Marching orders – An Irishwoman’s Diary on Jack Rutherford and the first World War

Jack Rutherford: saw action in some of the major battles of the first World War, including the Somme, Messines, Passchendaele and Cambrai

Jack Rutherford: saw action in some of the major battles of the first World War, including the Somme, Messines, Passchendaele and Cambrai


All his life, John Boyle’s grandfather retained a love of military bands and a determination that each of his grandchildren would learn to walk “properly”.

This involved marching up and down the living room floor, a piece of hay balanced on one foot and a piece of straw on the other, while “Grandpa Jack” shouted out the commands – “Hay foot, straw foot, hay foot, straw foot” – just as he’d been taught in the army.

A Presbyterian who converted to Catholicism on marriage, these were the only outward signs of an unlikely family history.

As a teenager, Jack Rutherford saw action in some of the major battles of the first World War, including the Somme, Messines, Passchendaele and Cambrai.

The story of his experiences nestled, unheard, in a cassette hidden inside a teapot on his son-in-law’s windowsill for more than 30 years.

In it, the emotion of his voice heightened by the crackling of the tape, he describes his company’s position on the front lines ahead of the Battle of Messines Ridge in June 1917.

No man’s land appears as stark as a lunar landscape, and just as alien. Every blade of grass had been destroyed by the shelling, and every tree had been blown up.

Huge mines that exploded just before Jack and his comrades went over the top formed craters that were so big, he says, a cathedral could have fitted easily inside each one.

Today, the battle is deservedly remembered as the first time the two Irish infantry divisions – the 16th (Irish) and the 36th (Ulster) – fought side by side.

For Jack, its greatest significance was the relative lack of casualties. On the first day of the Somme, his company lost 179 out of 200 men; at Messines, only a handful were killed. “It was a walkover.”

From Barrack Street in Derry, Jack had lied about his age and joined up as soon as war broke out in September 1914.

Assigned to the machine gun corps, he arrived in France in 1915 with the “Derrys” – the local battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers.

He would not return home until New Year’s Day, 1919 – but by then Derry, like the rest of Ireland, was in turmoil.

The hope voiced by Maj Willie Redmond, the most famous casualty of Messines, that the example of the Ulster and Irish divisions fighting alongside each other might spread “a sense of brotherhood and mutual forebearance” in Ireland seemed long distant.

As Jack readjusted to life at home, another 19-year-old, Michael Boyle, was still at war.

The son of the stationmaster at Fintown in west Donegal, by 1917 he had his own stationmaster’s post on the Londonderry and Lough Swilly Railway Line between Derry and Carndonagh.

Unknown to his employers, he was also a member of the IRA, and his knowledge of telegraphy, signs and semaphore, coupled with his ability to observe comings and goings on the railway line, made him a particularly valued recruit.

For a time, the two men were enemies – Jack was, briefly, an officer in the RUC – and then colleagues, when Jack became a bus inspector with the same Lough Swilly transport company.

The difference in their political outlook meant they would, as their grandson John diplomatically puts it, rarely have come into each other’s orbit – until Michael’s son proposed to Jack’s daughter. They were both at the wedding.

Jack remained a unionist all his life, though he was among the first to vote for a new party, Alliance, in the 1970s; Michael remained an equally staunch republican, who was still writing letters of protest to the Derry Journal right up until his death in the 1960s.

Today their grandson John is also involved in politics, though for a different party. In his role as an SDLP councillor he represented the people of Derry and Strabane at the Somme centenary commemorations last year, and saw for himself the front lines where “Grandpa Jack” fought.

His visit is symptomatic of many similar journeys – literal and metaphoric – made by Northern nationalists and republicans who are discovering and acknowledging their soldier ancestors.

Perhaps the most significant was the visit made to Flanders and the Somme last year by the North’s former deputy first minister, the late Martin McGuinness, who accompanied his special adviser Conor Heaney to the grave of his great-grandfather, Pte Patrick Heaney.

Mark Mullan, another former special advisor to McGuinness, also had relatives who fought on the Western Front; Tony Doherty, whose father was among those killed by the British army in Derry on Bloody Sunday, discovered an unknown great-uncle who fought and died for that same army in the first World War. There are many others.

While not every family was taught to march, the paths followed over the last hundred years are becoming only more intertwined.