Tom Kettle and the ‘foolish dead’ who perished in foreign wars
Kettle died to liberate France which has long been an inspiration for Irish republicans
It is 100 years since Lieut Tom Kettle was killed leading his men from the 9th Royal Dublin Fusiliers over the top during the Battle of Ginchy.
He had only emerged from his shell hole when a bullet pierced the steel waistcoat he was wearing and entered his heart. He died swiftly with a crucifix in his hands.
Just days before, Kettle wrote, in his poem To my daughter Betty, the Gift of God, that he and others like him would become known as the “foolish dead”.
Those who died in the Easter Rising, he forecast, would go down as “heroes and martyrs and I will go down, if at all, as a bloody British soldier”.
Would Kettle have been better off fighting for Ireland at home instead of the ancient enemy on foreign soil? Was it better to die ’neath an Irish sky than at Suvla or Sud-El-Bar’?
What business had these Irish men fighting foreign wars when, as the poet Francis Ledwidge observed, Ireland was a “Cinderella among nations”? These questions are no less pertinent 100 years on as they were when Kettle wrote his prophetic poem on the eve of battle.
It is important to remember why these men joined up. Kettle was in Belgium at the start of the war attempting to smuggle guns for the Irish Volunteers. His instincts were impeccably nationalist.
He witnessed German atrocities in Belgium and concluded “it is impossible any longer to be passive. Germany has thrown down a well-considered challenge to all the forces of our civilisation.” Ledwidge expressed similar sentiments.
Kettle did not have to go. He was neither poor nor uneducated. He had tenure as professor of economics at UCD. He had a wife and child. He had everything to lose.
Those Irish men like Kettle who fought in France were British soldiers in British uniforms, but they were there to liberate a republic that has long been an inspiration and an example for Irish republicans.
At the end of his famous poem, Kettle concluded that the war transcended petty nationalism and it was Christian values that were at stake.
Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,-
But for a dream, born in a herdsman’s shed,
And for the secret Scripture of the poor
For 100 years our history has told us that we can only have one set of heroes. You were either for the Easter Rising rebels or against. This binary approach is ahistorical and amounts to a false choice. The American writer F Scott Fitzgerald noted the test of intelligence is the “ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function”. We can have two sets of heroes.
In March 1918 the Allies almost lost the war. The German Spring Offensive which began on March 21st of that year broke through their lines with stunning rapidity. At this moment of great peril, they chose Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch to be their supreme commander. His 100-day offensive rolled back the German gains and finally ended the first World War.
Ten years later Foch was invited by The Irish Times to write a tribute to the Irish men under his command. His response was published in the newspaper on the day before Armistice Day. He remembered especially how the Irish stood their ground in those grim days of March 1918.
“Some of their splendid regiments had to endure ordeals that might justly have taxed to breaking point the capacity of the finest troops in the world . . . never in those terrible days did they fail me.”
His concluding words have been engraved on a new monument in Glasnevin Cemetery. It is a replica of the wooden cross which stood in a field in Ginchy after the war as a tribute to the Irish men who died there.
“Some of the flowers of Irish chivalry rest in the cemeteries that have been reserved in France and the French people will always have these reminders of the debt that France owes to Irish valour.”
It is tempting to conclude that the First World War was all for nothing, tempting but wrong. How can it be universally acknowledged that the second World War, which liberated Europe from German aggression, was a just war, yet the liberation of Europe in the first World War was not?
We dishonour the memory of men like Kettle by trivialising or seeking to explain away their reasons for joining. It is not their fault it was not the war to end all wars, nor that the peace was so imperfect and so fragile.
The French have no sense of ambivalence about the first World War. How could they have?
It was their country that was invaded. As far as they are concerned the 1.4 million French men and the million or so of their Allies who died liberating their country are all heroes. They include poor Tom Kettle and the 309 men from what is now this State who died 100 years ago at the Battle of Ginchy during the Battle of the Somme.
Many more Irish men like Kettle died in the defence of the French Republic than died in the creation of our own. They died that France might live.
Ronan McGreevy is an Irish Times journalist. He is the author of Wherever the Firing Line Extends: Ireland and the Western Front