Spoils of war – An Irishman’s Diary about the German placards of Hulluch

“Such was the scene, painted in all its imagined glory by a war artist for the ‘Illustrated London News’”

“Such was the scene, painted in all its imagined glory by a war artist for the ‘Illustrated London News’”

 

As notorious pieces of war propaganda go, the German placard currently on loan to the National Museum at Collins Barracks is a very understated piece of work.

If nothing else, schoolchildren viewing it could benefit by copying the impeccably neat, cursive handwriting with which, on May 1st, 1916, it announced to those in the trenches opposite: “Irishmen! Heavy uproar in Ireland. ”

The author’s spelling, alas, did not match his calligraphy. Suggesting that grammar is the joint-first casualty of war, the notice famously continued: “English guns are firing at your wifes and children!”

That and its neatness apart, however, the most striking thing about the sign is that you would have needed perfect eyesight, and strong binoculars, to read it across no man’s land. But the Royal Munster Fusiliers did, it seems, and to their great annoyance. So the messenger being unavailable, they instead opened fire on his messages (there was also a second placard announcing a British defeat in Mesopotamia), a reaction that remains visible today.

Then, according to the regimental history, “they sang God Save the King, [and] that night, a fighting patrol under Lieutenant FJ Biggane ‘cut their way through the enemy wire, strafed the Huns and captured both placards’.”

Such was the scene, painted in all its imagined glory by a war artist for the Illustrated London News. His picture has the Munsters crossing no man’s land by night and seizing the placards, while several Germans peer over the top of their trench, too stunned to shoot.

The truth, as usual, was slightly less glorious. A first attempt to seize the signs was abandoned as too dangerous.  The one that succeeded was not until May 10th, when the signs were taken from an “unoccupied enemy sap” (ie trench). There is no mention of anyone singing God Save the King.

There was, interestingly, a big GAA involvement. The man who ordered the raid, Major Larry Roche, was a former star footballer and hurler, with an All-Ireland medal won in the late 1890s for Limerick Commercials.

Also, along with Biggane (who was from Cork), another of the soldiers who volunteered for the raiding party was Timothy Kemp, a forward with his local club in Waterford.

Alas for Biggane and Kemp, their luck in battle would run out before their courage did.  Neither man survived the war.  As for Roche, he did make it home, but to an Ireland very different from the one he left.  

As a revered sportsman (GAA aside, he was also a former Irish champion weight thrower, a sprinter, and a 22ft long-jumper), he had supported John Redmond’s call for recruitment, volunteering himself, aged 45, and persuading thousands of others to follow. Back in postwar Ireland, however, he found himself a target for the IRA and eventually had to quit the country again, permanently.

What happened to the placards after their seizure is confused. According to the regimental history, they were presented to King George V during his visit to the Western Front on July 25th , 1916. But the Royal Collection Trust, which now owns them, notes haughtily that “he wasn’t there and his diary makes no reference [to receiving the signs] any time around this”. 

In fact, the placards were being shown around Limerick within weeks of their capture. All the trust can say with certainty is that they were given to the king sometime between then and his death 20 years later.

Famous as it is, the “wifes and children” notice is a mere quirk of what was one of the Great War’s most terrible incidents – the German gas attack at Hulluch. The latter coincided with the Easter Rising, hence the placard, but killed more Irishmen that the Rising’s total dead (532 compared with 488), many of them in a horrible manner, likened to “drowning on dry land”.

It also led to one of the sadder coincidences of the war, when Dublin soldier John Naylor died at Hulluch on the same day, Friday April 29th, that his wife Margaret was shot by an unknown sniper in Ringsend. She died on May 1st, the day the placards appeared, leaving three children as orphans.

The story of the Naylors may well feature at an all-day conference on the Hulluch attacks this Saturday at Dublin City Hall.

Organised by the Royal Dublin Fusiliers Association, its speakers include our own Ronan McGreevy, author of a forthcoming book on Irish involvement in the war. No booking is required but the event starts at 10.15am, and if hoping for a seat, you’re advised to show up early.