The man who fought for three armies: British, IRA and Free State

Martin Doyle was a Victoria Cross winner who quit to join the national struggle

Martin Doyle at a garden party  at Buckingham Palace for Victoria Cross recipients in June 1920, four months before he joined the IRA.

Martin Doyle at a garden party at Buckingham Palace for Victoria Cross recipients in June 1920, four months before he joined the IRA.

 

The people of New Ross in Co Wexford will on Sunday honour Victoria Cross winner Martin Doyle who returned to the town as a war hero 100 years ago and later joined the IRA.

There will be a parade through the streets of the town before the unveiling of a paving stone recognising the medal he earned in September 1918.

Ronan McGreevy tells the story of a man who came to embody the shifting loyalties of Irish people a century ago.

There are 623 graves for British military personnel in Grangegorman Military Cemetery in Dublin. Each headstone is identical to the other being, according to the old imperial measures, 30 inches (76 cm) tall, 15 inches (38 cm) wide and two inches (3.2 cm) thick. They are made of white Portland Stone.

The grave of Martin Doyle, tucked into a corner at the entrance of the graveyard, looks like all the rest, but it is not a real Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone.

Its provenance revealed by the inscription at the bottom - “erected by his old comrades in the regiment” - the regiment being the Royal Munster Fusiliers.

In his short, but eventful life, Martin Doyle fought for three armies, the British Army, the IRA and the National Army of the Free State. Yet, he was buried as a British soldier, 20 years after his country fought a war of liberation against the same country.

In death, as in life, this extraordinary soldier personified many of the contradictions of Irish identity in the country he grew up in.

Doyle was born on October 25th 1894, in the village of Gusserane, close to New Ross.He was the son of Larry Doyle, a small farmer, and his wife Bridget.

Educated at schools in Gusserane and nearby Cushinstown, he left national school in 4th class, his attestation papers show. On St Stephen’s Day 1909, he joined the Royal Irish Regiment.

He had only recently turned 15 but he lied to the authorities that he was two years older. It is unsurprising that somebody of Doyle’s social status would wish to join the British army.

In 1881, an Irishman could earn £25 a year as an agricultural labourer but £40 a year as a private in the British army. The army guaranteed lodgings, a full belly, clothing, steady employment, an outside chance of promotion, a modest pension and foreign adventure.

It was not a political act for those who signed up, despite the protestations of some nationalists who considered it tantamount to treason.

Martin Doyle’s grave in Grangegorman Military Cemetery in Dublin. Photograph: Ronan McGreevy/The Irish Times
Martin Doyle’s grave in Grangegorman Military Cemetery in Dublin. Photograph: Ronan McGreevy/The Irish Times

The average Irish recruit to the British army was a “Catholic, poor, sometimes of an adventurous bellicose sort, apolitical and he saw himself as a soldier by occupation”, history professor Peter Karsten surmised in his 1983 paper ‘Irish Soldiers in the British Army 1792-1922’.

Karsten states that Irishmen in the nineteenth century did not join the British army; it was simply ‘the army’. It was as much their army as anyone else’s. He concluded, “Seven centuries of British rule, of one sort or another, had led most Irish people to accept the fact that, like it or not, they were part of the United Kingdom”.

Foreign service

After Doyle’s father discovered his son was in the army at such a young age, he sold a cow to buy him out. Doyle left, but then returned to the army for good. For him, soldiering was a vocation. His father would later go on to become one of his biggest champions.

Research by businessman and politician Lord Ashcroft, who owns Doyle’s Victoria Cross medal, shows that the Irishman served in India in 1913, where he won both the regimental lightweight boxing title and an elephant in a local raffle.

In August 1914, shortly after the outbreak of the Great War, when he was still only 19, Doyle was transferred to the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. He went to France with his new regiment in December 1914 and served in some of the early campaigns. He was promoted to sergeant in 1916, and switched to the 1st battalion of the Royal Munster Fusiliers.

In March 1918 he won the first of the two medals which would secure his fame as one of the bravest British soldiers of the first World War.

The Royal Munster Fusiliers were part of the 16th (Irish) Division which was destroyed during the German Spring Offensive. The division bore the full brunt of the German assault which began on March 21st, 1918 and ended with the Battle of Amiens on April 8th, 1918 in which they were stopped outside the critical railway juncture.

The 16th (Irish) Division sustained 572 dead, of whom 439 were from what is now the Republic of Ireland, according to historian Tom Burnell. The 36th (Ulster) Division listed 250 dead in the same period.

By the time the 16th Division was relieved on April 3rd, it had suffered 7,149 casualties, among them more than 1,000 dead.

“Just got back from the line, taking up a draft,” wrote Max Staniforth, an officer with the 16th (Irish) Division 10 days after the initial assault. “The division has ceased to exist. Wiped off the map. They took the Boche attack full smack, the first day they were in the trenches.”

On March 24th, 1918 Doyle showed such bravery in northern France when capturing a barn held by a German gun crew that he was awarded the Military Medal (MM).

The military medal was introduced by the British Government in 1916 to honour non-commissioned officers and those from the ranks.

Doyle later described his part in the action in Hattenville to an Irish newspaper, The Free Press: “We had to cross about 1,000 yards of open country, exposed to terrible shell and machine-gun fire. A big barn stood in the ground between us and a fight ensued to take possession of it.

“I called for volunteers and went over the top at the charge but when I reached the barn I was alone. I bayoneted the two Germans I found there, seized the machine-gun, and took possession of the barn.”

Promoted

Doyle was promoted to Acting Company Sergeant Major in August 1918. The following month, near Reincourt in France, he led a group of his men to safety, prevented German soldiers from storming a tank and then single-handedly rushed a machine-gun nest capturing three prisoners. For this he he was awarded the Victoria Cross - the highest award for gallantry in the British Army.

Doyle “set the very highest example to all ranks by his courage and total disregard of danger”, his citation published in the London Gazette read.

He gave his own account of what happened to The Free Press newspaper though it would have been more appropriate for Boy’s Own magazine.

Going to the aid of a British tank crew who were in wounded behind enemy lines, Doyle rushed a German trench.

“I had gone about 20 yards when I met a German officer with a machine gun under his arm. He shouted at me in English, ‘Hands up!’ and I shot him through the chest with a revolver.”

Doyle then bayoneted three German soldiers before evacuating the badly wounded British tank sergeant. “I got him on my back and carried him to a place of safety,” recalled Doyle, who was just 5 foot six inches in height and 10 stone, according to his attestation papers for the army.

After the war he spent three months in demobilisation work in France eventually returning to New Ross in March 1919 as a war hero.

In June 1919, and still dressed in his Royal Munster Fusiliers uniform, he received the Victoria Cross from King George V at Buckingham Palace. A month later he left the British army after nine years.

Why is anyone’s guess, but the tide of public opinion in Ireland was changing and Doyle was not immune to those changes.

One other significant event happened in 1919. He married local girl, Charlotte Kennedy, in November 1919 and the couple lived at 18 Mary Street.

Changed loyalties

In June 1920 the famous photograph was taken of him at a garden party in Buckingham Palace for Victoria Cross recipients. One of the many paradoxical things about Doyle is that he never hesitated to visit London in a British uniform even while he was in the IRA.

In October 1920 he took up arms against Britain when he joined the IRA in East Clare acting as an intelligence officer.

A month later he was back in London representing the Royal Munster Fusiliers at the unveiling of the Cenotaph in Whitehall.

Afterwards he joined the National Army during the Civil War where he was shot in the hand by former colleagues in the IRA.

He remained on in the Free State Army after the Civil War and served with the 2nd and 20th Infantry Battalions and the school of instruction.

In November 1929, Doyle attended a dinner for VC recipients at the House of Lords and in 1937 he was awarded a Coronation Medal.

Would Doyle have been invited to these events if the British knew of his Republican past?

In 1937, Doyle applied to be compassionately discharged from the Irish Defence Forces as he had been offered a job in Guinness, a company particularly well disposed to Irishmen who had served in the first World War.

His wife was sick at the time. For such a brave man physically, his fears over his family’s health and financial stability are all over his correspondence with the Department of Defence.

“I have been very badly treated. Surely I deserve at least the same treatment as other ex British soldiers who served the cause in 1920 and 1921?” he wrote.

Privileges such as early discharge were afforded to those who could prove service in the IRA prior to the truce of July 1921. In order to qualify for early discharge, Doyle put together a list of testimonials from those he served with in the IRA.

One from Patrick McMahon stated that Doyle “worked and done everything possible for the IRA during the years 1920/1921”.

Complicated history

According to historian Stephen O’Connor, 226 members of the British forces served in the IRA during the War of Independence. More significantly, O’Connor estimates, at least 24 had senior positions and seven commanded brigades.

He concluded: “Ex-servicemen had a disproportionate impact on the IRA’s campaign in comparison to their actual numbers in the movement.”

The Irish Army was reluctant to let him go. Men of Doyle’s experience were exceptionally rare and he proved to be a very good Vickers machine gun and rifle instructor.

Doyle eventually succeeded in getting employment in Guinness while staying on the reserve. He finally left the Irish Army on January 25th 1939.

He died from polio on November 20th, 1946 at St Patrick’s Dun hospital in Dublin. Remarkably, his three daughters, Bridget, who is 98, Charlotte, who lives in the United States and Mary, who lives in Dublin, are still alive.

But what about the puzzle of his gravestone? The fact that he did not have an official Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone was not a deliberate snub by the British Government.

Such headstones were only awarded to those who died in combat or as a result of illnesses or wounds in war-time situations. Doyle would not have qualified on that criteria.

Not everybody had the means at the time to afford a burial and it’s possible the Old Comrade’s Association stepped in to pay for it.

The perplexing issue adds to an already complicated story. Doyle reminds us that there was nothing simple about Irish identity or allegiances 100 years ago.

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