Tom Kettle: In memory, 100 years after death at the Somme
‘Tom Kettle was a truly great Irishman of whom we should all be immensely proud’
Tom Kettle, Irish patriot, essayist, poet and British soldier.
Lt Tom Kettle, B Company, 9th Battalion, Royal Dublin Fusiliers, was killed in action on September 9th, 1916, near the village of Ginchy in northern France at about 5pm of the 71st day of the Battle of the Somme.
Initially buried on the battlefield by members of the Welsh Guards, the location of his grave was subsequently lost and his remains were never found thereafter.
Today his name is inscribed on the Thiepval Memorial near the town of Albert together with those of 72,000 others who lost their lives on the Somme, and equally have no known grave.
A hundred years later, a constant stream of people from all over the world visit Thiepval every day to pay their respects to the fallen. Some remember Tom Kettle, but most never heard of him, notwithstanding the inclusion of his name on a stone tablet in the Island of Ireland Peace Park at Messines, Belgium when it was opened in 1998. And unfortunately, this also remains true in 21st century Ireland.
The only public memorial in Ireland to Tom Kettle can be found in Dublin’s St Stephen’s Green, directly across from the Shelbourne Hotel.
Never unveiled properly, and following several objections by the Commissioner of Public Works to the inscription, in 1927 a bust of Kettle was eventually placed where it stands today without any reference to the facts that he was an Irish Volunteer, an officer in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers or that he died during the Battle of the Somme.
Nobody stops, nobody looks, nobody cares
It is hardly any wonder then that nobody gives this memorial a second glance as the citizens of Dublin go about their daily business - but on the 100th anniversary of his death it is also nothing short of a national disgrace that nobody stops, nobody looks and nobody cares.
Of course there are reasons for this, not least amongst which is the manner in which history has been taught to successive generations prioritising one historical narrative over another and thereby effectively reducing the contribution of Kettle and others like him to the status of an historical footnote.
This was deplorable and ignored the fact that Tom Kettle was a truly great Irishman of whom we should all be immensely proud.
Thomas Michael Kettle was born in Artane, Dublin on February 9th, 1880. The seventh of 12 children, in his formative years he was influenced significantly by the Home Rule politics of his father Andrew who was a leading Catholic nationalist politician, and together with Michael Davitt a founding member of the Irish Land League.
Educated initially by the Christian Brothers’ at O’Connell School, Richmond Street, Dublin he proved to be an excellent student. In 1894 he moved on to Clongowes Wood College in Co Kildare where it was immediately obvious that the young Kettle possessed more than just an average intellect.
Three years later he enrolled at University College Dublin, where in 1898, he was elected auditor of the Literary and Historical Society and became vocal on the legitimacy of the Boer War in South Africa, before obtaining a Bachelor in Arts Degree in 1902. Thereafter he was admitted to the Irish Bar and qualified as a barrister in 1905.
Throughout this period, he also indulged in political journalism and was a determined supporter of John Redmond and the Irish Parliamentary Party. He became president of the Young Ireland Branch of the United Irish League in 1904. Not surprisingly then when a vacancy arose in the constituency of East Tyrone after the death in 1906 of the sitting MP Patrick Doogan, Tom Kettle was offered and accepted the chance to stand for election to Parliament.
In the byelection which followed he won the seat by 18 votes, thus becoming the youngest member of the party, and was immediately viewed by many colleagues as a future leader.
In this regard his vision of where Ireland should stand in the world was critical and a fundamental component of his entire political philosophy. Together with Willie Redmond he passionately believed that an emerging independent Ireland must exist within a wider political context.
For Redmond that context was colonial in a shared political jurisdiction with Canada, Australia and New Zealand. For Kettle it was Europe. In his article ‘Ireland’ he wrote: ‘My only programme for Ireland consists in equal parts of Home Rule and the Ten Commandments. My only counsel to Ireland is, that to become deeply Irish, she must become European’.
Tom Kettle could see the big picture and that is precisely what set him apart from the majority of his peers.
By 1908, and still only 28 years of age, he had become the new professor of national economics at University College Dublin, while simultaneously continuing his work as an MP. However, the burden became too great given the fragile nature of his health, which included at times a struggle with both depression and alcoholism, and prior to the general election of December 1910 he stood down and did not contest the seat.
Nonetheless he retained his political connections and remained an active supporter of John Redmond, welcoming the Third Home Rule Bill in 1912, and believing that Unionist fears could be overcome in due course.
However other social and political factors were now also at play in Ireland and in 1913 Dublin became embroiled in a workers’ strike and subsequent lockout by management.
Unlike many in the political establishment Kettle supported the locked-out workers and wrote numerous articles describing the appalling poverty in which thousands of working class people were forced to live before intervening directly himself through the establishment of a peace committee in order to find a resolution.
The year of 1913 also saw the formation of the Irish Volunteers in Dublin’s Rotunda Rink on November 25th, and together with his brother Laurence, he immediately enrolled subscribing to the Volunteer Manifesto, which envisaged holding Ireland for the Empire and resisting the separatist intentions of the Ulster Volunteers formed the previous year.
Thereafter he was tasked by the Volunteer leadership with obtaining arms on the open market. In August 1914 he found himself in Belgium where he personally witnessed both the ferocity of the German invasion and the corresponding inability of the Belgian military to resist.
Writing for the Daily News at this time he was unequivocal in his thoughts... ‘It is impossible not to be with Belgium in this struggle. It is impossible any longer to be passive. Germany has thrown down a well-considered challenge to all the deepest forces of our civilization. War is hell, but it is only a hell of suffering, not a hell of dishonour. And through it, over its flaming coals, Justice must walk, were it on bare feet.”
For Kettle the dye was now cast and his continuing experiences in France and Belgium during September, particularly in relation to the plight of the civilian population, served only to confirm his view that this was a war of civilization against barbarians.
Belgium’s hour of need
He was also clear that Ireland had obligations to support Belgium in her hour of need. “In such a conflict to counsel Ireland to stand neutral in judgment, is as if one were to counsel a Christian to stand neutral in judgment between Nero and St Peter.
“To counsel her to stand neutral in action would be to abandon all her old valour and decision, and to establish in their places the new cardinal virtues of comfort and cowardice. In such matters you cannot compromise. Neutrality is already a decision, a decision of adherence to the evil side.”
Not surprisingly then, when Kettle returned to Ireland he had little difficulty subscribing to John Redmond’s belief that Ireland should play its part in the war effort notwithstanding that Home Rule had been suspended until hostilities ceased.
True to his convictions he quickly applied for a commission but was turned down because of his fragile health. However, he persisted, and eventually obtained the rank of lieutenant, albeit that he was confined exclusively to a recruiting role.
Undeterred, he continued to apply for active service and with his health improving marginally, and a chronic need for replacement officers on the Western Front, in 1916 he received an appointment in the 9th Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers and deployed to France.
However, within a short time his health deteriorated again and at Easter he found himself at home in Dublin on sick leave. As his former colleagues in the Irish Volunteers launched their ill-conceived insurrection, Kettle watched in fury believing that his dream of a free Ireland in a free Europe had been terminally damaged.
That said he was also distraught at the manner in which the leaders were subsequently dealt with and he could not be consoled when his colleague at UCD, Thomas MacDonagh, was executed and his pacifist brother-in-law Francis Sheehy-Skeffington was unlawfully killed.
Deeply held convictions
Nevertheless, when his time came to return to the front Kettle understood what his duty required of him, and with the courage of his deeply held convictions on July 14th he set sail once again for France. He was 36 years old and had a mere 58 days left to live.
Readjusting to life in the trenches Kettle did not find life easy. “Physically I am having a heavy time,” he wrote. “I am doing my best but I see better men than me dropping out day by day and wonder if I shall ever come home... the heat is bad as are the insects and rats, but the moral strain is positively terrible”.
Nevertheless, he carried on bravely and his leadership was very effective in the series of successful attacks on Guillemont, which began on September 3rd.
But the village of Ginchy still remained to be taken and writing to his brother the night before the main attack we get a very clear insight into his frame of mind. “I am calm and happy but desperately anxious to live. ...the big guns are coughing and smacking their shells, which sound for all the world like overhead express trains at anything from 10 to 100 per minute on this sector; the men are grubbing and an odd one writing home. Somewhere the Choosers of the Slain are touching, as in our Norse story they used to touch, with invisible wands those who are to die.”
Tom Kettle did not want to die. He simply wanted to do his duty, survive the war, and go home. His numerous writings which survived him make this abundantly clear and any suggestions to the contrary are completely without foundation.
However, the following afternoon, at about 5pm, having made his way thought the stench of the dead in the forward trenches and progressed to within touching distance of his objective, which was the now destroyed village of Ginchy, the Choosers of the Slain chose Tom Kettle, notwithstanding that he had tried to outwit them by wearing a somewhat primitive bulletproof vest. Kettle was gone and Ireland had lost one of her most loyal and faithful servants.
In the intervening years Tom Kettle has often been criticised for supporting the war and serving in the British Army. Some commentators have even dared to suggest that if he wished to make a personal sacrifice in 1916, he should more properly have done so in the General Post Office with his former Irish Volunteer colleagues now turned insurrectionists.
In fact, Kettle was acutely aware that this criticism would be made but firmly believed that: ‘the faults of a period or a man should not prevail against the cause of liberty’.
Gift from God
Writing a sonnet to his daughter Betty (his gift from God) on September 4th, just before the attack on Guillemont, Tom Kettle railed at the madness of his predicament and spelt out in detail why he had put country before family....
‘So here, while the mad guns curse overhead,
And tired men sigh, with mud for couch and floor,
Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,
Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,
But for a dream, born in a herdsman’s shed,
And for the secret Scripture of the poor’.
In recent times lesser poets and lesser people have seen fit to criticise this incredible poem without having made the slightest effort to understand the physical and psychological contexts within which it was written.
This is Kettle’s epitaph crafted in a world of unimaginable horror with nothing save the stench of death for company and the cold sweat of fear soaking into every fibre of his body.
Kettle’s dream was of a free, united and independent Ireland in a free Europe - of that there is no doubt whatsoever - and the secret scripture of the poor is what is always is - liberty, equality, fraternity and justice - or in modern parlance, Human Rights.
On July 1st, this year I went to Thiepval to remember all Irishmen who died there 100 years ago. I took with me the first edition (1917) of ‘The Ways of War’ by Lieutenant Tom Kettle, 9th Battalion, Royal Dublin Fusiliers which once upon a time was owned and treasured by Private Maurice Donovan, 1st Battalion, The Durham Light Infantry. The very last words on the very last page have turned out to be quite prophetic:
“History will write of us that we began nobly, but that our purpose corrupted. The Great War for freedom will not, indeed, have been waged in vain; that is already decided: but it will have but half kept its promises. Blood and iron will have been once more established as the veritable masters of men, and nothing will open before the world save a vista of new wars.”
Lieutenant Tom Kettle, Irish Volunteer and Dublin Fusilier, died courageously leading his men on September 9th, 1916. He was however so much more than just another soldier who simply did his duty. He was desperately anxious to live and undoubtedly would have played a leading role in the development and evolution of our nation had he been spared. Alas, it was not to be - such are the Ways of War - and our Nation has long been the poorer as a consequence.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dilís.
This article is published in The Irish Military History magazine autumn edition. irelandsmilitarystory.ie/
Col Brendan O’Shea is a member of the Irish Defence forces and holds a PhD in History. He is the author of numerous books. In 2010, together with Gerry White, he edited, ‘A Great Sacrifice - Cork Servicemen who died in the Great War’.