In the spring of 1916, a 33-year-old Nottingham resident, Frederick Dietrichsen, found himself as part of the British army being sent to Dublin. Frederick, known as Fred, was originally from Essex, although his family hailed distantly from Denmark, and his father, James, had made a fortune in the Glasgow corset-making industry.
Dietrichsen had attended Chigwell School, then Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge; he graduated in 1904. He was called to the Bar at the Inner Temple in London in 1907, and, by the time war broke out, he had proved himself a popular barrister in Nottingham, where he acted as advocate in a range of civil cases.
In 1910 he married an Irish Protestant woman, Beatrice Mitchell. They had two children and lived in an affluent part of Nottingham. However, in the burst of patriotism that followed the British declaration of war in August 1914, Dietrichsen joined the British army. He assumed he would be fighting in France or Belgium. He was commissioned in November 1914, and then promoted to temporary captain in October 1915.
He joined the Sherwood Foresters, a force that had consisted of eight battalions at the start of 1914. However, when the first World War broke out, the Foresters quickly expanded to 33 battalions with some 140,000 men, overwhelmingly from Nottingham and Derbyshire.
The first-line units were quickly earmarked for soldiering abroad, but the commanders realised the bloodshed would necessitate a reliable supply of more trained men for those units. Second-line units were formed in order, primarily, to keep the overseas battalions in a state of readiness for battle.
The 7th Sherwood Foresters bore a name redolent of local Nottinghamshire pride, the “Robin Hoods”. But the 2/7th was a distinctly non-elite group. When they began recruiting in 1914, the second “Robin Hoods” were headed by officers who had been brought out of retirement, who had enlisted with local territorial battalions or who had trained with the Nottingham university’s officer training corps. These superannuated or inexperienced officers trained their men as well as they could, but were hampered by the scale of the killing going on elsewhere, which meant that the generals continually plundered these reserve units, making it virtually impossible to establish the reserves as a coherent, well-trained fighting force.
The first indication of this came in January 1915, when more than 170 men were sent from Dietrichsen’s reserve group to join the first line of Robin Hoods in France, including all men who had seen any previous fighting.
From that point onwards the situation only worsened for the reserve battalion. They trained at Luton and then Watford, and their work was increasingly hindered by losses to the front line, and by the influx of entirely inexperienced replacements. One lieutenant-colonel complained that the second Robin Hood battalion, which saw action in Dublin, consisted largely of complete novices, with three-quarters of the soldiers having experienced only three months of service, and no training at all in street fighting.
On April 24th, 1916, German zeppelin attacks occurred over southern England throughout the night. As a result, Dietrichsen’s battalion spent their time on special duties and had no rest. The following morning the soldiers received orders to move to Watford station, where they learned they were heading for Liverpool.
Bound for Kingstown
These exhausted and disoriented men eventually found themselves in Kingstown [Dún Laoghaire] at 4am on April 26th. According to some military historians, the Sherwood Foresters felt so confused that at least one soldier was heard to greet passing Irish girls with "bonjour mademoiselle".
At 9am the officers received their orders, learning that rebels had seized the city and were preparing to oppose the movement of troops from Kingstown to Dublin. Fatefully, the second Robin Hoods were to move through Booterstown and Ballsbridge: they were designated as the leading column, charged with searching and clearing houses and side roads, and they moved off by 11am.
The commanding brigadier had given instructions to seize the school just south of Mount Street bridge on the Grand Canal, a rebel stronghold thought likely to be the source of trouble.
Many residents of the south Dublin suburbs demonstrated delight at the arrival of English troops, and offered refreshments, information, and in one case even a pair of field glasses.
One family in particular felt pleased to see the soldiers. When Beatrice Dietrichsen heard that the British army had arrived in Dublin, she and her children, as unionists, turned out to welcome the soldiers, not knowing that her husband Fred, whom she thought was on the Western Front, would be among the troops. As he marched through Blackrock, he saw Beatrice, along with his children, who were aged two and five, standing at the side of the road. He broke out of formation to embrace them.
Shortly after this meeting, Dietrichsen’s battalion approached Mount Street bridge, a key crossing into the city, where de Valera’s 3rd battalion had taken position. Mick Malone and Jimmy Grace had positioned themselves in the bathroom of 25 Northumberland Road. From there they watched as the soldiers marched, in columns of four, from the direction of Ballsbridge.
In a sign of the divisions of the time, Malone’s brother had died less than a year before, fighting for the British army in Flanders. But Mick Malone was now one of the Irish Volunteer’s most brilliant shots, and had selected an excellent position from where to open fire with the Mauser automatic pistol given to him by de Valera.
As Malone began to shoot, the second Robin Hoods fell to the ground in confusion, unable to see where the bullets were coming from, as the noise echoed all around. Dietrichsen received a mortal wound; he was one of the first to die.
In a heartbreaking twist, he still had in his pocket two letters from his children (both written by the elder, five-year-old Christian), which he kept close to his chest and which were taken from his body after his death. They are printed below for the very first time:
Thank you for choc
Love from Christian
Thank you for choc
Love for [sic] baby
As he died, Dietrichsen also kept, in his breast pocket, a letter that he had written that morning from Dublin’s Royal St George Yacht Club, to his wife:
My darling Bea,
Just a line to tell you I am all right & hearty. We have not had any clothes off for two nights. I ought not to tell you where I am. I think we are in for a fairly lively time.
You had better stay at Mrs Boyd’s if she will have you till you hear from me.
The information about Mrs Boyd is a surprising detail, as is the fact that the envelope shows that Dietrichsen intended to send his note to Beatrice at an address in Watford. It had been assumed that he knew his wife was in Dublin during spring 1916 (indeed, that assertion was written down by Lieut Col AN Lee in a war diary that is held at the Imperial War Museum).
Those who knew him considered that he had sent his family to Dublin because he was afraid of zeppelin attacks upon England. But this turns out not to be true: instead, as his note of April 26th, 1916, shows, when Fred arrived in Dublin, he thought his wife and two children were still in Watford, living with Boyd. He did not know that Beatrice and the children had travelled to her parents’ home in Blackrock, and he must have been astounded to see them materialise on the road in front of him, as he marched towards his death.
Funeral in Dublin
Instead of travelling back to her accommodation in Watford, Beatrice Dietrichsen ended up attending the funeral of her husband at Deansgrange Cemetery on April 29th, before she travelled back to Nottingham.
Like many who had been caught up in the fighting, she now had to raise her children without a father, although one final letter may have provided her with a crumb of comfort. One of the residents of Northumberland Road felt compelled to write to her to describe her late husband’s bravery:
32, Northumberland Road, Dublin
The young man belonging to the BAMC [British Army Medical Corps] who was attending to Captain Dietrichsen said that it must have been his voice I heard encouraging the soldiers, and one of the men who was in the fight told me that that Adjutant [Dietrichsen] fell in front of a seat at the corner of this road, just in the line of fire from No 25, and where there was not the least cover, he had no regard for his own safety.
Since 1916, these manuscripts have remained in the possession of Fred Dietrichsen’s family, who have now kindly shared them with me as part of my research into the Easter Rising. His granddaughters told me that the family had no subsequent or previous known connection with the British army.
What happened to the rest of the Robin Hoods who fought in the Rising? Those who survived were sent to the west of Ireland for the rest of the year before being shipped off to the Western Front.
In 1917 they experienced some terrible horrors, and by January 1918 had suffered such heavy losses that the 2/7th was simply absorbed into the first battalion. In Ireland, they have scarcely been remembered fondly, although when they left the country in December 1916, the Galway Express reflected, "A better conducted body of men never were billeted in the West than the Robin Hoods".
James Moran is the author of Staging the Easter Rising: 1916 as Theatre (2005)