Irishman who was ‘Angel of Mons’

Co Wexford-born Thomas Fitzpatrick became the stuff of legend after leading the Royal Irish Regiment to victory over the German army

 

The politician who made a career out of being The Man who Shot Liberty Valance turned out not to be the man who shot Liberty Valance, but the newspaper men who followed his career did not want to know. “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

In September 1914, one month after the Battle of Mons, the writer Arthur Machen published a short story in London’s largest circulation newspaper, the Evening News. “The Bowmen” was a tale of supernatural intervention grafted on to a lurid account of the battle and told in a baroque prose style.

At the moment of greatest peril when the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) faced an enemy twice its number (160,000 vs 80,000), St George intervened and sent bowmen from the Battle of Agincourt to thwart the German forces.

“And as the soldier heard these voices he saw before him, beyond the trench, a long line of shapes, with a shining about them. They were like men who drew the bow, and with another shout, their cloud of arrows flew singing and tingling through the air towards the German hosts.”

The story was fiction, but was published as fact and on the front page too. To compound matters, Machen was also a reporter with the same newspaper and was well regarded by readers for his weighty deliberations on many contemporary matters.

In a more credulous age, the British public, in extremis, believed what they wanted to believe. Machen’s protestations to the contrary were in vain when soldiers themselves began to bring back reports of heavenly interventions.

The legend of the Angels of Mons had taken wings. The British War Office saw no harm in this flight of patriotic fancy. It too was keen to promulgate the story of the “miracle of Mons” where the BEF managed to escape overwhelming odds.

Machen based his account on what he read of the Battle of Mons in newspapers, a battle which took place on Sunday, August 23rd, 1914, outside this old industrial Belgian town with its tightly packed cobbled streets and disfiguring slag heaps.

Visitors to Mons in search of the origins of the Angels of Mons’ story are directed to a large crossroads outside the town known as La Bascule. Here the main road from Mons to Brussels is bisected by another road from Nimy Bridge, where Irishman Lieutenant Maurice Dease became the first winner of the Victoria Cross in the war, to the town of Frameries which provided the axis of retreat for the BEF.

German advance

There they will find a white limestone Celtic Cross erected in 1922 to the men of the 2nd battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment (RIR). The regiment was disbanded after Irish independence. The bronze plaque reads: “To the glory of God and to the memory of the men and officers of the Royal Irish Regiment (18th Foot) who fell during the Great War 1914-1918. Near this spot the 2nd Battalion commenced operations on 23rd August 1914 and finished on 11th November 1918 after being decimated on four occasions.”

The cross is located at exactly the point where a motley outfit of cooks, store men, drivers and delivery men, about 50 in all from the regiment, held up the German advance for 11 hours.

The Angels of Mons’ story is associated with the 8th infantry brigade of the 3rd division of the British Army. The brigade consisted of four infantry battalions, about 4,000 men in total. They were the 2nd Royal Scots, the 2nd Royal Irish Regiment, the 4th Middlesex Regiment and the 1st Gordon Highlanders. These were the regiments defending the Mons salient where Machen sets his short story.

The soldier who inspired the story of the Angels of Mons more than any other was Quartermaster Sergeant Thomas Fitzpatrick from Enniscorthy, Co Wexford.

The son of a Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) constable, Fitzpatrick joined the Royal Irish Regiment straight from St Aidan’s Academy in Enniscorthy when he was 18. The regiment recruited from the counties of Wexford, Waterford, Tipperary and Kilkenny and its barracks was in Clonmel.

Within a year of joining the regiment, he was posted to the North East Frontier in India, the start of a remarkable 52-year career in the British Army where he rose to the rank of major general, a considerable achievement given the army’s institutional suspicion of Irish Catholics. He also received 14 foreign decorations.

The Battle of Mons happened a week shy of his 35th birthday.

During the first World War he was injured twice. He was gassed and left for dead in 1915. A terse telegram from the British War Office told his mother to come at once to the French hospital in Boulogne. He had not been expected to live.

He survived and went on to become a high-ranking functionary in various parts of the British Empire including chief of police in Cairo. He retired in 1949.

Nothing, though, in his long career, ever achieved the same renown as his actions during the Battle of Mons.

As a quartermaster, Fitzpatrick was not a frontline soldier. His role was to ensure his regiment was suited, booted, fed and watered, but needs must on a battlefield.

The Royal Irish Regiment was at the base of the salient created where the Mons Conde canal bends in a semi-circle. The A Company of the 2nd Royal Irish had been overwhelmed and their company commander Fergus (the Earl of) Forbes was badly injured and would die later that day.

Situation critical

By midday the situation was already critical. The Germans had breached the salient over the canal, the frontline in the first clash of arms between the British and Germans in the war.

It been heavily defended at a terrible cost in lives and now they were threatening the flanks of the BEF. There was a real danger the 1st Corps of the BEF, half its entire force on the continent of Europe, would be surrounded and find its war at an end before it had even begun.

Sensing the danger, Fitzpatrick gathered up 40 men from his regiment who were not then in the frontline and they manned the hastily dug trench at La Bascule crossroads.

From there, he and his men had a clear line of sight of the German advance in front and at the side where the German 17th Division was pressing hard on the flanks of the two Scottish regiments, the Gordons and the Scots.

Many accounts of the rearguard stand at La Bascule have been written, but the best is probably Fitzpatrick’s, who published his in The Old Contemptible, a magazine for ex-servicemen in 1955.

Shortly after occupying the trenches, Fitzpatrick and two others went, under fire, to recover a British machine gun lying on the road in front of them. The gun was jammed and the machine gunner was dead, but Fitzpatrick recalled being “delighted” by their “trophy”. Each regiment had only two machine guns. Without both, they stood little chance of repulsing the Germans.

Tension unbearable

Fitzpatrick ordered his men to lie still and not to shoot until the enemy was within 200 yards of them. The tension was unbearable as the enemy drew nearer. Then the men of the RIR opened up a murderous fire with machine gun and rifle.

Again and again the grey-clad German forms approached; again and again they were repulsed.

“Everyone was now in good form and in good spirits,” recalled Fitzpatrick as if they were on a grouse hunt. “We felt we were on top of the world and had repulsed the whole German Army.”

But the cost to his little Irish band was considerable. Fifteen had been killed and four were seriously injured and no medical aid was forthcoming. Fitzpatrick was matter-of-fact about it. “I hoped they would die quickly.”

The surviving men were hungry and thirsty. Mostly they craved tobacco. Fitzpatrick and two others went looking for food. They saw two German soldiers looting a shop for sweets and shot them both. There were no angels at Mons that day.

They then went to look for Capt Forbes and stumbled across the bodies of about 50 German soldiers. Fitzpatrick felt no pity. “How elated we were to see the result of our afternoon’s work.”

It was now night-time. The Germans had been severely mauled and closed down operation to tend to their dead and injured. As they pondered their next move, Fitzpatrick and his men encountered a group of German medical officers in a large Mercedes who approached their trench and demanded access to the German injured.

Bayonets fixed, a stand-off ensued. The senior German officer told them they would be in Paris in five days. “I hope it keeps fine for you,” an Irish voice piped up.

Another German officer observed the Royal Irish badges. “I presume you must all be Ulstermen,” he asked.

Fitzpatrick was amused: “This remark was received by my men with hoots of derision. Lydon said he was from Wexford, others shouted their various counties, Waterford, Cork, Tipperary, Kerry etc and I said jokingly, ‘don’t give information to the enemy’.”

Eventually at 11pm, the men decided to retire for the night and to move towards the British lines. They took their dead and buried them in the trench where they had held out for most of the day. A Belgian civilian led them to safety. On the way, they encountered a young Irish officer, Second Lieutenant John Shine from Waterford, who had been taken in by a Belgian woman and was dying from his wounds in an upstairs room. He would be the first of three Shine brothers to die in the war.

Fitzpatrick’s earlier feelings of euphoria gave way to depression as he contemplated the death of another young man. “Was war worth the glory and its adventures, why should men kill one another?” There was no time for reflection.

Of the 50 or so men who had been in the trenches with him that day, only 17 were left.

Eventually they found their way back to their battalion as the whole of the BEF began the retreat from Mons, a 300km foot slog in unbearable heat with the German Army in pursuit.

Reflecting on that fateful day in Mons more than 40 years later, Fitzpatrick recalled seeing no “Mons angels”.

“I honestly think that not one of my men had the faintest idea what they were fighting for. In fact, I was not sure myself – which illustrates the unconquerable spirit of the British soldier of that day – the Irish soldier in our case. They were there to fight without thought of clan or creed or how well they responded to the call of duty and the traditions of their gallant regiment.”

For his actions, Fitzpatrick received the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) from the British Government, the French Medaille Militaire, their equivalent of the Victoria Cross, and the Russian Order of St George.

Completely destroyed

The efforts of the 2nd Royal Irish Regiment allowed the 8th brigade to make good their retirement. The BEF fought on. Sadly the battalion was nearly completely destroyed two months later when it attempted to take the village of Le Pilly on Aubers Ridge in northern France. Just 300 men survived out of a complement of 900.

This was a familiar story for the battalions of the old regular British army who went to war in 1914. John Lucy, another Irish veteran of the Battle of Mons, stated in his memoirs that by the end of that year 97 per cent of his comrades had been killed or injured.

Fitzpatrick was one of the lucky ones. He survived the war and the next one. During the second World War he was chief of police in the Suez Canal area. Latter-day pictures show an old man laughing and joking with the nurses who were looking after him in a Putney nursing home.

He died in 1965 aged 84. According to his grandson Tom Fitzpatrick, his memoirs were appropriated by the Ministry of Defence (MOD) because they contained sensitive information about British activities in the post-war Middle East.