Willie Redmond: an Irish patriot and a British soldier
Solitary grave in Flanders a testimony to contradictions in Irish nationalism in first World War
Two nuns and three young girls at the grave of Maj William Redmond in Locre, Belgium, during the first World War. Redmond was mortally wounded during the Battle of Messines. Photograph:: John Warwick Brooke/National Library of Scotland
On the road between Locre and Kemmel in southwest Flanders, where the land gently rises, there stands a solitary war grave. The grave of Major Willie Redmond MP is simple, consisting of a limestone cross, paid for by his widow Eleanor, flanked in a triangular fashion by two stones from the old convent. Evergreen shrubs surround it.
When British soldiers died in the first World War, they were either buried in one of the hundreds of beautifully manicured Commonwealth War Graves Commission graves which are everywhere in this corner of Belgium or, if their bodies were not recovered from the battlefield, they were remembered on memorial walls.
Of the 174,000 British soldiers who died in Flanders in the first World War, only Redmond is buried apart, a testimony to his significance as the most famous Irish casualty of the Great War and a sitting MP.
Willie Redmond was an Irish patriot and a British soldier. That paradox was not so obvious when he signed up to fight at the age of 53 in November 1914.
In September of that year his brother John had challenged the Irish Volunteers to go “wherever the firing line extends in defence of right, of freedom and of religion”.
Willie Redmond fully subscribed to the notion of the war being for the defence of small nations declaring: “The Belgians never did the Germans any harm, and yet Belgium was invaded and the Belgian people were massacred and their homes and churches destroyed. If, in the time to come, we in Ireland could not show we had struck a blow for Belgium, then, indeed, I believe that our name would be disgraced.”
There was also a compelling personal reason for the Redmonds’ interest in the war. Their niece Dame Teresa had been a nun in the Benedictine convent in Ypres, a place that had been popular with generations of middle-class Irish Catholic women with a vocation.
Nobody expected Willie Redmond to volunteer; no one would have thought less of him if he hadn’t; yet in Cork in November 1914 he did just that, while addressing a crowd of Irish Volunteers.
He carefully set out his reasons for joining. He had been jailed three times; an ancestor of his had been hanged during the 1798 rebellion. Nobody cared more about the freedom of Ireland than he did. Nobody could question his patriotism, but home rule had been granted. The British empire’s war was now Ireland’s war, he told them:
“And when it comes to the question, as it may come, of asking young Irishmen to go abroad and fight this battle, when I am personally convinced that the battle of Ireland is to be fought where many Irishmen now are, in Flanders and France, old as I am, and grey as are my hairs, I will say, ‘Don’t go, but come with me’.”
In February 1915, at the age of 53, overweight and out of shape, William Redmond was commissioned into the Sixth Battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment.
He was kept out of harm’s way during the battle of the Somme. In March 1917, he made his last speech in the House of Commons. He began by assuring the house that, despite all that had gone on in Ireland during the previous year with the Easter Rising, “the great, generous heart of the Irish race beats in sympathy with the Allies’ cause”.
He then went on to make a last impassioned and ultimately doomed plea for reconciliation between Britain and Ireland. “What I want to ask, in all simplicity, is this: whether, in face of the tremendous conflict which is now raging, whether, in view of the fact that, apart from every other consideration, the Irish people, South as well as North, are on the side of the Allies and against the German pretension today, it is not possible, from this war, to make a new start.”
His battalion was stationed near the hospice situated in the grounds of the convent in Locre. He regularly attended Mass there and developed a friendship with the nuns.
For three days prior to the battle, he and Fr Edmund Kelly, the chaplain to his battalion, slept in the cellar under the chapel at the hospice, which was also a field hospital.
Redmond pestered the War Office to be allowed to go over the top at the battle of Messines Ridge. Eventually Maj Gen Sir William Hickie, the officer commanding the 16th (Irish) Division relented, but only to go in the third wave of the initial attack.
After the massive explosions that blew the Germans off the hillsides in Messines and the initial waves had gone over the top, Redmond charged out of his trench. An (unnamed) comrade told The Tablet that Redmond “had a joke and a smile for every man and, as we flew over the parapet to shouts of ‘up the county Clare’, Major Willie showed us a clean pair of heels”. He was soon hit by bullets in the wrist and legs.
The 16th (Irish) Division and the 36th (Ulster) Division fought together at Messines Ridge. The divisional boundary was marked by Redmond’s battalion on one side and the 11th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers on the other.
Redmond was rescued from the battlefield by Private John Meeke, a stretcher bearer with the 11th. Meeke dodged machine gun fire to attend to Redmond’s wounds. He himself was hit by shrapnel before the pair were rescued by a Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers patrol.
Meeke received the Military Medal for his actions on the battlefield that day. He survived the war, but could not survive the peace and succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of 28 in December 1923. He died too late to be given a military grave. Instead he was buried in an unmarked grave in the Derrykeighan burial ground near Ballymoney in Co Antrim until 2004 when a headstone was erected by local people.
Redmond was carried to the safety of a field dressing station. His injuries were bad, but not life-threatening, or so it was believed. But he had been much too old for the privations of the trenches, which had left him physically weakened.
“His wounds were not grave, but he had overtaxed himself and in a few hours he succumbed to shock,” his fellow MP and British officer Stephen Gwynn observed.
“It was the death that he had foreseen, that he had always desired – a death that many might have envied him. He had said more than once since the rebellion that he thought he could best serve Ireland by dying.”
Hickie ordered a coffin and Redmond was taken to the convent chapel in Locre. He was buried in the convent grounds probably with a view to moving him to a war cemetery at a later date.
His death profoundly affected public opinion in Ireland and beyond. The pope sent a message of condolence, as did King George V and Edward Carson. Poor, good-hearted, generous-minded Willie Redmond was gone. His fellow nationalist MP, Sir Walter Nugent, put it succinctly: “He was too good for politics.”
There are many reasons why Willie Redmond has a solitary grave, but none have anything to do with him.
He did not, as has been reported several times in the Irish media, make a request that, in the event of his death, he be buried apart from his fellow British soldiers in protest at the execution of the leaders of the Easter Rising. Such a request would never have been countenanced by the War Office; nor would Redmond ever have contemplated such an idea.
Redmond’s is a lonely grave, but in life he was never a lonely man. “He had constant good humour and integrity and his sense of fair play nobody ever questioned,” his brother’s biographer Denis Gwynn concluded.
“It is strange now to think that his forgotten grave, beside the convent, where he used to pray in those harrowing times, should have become known as the lonely Irish hero’s grave. No man was ever less lonely in fact and had so many devoted friends.”
Willie Redmond’s grave was already a place of pilgrimage when a delegation from Ireland visited it in November 1917. It could have been moved on many occasions over the next century.
The founder of the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission, Sir Fabian Ware, found it intolerable that the grave could remain in situ while those of other men were moved into official war cemeteries, but Eleanor Redmond would not countenance it.
She wrote to the commission in 1919: “I should only wish to have my husband’s grave left untouched . . . I just want it left where it is in the good care of the nuns.”
In the intervening years, the occasional visitor remarked at how unkempt it had become. In March 1967, the commission made the decision to move Redmond’s grave into the nearby hospice military cemetery. It did so after getting the support of Willie Redmond’s closest relative, his great-nephew John Redmond Green, who wrote to the commission saying he was “fully in agreement” with the proposals.
The commission would have exhumed Redmond’s grave were it not for the imminent 50th anniversary commemoration of his death, which was to due to take place in Locre in June 1967.
It had not reckoned on the righteous anger of an elderly local priest named Fr Rafaël Augustinus Debevere.
Debevere, the director of the nearby St Anthony Hospice, was dismayed by any attempt to move the grave. It would be against the “explicit wishes” of Redmond’s wife, he told the commission. Debevere conceded that in the past the grave had been unkempt, but “through my intervention the grave was cleaned from weeds and superfluous bushes and trees. Now it stands in a peaceful neighbourhood before seven maples.”
The local commune was equally animated about the commission’s proposals: “We request you in our name as well as in the name of Rev Debevere: do not do it! [their emphasis].”
The publicity generated by his campaign made newspapers in Britain and the United States too. The commission now had a public relations headache.
The commission relented and in 1980 the local authority decreed that Willie Redmond’s grave must never be moved.
In 1995, Terence Denman published the first biography of Willie Redmond, A Lonely Grave. He had cause to lament. “Willie Redmond, like all the nationalist Irish who fought in the Great War, has been pushed to the margins of Irish history. Realistically, his life may be seen as a tragic failure.”
Yet, since Denman’s book was published, there has been a sea change in attitudes to the nationalist Irishmen who served in the first World War. Redmond’s message of peace and reconciliation between Britain and Ireland was an idea whose time had come.
On December 19th, 2013, Taoiseach Enda Kenny and the British prime minister David Cameron visited Willie Redmond’s grave. Kenny left a laurel wreath on one ceremonial stone; Cameron left a wreath of poppies on the other. An Irish Guardsman from the British army and an Irish soldier stood by his grave.
Willie Redmond, who gave his life for a free and confident Ireland at peace with Britain, would surely have approved.
The centenary of his death will be marked by the unveiling of a new memorial commissioned by the local authority in Heuvelland. This corten steel silhouette depicts Redmond being carried off the battlefield by Meeke. It will be located at the exact spot where Willie Redmond died 100 years ago.
The people of Flanders have often taken a livelier interest in Willie Redmond and his memory than those at home. The symbolism of these two Irishmen from different traditions is not lost in Belgium, which has its own historic difficulties between the Flemish and Walloon people, though one that has never led to bloodshed.
Ronan McGreevy is an Irish Times journalist and author of Wherever the Firing Line Extends: Ireland and the Western Front