Edward Francis Hawe, a boy soldier of the Great War

An Irishman’s Diary on a Tipperary teenager who died in Africa

Among the rows of war dead at Poelcapelle military cemetery in Flanders, there is one grave which is usually a riot of colour set against the neat white slabs.

John Condon’s last resting place, set near a dahlia tree, is the most visited grave on the Western Front.

Condon was 14 according to his headstone when he was killed during a gas attack on the Royal Irish Regiment during the Second Battle of Ypres in May 1915. The same terrible gas attack killed 666 of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers too. It was the blackest of many black days in that war for Irish regiments.

Every day, all year round his grave is festooned with poppies, wreathes and the occasional Tricolour. He has come to personify the pity of that terrible war.


Boy soldiers were a major source of scandal. The top brass were reluctant to let trained men go home and the unscrupulous recruiting sergeant got a shilling for every recruit. The Liberal MP Sir Arthur Markham would not let it rest. By the time conscription was introduced into Britain in early 1916, soldiers were obliged to produce their birth certificates before enlisting.

Unfortunately, Condon's grave, far from being a place of serenity and contemplation, has become a place of contention. Researchers say there is no evidence to prove he was 14, though the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) still recognises Condon as the youngest allied soldier to die in the war.

The civil registration of births, marriages and deaths states that John Condon from Waterford City was born in October 1896, making him 18 at the time he was killed. Even at that relatively advanced age, he was too young to be serving on the frontline. The minimum age for overseas service was 19.

Now an Irish fatality of the war has emerged who was most likely 14 and no more than 15.

Pte Edward Francis Hawe from Mullinhane, Co Tipperary, died on September 20th, 1916, in Tanzania. He was with the 4th South African Horse D Squad and his grave is in Morogoro Cemetery 200km from the largest city Dar es Salaam. What a broth of a boy from Co Tipperary was doing in such an alien environment has yet to be established.

German East Africa gave rise to the Blackadder joke that the German presence on the continent of Africa consisted of a "small sausage factory in Tanganyika" in comparison to the British Empire.

It was defended brilliantly by the German general Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, who was undefeated and only surrendered when news came through two days after the fact about the armistice which was signed on November 11th, 1918.

In 1916, a British and Commonwealth force invaded German East Africa and it was during this campaign that Pte Hawe met his untimely death.

Discovering his identity was an act of serendipity by the redoubtable local historian Tom Burnell who lives in Holycross, Co Tipperary.

For the last six years Mr Burnell has taken it upon himself to correct the flawed Irish war memorial records which name 49,400 men who died in the first World War.

He wishes to establish, as far as it can be established, the exact number of Irishmen who died. He has done it because “no one else will”, though the Government’s welcome announcement that it will fund research into updating the records is no less than these unfortunate Irishmen deserve.

Burnell has been trawling local and national newspapers looking for Irish fatalities and checking them off against the Irish war memorial records.

Pte Hawe, like many thousands of other Irishmen who did not fight in Irish regiments, is not included in the memorial records. He is mentioned in the Irish Independent which states: "Hawe – September 20, 1916, of wounds received in action, Edward Francis Hawe, of Cleveland, youngest son of the late Philip Hawe, of Briarsfield, Mullinhone, County Tipperary. R.I.P" .

There is a similar announcement in the Liverpool Echo.

The 1911 census records Edward Hawe as being nine at the time. Significantly, he is not recorded in the 1901 census so he must have been born after April 1901.

The South African War Graves Project lists his date of birth as “0001-11-30” which could be read as November 30th, 1901, making him 14 when he died.

Tom Burnell's trawl of the provincial newspapers of the time has also generated a series of books, the first of which was published in September. Irishmen in the Great War – Reports from the Front 1914 illustrates how the Irish provincial press, like the majority of the Irish people, were behind the British war effort, at least in its early stages. Burnell is also the author of Kilkenny's War Dead, which was launched yesterday.