegen hoped to sell the records he produced and make money from his endeavours. The recording sessions The two teams travelled together but Doegen usually recorded speech and Schünemann songs, though they sometimes recorded in parallel. In the case of the Irish PoWs, it was Doegen’s team who recorded them.
The Stumpf-Schünemann team produced more than 1,000 wax cylinders while Doegen’s team turned out 1,651 records. The commission members worked in absolute secrecy – a point Stump underlined four months before the Giessen recordings were made. “The Ministry of War wishes to avoid any public mention of our phonographic recordings due to the possibility of misinterpretation,” wrote Prof Stumpf in a circular to commission members. “It is forbidden to speak about phonographic recordings in the prisoner of war camps or of the existence of a phonographic commission either in books or treatises or in newspaper notices for the duration of the war.”
Views of Giessen Camp
The commission members visited around 70 camps. After asking camp officials to find suitable speakers and musicians, the recording teams arrived and met the men. With their help they filled in questionnaires and began recording. A report by Georg Schünemann from 1919 said that “in general people enjoyed singing for the records and were all the more pleased when they recognised their voices coming from the device”. “The singing of well-known melodies also put people in a good mood,” Schünemann wrote, “and often they did not want to stop.”
Supplementing the audio recordings were images. At two camps, Wünsdorf and Zossen, official photographer Otto Stiehl took images of largely Muslim inmates, as remarkable as the recordings. Commission files suggest that all men who were recorded were also photographed, but these images appear lost. Dispute Towards the end of the commission’s work in 1919, the different philosophies, agendas and personalities of its members sparked rows and eventually a falling out.
Doegen, whose idea the project was, had a more entrepreneurial view of his recordings. He viewed himself as the de facto head of the project, which annoyed Stumpf, the commission’s president. Archived letters suggest Stumpf was irritated by Doegen, looking down on his “pathological pushiness” and his “loathsome philistine notions” about their work. By the time the commission concluded its work in 1920, the two men went their separate ways and, to Stumpf’s annoyance, Doegen took his shellac recordings with him. Both camps continued recording work: Doegen’s team visited Ireland in 1936, recordings which were digitised in collaboration with the Royal Irish Academy, co-financed by the Irish State, and released on CD.
Doegen was dismissed from the Lautarchiv in 1933, months after the Nazis seized power but opinions differ on why. Some see him as the victim of a whispering campaign that he was Jewish, for which there is no evidence. Records show he faced others accusations of financial fraud and was subjected to several audits, which his defenders say was another attempt to defame him. Critics of Doegen suggest he ruined his own professional reputation by being more salesman than academic, selling commercially recordings that were intended only for research purposes.
After his departure, the Lautarchiv continued to make recordings until 1944 and Doegen died in 1967. The collection, including the Irish PoW voices, has remained in Berlin since, though the original master recordings or “matrices” have been lost. Stumpf’s wax cylinder recordings had a more chequered history: seized by the Red Army in 1945 and brought to Leningrad, they were returned to East Berlin 15 years later. It was only in 1991 that the cylinders were given to their rightful owners, Berlin’s state-owned Ethnological Museum in the western district of Dahlem. There, with recordings reunited with documentation, work began decoding the cylinders’ contents.
The recording collections are still stored separately in Berlin and, almost a century after the original commission members parted company in acrimony, their feud lives on. At least that's the distinct impression when today’s collection custodians make strained, stilted remarks about each other. Each side has a different view on how much weight needs to be given to the recordings, and how much attention to the context in which they were recorded.
Dr Britta Lange, a researcher of Doegen’s Lautarchiv at Berlin’s Humboldt University, argues the recordings need to be viewed in a critical cultural context. The most pressing question: was it ethical to make such recordings in a prisoner of war context? Thus she suggests that claims by the commission members a century ago, that prisoners enjoyed singing and speaking for the camp visitors, need to be taken with a pinch of salt. “Camp prisoners were forced to work, many were forced to strip and be photographed, some had plaster moulds made of their heads,” she said. “We have clues that some prisoners didn’t want to talk for fear of having no control over the recording. This is particularly relevant in the wartime context where they feared espionage.”
Across town in Dahlem, the linguists in charge of the wax cylinder collection play down the ethical questions posed by Dr Lange. “Never has anyone said to me ‘those are PoW recordings you cannot use them’,” said Prof Susanne Ziegler, a linguist who oversaw the re-organisation of the wax cylinder collection. “Rather they are full of awe that the recordings were made in the first place.” Though this Dahlem collection contains no Irish PoW singers, the 17,000 recordings are an extraordinary musical treasure trove. Included are many recordings of other PoWs that run the gamut from Ukrainian love songs to the less lovely Bloody Danube sung by a Turkish soldier.
Humboldt University sound archive
The collection is currently being digitised and is the subject of a fascinating exhibition in the Ethnological Museum. For Mareike Jacobs, a co-curator of the exhibition, the Berlin recordings are a window into a lost world. “We can research changes in dialects, see how song lyrics and melodies changed over the years, even the mood of the prisoners,” she said. Despite their differences, the Berlin experts agree that their extraordinary recording collections still contain many secrets yet to be cracked. All the more reason to share them with the world, says Dr Lange. “A century after these recordings were collated in Germany, we should turn things around and now look outward, asking researchers around the world to help us contextualise them,” said Dr Lange. “We need an intercultural dialogue which would not threaten our inheritance but enrich it.” She is optimistic this will eventually happen after the proposed move into the Humboldt Forum in the reconstructed Prussian palace, reuniting the two collections under one roof. By then, fully digitised, the recordings are like precious, audible amber: preserving forever the lost voices of a world at war.
For now, though, the Irish ghosts of the Great War in Berlin will remain in their current home, next door to Angela Merkel. Spend long enough in their presence, which is very easy to do, and you begin to think that, after a century in silence, the men are happy to finally have an audience.
Design: Paul Scott
Sound: JJ Vernon
Project Editor: Brian Kilmartin
Do you know these men?
If you are related to one of these men or know something more about them, contact Ronan McGreevy at email@example.com