Marching back in time

 

TY students from a Catholic and Protestant school joined forces for a visit to the Great War battlefields in Belgium, writes PETER McGUIRE

BODIES, BODIES and more bodies were fed into the death machines of the first World War. Millions of young men were ordered from the trenches, treated as little more than cannon fodder, and sent to perish.

Every year on November 11th, the sacrifice of those young men is remembered throughout the world. Almost 100 years later, however, the echoes of the Great War still leave a bitter taste in many mouths. Many Irishmen who fought for Britain in the hope of winning Home Rule for Ireland were seen as traitors. Many Protestants, meanwhile, are unaware that thousands of Catholics fought for Britain during the war.

Monaghan is one area of the country where thousands from both traditions fought. This year, the Catholic boys’ school St Macartan’s College and the Protestant co-educational school Monaghan Collegiate joined forces to commemorate those who died in the war – and to look at the events from a different perspective. Working with the innovative school tour company Saffron Promotions and with funding from the Peace 3 initiative, students from each school visited some of the key battle sites in Belgium and gave a voice to local people who died in the war.

Joanne Wylie, a 15-year-old TY student in Monaghan Collegiate, explains how the project began: “Most of the locals who fought in the war were either unionists or nationalists in favour of Home Rule. This project was an opportunity for each side to look afresh at the war, and in particular, a chance to acknowledge the sacrifice of the Catholic community.”

The Clogher Historical Society helped the students in their research, while an ad in the Northern Standardnewspaper asked those whose relatives had died in the war to provide information. Many people got in touch and, in return, the students offered to visit their relative’s grave in Belgium and lay a wreath.

John McKenna, a soldier, was the son of Bernard and Catherine McKenna. Hailing from a nationalist background, he travelled from Monaghan to fight with the Royal Enniskillen Fusiliers. The students honoured his memory by the simple act of laying a stone on his grave.

“We travelled to Tyne Cot cemetery in Ypres, the world’s largest cemetery for Commonwealth forces,” says Michael Mahony, a 16-year-old TY student at St Macartan’s. “Seeing row upon row of graves – 12,000 people – was quite an experience. They had plain white headstones, with nothing more than a simple engraving, emblem with regiment name or, if the identity of the dead man was known, an inscription stating ‘soldier of the Great War known unto God’. There was also a wall with the names of 55,000 missing soldiers, whose bodies were never found.”

Lois Windrum, a 16-year-old student from Monaghan Collegiate, was one of eight TY students from her school to get involved. “I’d always been interested in history and never really understood the first World War,” she says. “When it began, everybody seemed to think it would be a short war, lasting no more than a few months. But it dragged on and on, and was much harder than most expected. Being on the battlefields and imagining the scenes of carnage was a very sobering experience. We even had the chance to have our own platoon experience, dressing as soldiers and marching into battle.”

THE WAR WASinevitable, says Ciaran Lynch, a 16-year-old TY student in St Macartans. “Looking back, each side was convinced they were the biggest and most powerful country. Imperial ambitions drove it forward, but I think it could have been avoided. They should have tried to talk to one another. The outcome was disastrous, with Germany forced to shoulder the entire responsibility for the war and pay crippling reparations. It left such a sour taste in German mouths that it led to the emergence of Adolf Hitler and another world war.”

Ciaran believes it is vital to recognise the contribution of both Catholics and Protestants. “Young Catholic boys were looked on as traitors to religion and country, but they gave as much as any Protestant, who were seen as heroes.”

The students felt haunted by the presence of death and misery on the battlefields. “It was so brutal,” says Conor Forde of St Macartan’s. “The soldiers were ill-equipped for war; with bright uniforms and shoddy helmets, they never had a hope. In the trenches, we could imagine the soldiers running up and down, hiding, terrified, firing their guns into the distance, spending days in miserable and desperate conditions. Men suffering from shell shock fled the trenches and were shot by their own side as deserters.

“Graveyard after graveyard dots the Belgian countryside: soldiers, civilians, small children. It’s a tragic sight, and led us to the conclusion that war can be avoided. It was all so unnecessary.”