In what has been termed a ‘decade of centenaries’ in Ireland much has been made both of the Easter Rising and the political circumstances that gave rise to it. The Rebellion broke out in Dublin in April, 1916. Prior to that of course, many thousands of Irish men, Catholic and Protestant had joined the ranks of the British services to fight in WWI.
For those from the Irish Volunteers, it was a matter of pinning their hopes to the promise of the British Government that at the successful conclusion of the conflict Ireland would be granted a degree of autonomy via the delayed Home Rule Bill. For the Protestants of Ulster who left the ranks of the UVF to fight in Europe it became a matter of their display of loyalty to the British Crown would see the link with Britain retained.
In the interim, Republicans within the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Republican Brotherhood choose to exploit ‘England’s difficulty’ as their opportunity to separate that link forever by force of arms.
A century later, one thing remains clear, and that is WWI remains the biggest and bloodiest episode of slaughter of the twentieth century. Ireland didn’t get Home Rule, but instead got partition. The signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1920 in turn saw a bloody civil war fought in Ireland. The homogenous Unionist rule in Northern Ireland bred discrimination against Catholics and the refusal for even mild reforms in the 1960s saw a civil rights campaign being bludgeoned off the streets and in the end resulted in 30 years of violence inside the Northern state.
A recently opened exhibition at Creggan’s Rathmor centre called ‘Orange and Green-Derry and the First War’ examines how men from both traditions set off for the battlefields of Europe hoping to achieve their aims. The upshot was that men from both traditions ended up fighting and dying side by side.
Seamus Breslin has spent over two decades examining the tales of those from the nationalist tradition in Derry who chose to don the British uniform and fight in Europe between 1914-1918.
A graduate in both Irish History and Politics and a holder of a MA in Peace Studies from Ulster University, the exhibition under the auspices of The Templemore Great War Society and in Association with Guildhall Press will run at Rathmor until the end of February and will then transfer for the entire month of March to the Central Library in Foyle Street.
The exhibition has received funding from the Community Relations Council, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Dublin, The Honourable The Irish Society and Creggan Enterprises.
Recalling the story of what happened in Derry at the outset of war in 1914, Seamus said: “I graduated from Magee in 1993 I found myself pursuing post-graduate Peace Studies also at Magee in 1994.
“As part of the course there was a study trip to Brussels including a visit to NATO headquarters. Having told my mother-in-law about it she mentioned that her grandfather had died in action in WW1 and that ‘ he might be buried there.’
“I had never heard him mentioned before and was surprised considering both my in-laws were former Irish republican prisoners. However, a quick phone call to the British Legion led me to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and soon a letter arrived.
“Private John James Diver from the Bogside No.2317, served with the 6th Battalion, Royal Irish Regiment . He died on the 21 August 1916. He is buried in Plot 1, Row A, Grave 10 of the St Patrick’s Cemetery, Loos, France.
“For the first time ever they now had a burial place for their grandfather.
“A few weeks later a fellow student and I were standing at this graveside feeling very emotional. Staring at the rows and rows of headstones lined out, it was as if these men were still an army on parade.
“Buried alongside was another man called Charles Diver [no relation] from St Johnstone, Donegal and Dan Kerr from the Brandywell all killed on the same date. So, what was the story that led these men to be buried in the appropriately named St Patrick’s Cemetery France?
“As suspected the long and complicated history of Ireland had played its part. When war broke out in 1914 many men from Derry joined up in the feverish war spirit that existed. Many others had no choice because they were reservists and were ‘recalled to the colours’.
“At the railway station it was recorded there was good-natured banter between those from the unionist and nationalist backgrounds as to the role that each might play.
“A major question at the time was what role would the two largest armed organisations play in that war. These were of course the UVF and the Irish Volunteers.
“Edward Carson was not long in directing the UVF to the war effort and thus the local UVF became the 10th Battalion of the Inniskilling Fusiliers-the 36th Ulster Division.
“John Redmond held back on committing the Irish Volunteers but eventually did so months later after his famous Woodenbridge speech. The Irish Volunteers split and a small minority that would eventually stage the Easter Rising broke away. The majority now known as the Irish National Volunteers would go off to war.
“Two opposing factions who looked certain to go to war with each other were now off to the great European war in the same army yet for different reasons.
John Redmond believed that by offering the volunteers for service it would strengthen his Home Rule debate and create an experienced ‘Irish’ army.
“On December 5, 1914 the Derry INV men who were to enlist were summoned to St Columb’s Hall and the great adventure had begun.
“Over 260 of these men would become a company of the 6th Battallion-Royal Irish Regiment, Irish Brigade, 16th Irish Division commanded by John Redmond’s brother, the twice imprisoned Nationalist MP, William. Now the story was unfolding as to why these men were lying in far off foreign fields.
“The vast majority of nationalist Derry of all shades of opinion were solidly, and none more so than their church leaders, behind these men and their decision. Within weeks they were feted and fed at great banquets in the Guildhall , given rousing patriotic speeches and after Mass in St Eugene’s Cathedral, led by bands and joint British Army and armed INV parties, marched through crowded, cheering streets to the railway. An overnight stop in Dublin was next where they would be greeted by all sorts of dignitaries and then on to the Fermoy area of Cork for one year of training . Many men expressed the opinion that hopefully the war would not ‘be over by Christmas’.
A tough year training in Cork
“On arrival in Cork these men who were civilians had to be made soldiers. They were joined by 600 INV men from West Belfast and elsewhere and became the Irish Brigade of the 16th Irish Division. They got on with what recruits do and learned how to march, handle weapons and all the other skills that make a trained soldier. Willie Foster who lived in Richmond Street became something of a war correspondent for the Derry Journal at that time in Shipquay Street.
“A lot of the men’s time was spent in Fermoy and the remote Kilworth camp that is still a functioning Irish military base. Kilworth camp was also used in 1969 to house refugees from the North including a few from Derry.
“The Derry men were joined in the battalion by a company of Guernsey men whose French language skills would later prove useful. Not all the men would even left Cork and one such was Private William Bradley from the Waterside who died of illness on February 13, 1915. He lies buried in Fermoy military cemetery. After training in Cork it was over to Borden in the Aldershot area and the huge Salisbury plains for further training as a division . Several weeks later the 16th Irish were reviewed by the King for whom they gave three cheers and at Christmas 1915 it set sail for France.”
Terror in the trenches
Seamus continued: “Just prior to Christmas 1914 the men from Derry had enlisted in a great wave of excitement and now twelve months on were in France and could hear the thunder of the guns.
“An officer wrote home that the ‘Derry boys fit for anything’. As was the norm, an inexperienced battalion was not put straight into the front line. Various companies were seconded to units already experienced in the ‘art of war’. So the Derrymen’s first time in the trenches was as part of English and Scottish fighting units. The casualties were not long in coming.
“January 21, 1916 would become a significant day in the men’s journey. Private John Doherty from 133 Lecky Road would be the first Derry man killed in action and on that very same day Charles Kennedy from the parish of Templemore also died of the wounds he sustained.
“Most people associate WW1 with images of men constantly being in the trenches. That was not the case and most time was spent doing manual work, training and resting. For most of 1916 the men would find themselves in the Loos area of Northern France a fact reflected in the rows of headstones in the military cemeteries of the area.
“It is widely known that over 100 local men from the protestant-Unionist tradition died on July 1, 1916 at the opening Somme battle. What is lesser known is that one month earlier at Hulluch a German gas attack decimated battalions from the Irish Brigade and it was only because of unit rotation that it was not the Derry INV that was wiped out.
“This gas attack was taking place at the same time as the Easter Rising in Ireland. The political climate was changing. William Redmond on hearing of the Dublin rebellion was reported as having sobbed as ‘bitterly as a child’.
“The last known survivor of the men William Kennedy said they were upset when they heard they were killing ‘our Boys in Dublin’-referring to the leaders being executed-and that there was going to be a mutiny ‘only for one sergeant’.
“At Loos the men settled into the routine of periods in the front line, training, work and rest. Let no one be in any doubt that like all soldiers these men got up to all sorts of antics.
“Foul language, card schools and alcohol all played a part. There are numerous records of men punished for drunkenness, desertion, being absent without leave, striking a senior officer and even murder.
Private Kenny from Derry was found not guilty because of insanity of murdering a local French farmer. Professor Richard Holmes in one of his books, notes that a brothel in Rouen was visited by 171,000 men in its first year. The War Diary for the men records that on the 24-2-1916 48 men ‘were found medically unfit and sent back to base depot’ after only two months of front line service. One consolation of serving in the Loos area, a huge coal mining region was the availability of hot steam baths.
“On St Columba’s Day, June 9, 1916, the men would celebrate just like in Derry but later there would be many tragedies at Loos that would bring grief to many homes in the Bogside. On May 2, 1916, James Rush of Lecky Road and Willie Woods, Foyle Road were killed by shell fire. On June 18, 1916, James Quigley of Nelson Street, Richard McCarron of 13 Frederick Street and Hugh Mc Laughlin from Bishop Street died together-killed by a trench mortar.
“On the night of August 20, 1916 plans were finalised for a night raid on the enemy trenches at Loos. Military opinion at the time was divided, but most thought these raids were futile gestures that got your best men killed.
“The war diary records that five other ranks were killed, eighteen wounded and two missing during the raid. Three of those killed were Dan Kerr, Deanery Street, John James Diver, Stanley’s Walk and Charles Diver, St Johnstone. It is of note that later that day the battalion left the area. These men now lie at rest in St Patrick’s Cemetery, Loos. The men moved to the Guillemont and Ginchy area to prepare for a huge battle that was also part of the Somme campaign.
“Guillemont and Ginchy were the most significant battles the Derrymen were involved in. A letter home from Edward Friel , a former compositor with the Derry Journal, to the Bogside best conveys the atmosphere.
“He states that the night before they attacked ‘they had a jolly fine concert around a bonfire and before parting in the morning they sang ‘ A Nation Once Again’. At dawn, Masses were said by the chaplains and most men received communion. Fr Willie Doyle described his experiences at these battles as ‘living literally in hell.’
“The 6th Royal Irish Regiment diary for September 63, 1916 records the men ‘went over the parapet with their pipes playing and the men went forward in excellent order. The final objective was in our hands by about 3pm and the line was at once consolidated and held in spite of the counter attacks. The casualties in the days fighting are heavy, being 14 officers and 311 OR’s.’
“The casualties were heavy and these two battles signified the end of the Derry INV men as a cohesive unit and started widespread mourning in nationalist areas of Derry as word spread through.
“Willie Foster, a keen piper, was wounded three times piping the men into battle and many found it amazing he was never awarded a medal. Willie helped train the US Marine Corp during WW2 and was buried with shrapnel still in him from his Pennyburn home during the 1980s. During the same time William Quigley another of these veterans was buried From Drumleck Drive, Shantallow.
“The next major battle the remnants of the men would partake in was in 1917 at Messines. This is the lamented battle where the 16th Irish and 36th Ulster Divisions would fight side by side. William Redmond the Major in charge of the men died in the battle. He was brought back wounded from no-man’s land by men of the Ulster Division but later died. Indeed, the Derry Journal reported William Downey from the Bogside writing home that at Messines the Irish and Ulster Divisions ‘fought shoulder to shoulder and they were not thinking of Home Rule at the time.’
“Those who survived would return to a changed Bogside, Derry and Ireland, they had left one war behind and now in that turbulent period of 1919-21 they would walk right into another.”
Time to go home to Derry
The changed political circumstances in nationalist Ireland would also have a deep impact on the returning soldiers from the nationalist tradition.
“On November 11, 1918 the war was over, the guns fell silent and for those who survived it was time to go home,” said Seamus.
He continued: “This was a changed Derry they returned to. Sinn Fein was now the predominant party and the Easter Rising and subsequent executions had changed the people’s outlook. Ireland was being threatened by partition and the returned veterans were not long in organising themselves and becoming involved in the campaign against it.
“At a grand parade in Derry on August 15, 1919 that was designed to be a show of nationalist strength, the veterans were the talk of the day.
“An observer wrote: ‘There was the most harmonious coalescing of all the Catholic forces in the city and congratulations were extended on the magnificent size of the gathering and the grand evidence it afforded of cohesion and unity in assertion of Catholic rights. The Hibernians and Sinn Fein both made a fine turn out, but by far the most significant thing in the day’s proceedings was the march of the nationalist veterans of the city. Over ten hundred demobilised men marched with soldierly bearing and at the head of this section there were a number of soldiers and sailors in uniform sporting green favours. At the head of the veterans was carried a banner with the inscription,’Irish National Veterans Association’ we fought for the rights of small nations; Ireland a nation.’
“As sectarian tensions increased during 1919 with partition increasingly likely the nationalist veterans erected an arch in the Bogside to the memory of their dead in the Irish Brigade. Another form of commemoration was a memorial mass. Over four hundred men from the Long Tower parish paraded to mass on September 14, from Waterloo place to the church. It was reported: ‘It was an exceedingly creditable turn out demonstrating not only the strength numerically of the organisation in the parish but the unfaltering fidelity of the ex-servicemen to the Catholic faith.’
“The veterans also boycotted the great Peace Parade in Belfast 1919, saying it was being exploited by the Ulster Division and refusing to parade past.
“Nationalist councillors protested that the Council lowered the flag and held a silence for the Ulster men who died on the first day of the Somme yet did nothing for the local men who perished at the victories of Guillemont and Ginchy. As is evident the nationalist veterans upon return were not parading Union flags and singing for the King.
“During 1920, Derry was in political turmoil with curfews and descended into what could be described as a mini-civil war. Many of those engaged in the defence of the Bogside were war veterans. It was reported that at one of the biggest battles at St Columb’s College, the defenders were mostly ex-soldiers under the command of a Sinn Fein officer. Numerous court reports of men for disorderly behaviour and singing rebel songs turn out to have been WW1 veterans.
“The two most prominent nationalists of that period are buried side by side in the city cemetery. James Keenan, IRA and Commander Mc Glinchey, Irish National Volunteers were both ex-British army.
“The veterans walked out of one war and straight into another at home. They ended up in a partitioned Ireland-something they went to war in 1914 to prevent.
“The nationalist veteran’s lot in Derry was far from a happy one. They had marched off to war as proud Irishmen and that was how they returned. As late as 1924, a widow of one of the dead men placed a memoriam in the Derry Journal. It stated: ‘So sad dear husband you died in vain, small nations rights we did not gain.’
“Most nationalist veterans never went to any ceremonies at the war memorial. Their story was one of tragedy that stretched from death, bombs and gunfire in the fields of France to the same on the streets of Derry.
“Local writer Sam Hughes who knew many of the men and lived through that period summed up what it was like for all the veterans of that war. He said: ‘Survivors returned, some to be despised as dupes and others to beg a living off those who, though enriched by the other’s sacrifices, in their hearts regarded going voluntarily to war as the hallmark of immaturity.’”