In this piece written for the Derry Journal, SDLP Councillor and former Mayor of Derry, Gerard Diver, speaks about his family’s involvement in the First World War and the emotional impact on his relatives generations later...
On the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, my family and I have been reflecting on the impact of the war and of this period in history, from a nationalist perspective. Many families like mine perhaps recall hearing about the ‘Great War’ from their parents or grandparents, or have discovered in a drawer or attic a box containing military medals, keepsakes such as prayer books or letters, or faded photographs, and have maybe gone on to carry out research into an ancestor’s military records. Keepsake items and paperwork such as this can unlock quite moving tales of personal family tragedies, highlight great courage in the face of the horrors of war, and reveal much about the many young lives that were lost unnecessarily so long ago, in the course of a foreign conflict fought far from these shores.
In 2008, I was privileged to stand at the graveside of my great uncle, Pte John James Diver, in the silently beautiful and peaceful surroundings of St Patrick’s Cemetery at Loos-en-Gohelle, France with my mother and late father, my wife and brothers. We were all deeply moved by the experience. He had been killed in action in August 1916, aged 26, after eight months on the Western Front, leaving behind a wife and young children in Derry.
As we stood in the small First World War cemetery with nearly 500 soldiers buried there, I reflected that we were probably the first members of our family to find and visit his grave, although I knew that my good friend Seamus Breslin - whose wife Cathy is a direct descendent of John James - had travelled there in the 1990s, and had kindly given me a photograph of the grave. Seamus has spent the past two decades researching the role played
by Derry nationalists in the First World War and it is he, along with my late father, who is largely responsible for sparking my own interest in this period of history.
I thought about my grandfather Willie Diver, who had volunteered as a very young soldier, having to watch his big brother John James be killed in action beside him. He survived the carnage of the First World War, only to go though it all again as a middle-aged man over 20 years later during the Second World War. This time around he was taken prisoner by the Germans on the island of Crete in May 1941, having earlier been evacuated from Dunkirk as part of the British Expeditionary Force in June 1940. With Hitler’s army at his heels, he was less than 40 miles from the very spot where his brother was buried in Loos. I wondered, did he know of the whereabouts of his brother’s grave? Perhaps he was even closer to the site, before being driven back to the coast? Did he ever wish he could have gone there to pay his respects? These are perhaps foolish thoughts on my part, and maybe they
are the sort of luxuries that are afforded to people of my generation, given our gifts of hindsight and relative privilege.
My grandfather was probably at that point in time more concerned with making it on to a boat to evade death or capture; still it was an odd set of circumstances to consider. As the records show, and my late father often recalled, brothers John James (25) and Willie Diver (18) volunteered with scores of other nationalists (many of them Irish Volunteers) at St Columb’s Hall in December 1914. John James was married with children, Willie was single and had just turned 18 the previous month. He pretended to be 19 as that was the age required for military service in the British Army in the First World War. In fact, anyone under the age of 21 required a parent’s permission to enlist. I discovered his misdemeanour in relation to age by noting that his date of birth had to be corrected in his Second World War papers. Many Derry nationalists had responded to the call of people like John Redmond and Joe Devlin, Irish Parliamentary Party MPs who promised that Home Rule would be achieved in Redmond’s words “not later than the end of the present war” if nationalists gave their support to the war effort on behalf of the British Empire, but particularly to preserve the freedom of small nations like Belgium. Of course I am in no doubt that such was the extreme poverty and deprivation experienced by most if not all working class people in Derry in 1914, that economic necessity was also a key driving factor.
The two brothers were signed into the 6th that most Derry nationalists joined at that time. Training was a harsh experience that took place at a camp in Fermoy, County Cork over the course of 1915 before they would embark for France just before Christmas. I also discovered from his military records that my grandfather was something of an impetuous, spirited young man, perhaps not unlike teenagers then and today. He was prone to getting into trouble now and again, for which he received a variety of sanctions, among them the forfeiture of his pay, detention at camp, and, on one occasion, Field Punishment Number 2 for 14 days. This involved being shackled to the wheel of field gun each day, which could not have been a pleasant experience.
From the records, those in the 16th Redmond MP into battle as part of Kitchener’s New Army K2, seeing service in various battles including Ypres 1915 ‘17 ‘18, Gravenstafel, St Julien, Frezenberg, Bellewaarde, the Somme 1916-
18, Albert 1916 -18, Bazentin, Delville Wood. The Derry men of the 6th Battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment which was the unit Irish Division followed John Redmond’s brother Major Willie Royal Irish particularly distinguished themselves in action around the area of Guillemont and Ginchy during 1916 with a high casualty rate. In one such operation on the 21st August 1916 for example, during a night raid on a German trench, two officers and five other ranks were killed, amongst them my great uncle, Pte John James Diver. My grandfather Willie suffered shell shock in this same action and was hospitalised for a short period, obviously struggling to come to terms with the death of his elder brother.
After the First World War had ended, Willie returned to Derry, and in 1923 he married Ellen Rush, my grandmother, ten years his senior. She had lost her first husband, Pte James Rush, also of Royal Irish Regiment, killed in action in May 1916. We also visited his grave in Dud Corner the 6th Cemetery, France, a few miles away from my great uncle’s grave, in 2008. I wonder if this couple who had been so profoundly affected by the tragedy of the war had perhaps then been drawn together by their shared losses. During the lonely years of the Second World War my grandmother must surely have thought that life or God couldn’t be so cruel as to rob her again of another husband in yet another war. My grandfather survived his four years of imprisonment in Stalag 8B however, unlike the many other prisoners who died from war wounds, disease, hunger or at the cruel hands of the Nazis. My father once told me of how he went as a teenager to meet my returning grandfather at the Waterside railway station, when he was eventually released and repatriated at the war’s end in 1945. In his words, his father was so thin, he was “like a skeleton.”
As a youth growing up in the troubled Derry of the 1970s and 80s, I often walked past the war memorial in the Diamond, with its then closed and locked gates and wondered what it was all about.
I knew it was connected with the two world wars, but didn’t realise fully then that at least half of the names inscribed upon it were people from my own community background - Irish, Catholic and nationalist; it was only in later years when the gates were finally opened to the public that I was able to see and read to my own children the name of my own great-uncle embossed on one of the plaques. I have no direct memories of my grandfather, as he died three days after my first birthday, in 1965. He was aged 69 when he died, killed by the ‘weak chest’ and bronchial pulmonary illnesses that had apparently been brought on as a result of his being gassed during the First World War. That said, my late father often spoke at length to me about him, and of his horrific wartime experiences. There is a sad irony in the thought that the First World War was regarded as ‘the war that would end all wars’, when it actually served to embed the divisions and hatreds that would lead to World War II, the consequences of which we are still dealing with today. Current conflicts in Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan and Nigeria for example suggest that little has been learnt. That said, there is at least a growing awareness both locally and globally of the need to acknowledge, commemorate and respect the traditions of others in remembering the dead, whether as civilians or in military service. To me, the sharing of the recollections and often tragic memories of our ancestors suggests that we have much more in common than some would have us believe.