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How the Great War left my family in pieces

Mary Teresa Connor describes how the First World War took an unbearable toll on her close-knit Irish Catholic family

By on Thursday, 26 June 2014

Michael Harvey, who died in agony in 1919 (CNS)

Michael Harvey, who died in agony in 1919 (CNS)

Many words have been written about the causes and events of the First World War. The carnage, the shortcomings of the generals and the suffering of the soldiers have been covered at great length, but the same attention has not been given to the next-of-kin of these men. The death of each soldier changed the lives of those at home irrevocably. Wives, children, mothers, sisters and brothers were the unsung heroes and heroines of that time. This realisation came to me as my interest in the First World War grew over many years, and my relatives recounted the stories to me from my early days. I remembered and recorded them.

Francis Harvey, a Catholic immigrant from County Tyrone, settled in County Durham, where he raised a family of five sons and four daughters, among them my grandmother Mary Elizabeth. In 1914, the family was living in Stanley Crook, a mining village in Durham. All five sons – John, Francis, William, Michael and James – were coal hewers in the nearby Wooley Colliery. At this time John was married and had two sons who were to play their parts in the First World War. Francis Harvey’s sons had all followed their father into the pits. Daughters Rose and Charlotte were employed as domestic servants. Annie helped her mother to look after the home. Mary Elizabeth, my grandmother, had married John Cross, who had come from Cleator Moor in Cumberland to seek work in the mines.

John Harvey’s eldest son Francis Godfrey, aged 27, a miner, was the first of the family to enlist. On September 9 1914 he joined the Durham Light Infantry, the county regiment, and became 14534 Private F G Harvey. He was in France by September 1915.

The Harvey brothers, Michael (aged 32) and James (22), enlisted in the Tyneside Irish Brigade on December 29 1914 at Crook, their nearest recruiting office. They were both drafted into the 4th Battalion, A Company. The two miners had become 27/986 Private James Benedict Harvey and 27/1020 Private Michael Matthew Harvey. Finally, on January 9 1915 John Harvey’s son James Vincent, aged 20, enlisted into the 2nd Battalion B Company, Tyneside Irish Brigade and became 25/1397 Private James Vincent Harvey.

John Cross, my grandfather, joined the Army for a variety of reasons. In 1914 the coal industry was in recession and pits in County Durham, including Brancepeth Colliery where John worked, were working only three days in every two weeks. When war was declared, propaganda from the Government angered some and influenced many. In John’s home village of Willington there was a meeting in the Empire Theatre which stirred up resentment against what was thought to be a cruel enemy. Also, at that time plans were made to raise an Irish Battalion attached to the Northumberland Fusiliers. Advertisements appeared in local newspapers and local dignitaries and religious leaders supported the proposal. Feelings were heightened by stories of German atrocities in Belgium.

In Willington the coal owners promised that the family of any volunteer would be allowed to live in the tied dwelling and be issued with a small coal allowance in the event of a soldier’s death. It was also generally said that the war would be over by Christmas. It was against this background that my grandfather joined the 1st Battalion of the Tyneside Irish Brigade, travelling four miles to Bishop Auckland in order to enlist. On January 10 1916 the Tyneside Irish Brigade was sent to France in preparation for the “Big Push” in the vicinity of the Somme. They were positioned close to La Boiselle, a small village near the town of Albert. Jimmy Harvey was the first casualty when he took part in a trench raid on June 18, shortly before the battle. He was wounded by shell-fire and was soon transferred to a Casualty Clearing Station, then sent to hospital, fortunately missing the forthcoming battle. Eventually, after being wounded in France in March 1917, Jimmy was discharged as unfit for military service in October 1918.

During the main battle on July 1 John Cross and his brother-in-law James Benedict Harvey were killed, mown down by incessant machine gun fire.That same day a gunshot wound in the shoulder put Michael Matthew Harvey out of commission and he was in hospital in England by July 6. He recovered and convalesced in Harrogate. During his convalescence he was visited by his sister Rose who was in domestic service in the area. He confided to her that as he lay severely wounded on the battlefield in fear of death he wanted to repeat a prayer of sorrow, but he could not remember the words of many familiar prayers. Consequently, he kept repeating the simple prayer, “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost”. It was the only prayer that he remembered.

While on leave after his convalescence Michael would not speak of the battle, though his sister Mary Lizzie was anxious to know how her husband John had met his death.

At the end of Michael’s leave his sister Annie accompanied him to Crook Railway Station, and she recounted that when the train arrived he walked slowly along the platform to the end carriage. Anxiously, she remarked that he might miss the train, but before boarding he turned sadly and said: “I don’t care if I never get back.” These words were the only indication of his unhappiness at the thought of his return to France. He was wounded in the neck in 1917 and after hospitalisation was sent back to the battlefield. Subsequently, he was seriously gassed in “The Kaiser’s Last Battle” in 1918 and was in hospital in October before being sent home, where he died an agonising death on January 24 1919. His mother Sarah and his devoted sisters Charlotte and Annie nursed him, and every window in the house had to be open all through those wintry days to assist Michael’s breathing. He told one of his sisters that the sound of hailstones was unbearable as it reminded him of machine gun fire.

The family averred that all the young men had been influenced by short-time working, stories of German atrocities and the possibility of a short war. With the exception of my grandfather, they were all single men.
At home in County Durham families waited anxiously for news of their menfolk after the “Big Push” of July 1 1916. In Wear Street, Willington, one of my grandmother’s neighbours brought in a letter she had received from her soldier husband in France. In it he mentioned various local men who had survived the first day of the battle. Unwittingly, the neighbour had sown the seeds of doubt in my grandmother’s mind, for there was no mention of her husband Corporal John Cross. The two women then asked a neighbour, Paddy Traynor, a friend of the Cross family, to read the letter and to give his opinion as to the contents. He responded by saying that nothing conclusive could be drawn from the message and therefore there was no cause to lose hope. Privately, Paddy had his doubts. Meanwhile Rose, the eldest child, who subsequently became my mother, had been looking forward to a birthday card on July 2 from her father in France. It never arrived.

My grandmother was left in this anxious state until later, when she received an official letter informing her of her husband’s death on July 1. She told me that when the letter arrived she was at home with her four children. She was making bread and had just set the dough to rise. Although in a state of shock, she needed to act. She had to inform her family in Stanley and she wanted the comforting presence of her mother. She immediately wrote a letter telling of the sad news and asked Paddy Traynor if his 12-year-old son Bernard could accompany her seven-year-old son William to Stanley, a distance of three miles, on this very sad errand. The two set off on their long walk and Bernard recounted to me years later that he looked forward to a nice tea, for he had often visited the Harveys along with the Cross children. Meanwhile, in Wear Street 12-year-old Rose completed the bread-making, while nine-year-old Charlotte looked after two-year–old Frank.

When William and Bernard arrived at Grandmother Harvey’s house they found a family in mourning. Two letters had been received that day containing the news that the youngest son James Benedict had been killed on July 1 and his brother Michael had been wounded. The family’s grief was now compounded by the news of the death of John Cross. In one day my grandmother had learned of the deaths of her husband and her youngest brother and the serious wounding of her brother Michael. Other sorrows were to follow. Jimmy Harvey, Mary Lizzie’s nephew, was wounded for a second time in March 1917. His brother Frank was killed at Passchendaele on October 15 1917. Later his father John was sent one photograph and one pocket case belonging to Frank. These were the only possessions received. Frank’s body was never found. My grandmother’s sister Annie was deeply affected by the death of her fiancé Patrick Creegan of the Royal Engineers, who was killed at Arras in June 1917. She never married.

My grandmother was awarded a war pension of six shillings a week for herself and one shilling and sixpence for each child. She supplemented this meagre allowance by taking in washing and baking bread for others. John Cross’s effects were meagre, for after her husband’s death she was sent his broken identity discs and his button stick. After the Armistice a friendly neighbour asked her if a victory party would cause her any distress. Gran did not object but added that she had nothing to celebrate.

Later, my grandmother was determined to find out how her husband had met his death. Her brother Michael, who had been twice wounded and then seriously gassed, would not talk about his experience on the Somme. Undaunted, at the end of the war she discovered that the Brigade chaplain, Fr George McBrearty, had been sent as a curate to St Cuthbert’s church in Durham City. He comforted her with the news that her husband had been to Confession and Holy Communion immediately before the battle. He did not mention the carnage but he had supplied some good news for the grieving widow. Four-year-old Frank, who had accompanied his mother on the visit, fondly remembered that Fr McBrearty gave him a big Jaffa orange as a parting gift. Later Fr McBrearty was sent to Willington as a curate and was involved in the planning of the Willington Memorial to the First World War. It was he who suggested the St Cuthbert’s Cross, which has since dominated the memorial garden to the present day. And after the war, my grandfather’s fellow workmen at Brancepeth Colliery decided to present a commemorative medal to the next-of-kin of miners who had lost their lives in the war. The gold medal was made by Fattorini of Bradford and bears the inscription “Presented By His Fellow Workmen In Honour Of J Cross Who Paid The Supreme Sacrifice In The Great War 1914-1918”.

The First World War was always a bitter memory for my family. It cast a constant shadow over them. I know that they were sustained by their strong Catholic faith and strengthened by the bonds of a close-knit family.

This article is taken from The Catholic Herald’s ‘Catholics in the Great War’ special which appears in this week’s print edition. The two-page selection of articles which mark the centenary of the First World War includes Kevin Myers on Ireland’s fallen soldiers and June Rockett on the Catholic Britons who welcomed Belgian refugees to the UK during the conflict. Paper out on Friday

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