Justin Portess on the unsung heroism of the Irish regiments
You would be forgiven for missing the Chapel of St Patrick and the Saints of Ireland in Westminster Cathedral. In that vast sanctuary for our faith it is a relatively anonymous and humble chamber, quietly understated in a green Irish marble that reflects a peaceful, comforting light. It is one of the few places where you will find the collected names of the mostly long-disbanded Irish regiments that fought in the First World War, and the names of 50,000 soldiers of all ranks from both sides of the Irish border who never made it back.
In 1914 Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. More than 58,000 Irishmen already swelled the ranks of the British Army and Navy throughout the Empire. Like the British, most Irish people supported the war at the start, backed by both unionist and nationalist leaders. The country’s men (as well as many women, who would provide vital nursing services) signed up in droves: 80,000 in the first 12 months alone, some half of whom came from Ulster. In the south they signed up to defend Catholic Belgium and in expectation of Home Rule as soon as conflict ended (the terms for which had recently been agreed in Westminster). Some, including Thomas Kettle MP, a leading constitutional nationalist whose talents would be extinguished at the Somme, hoped war would bring “the two reconciliations of which all statesmen have dreamed, the reconciliation of Protestant Ulster with Ireland and the reconciliation of Ireland with Great Britain”.
Yet by 1918 all hopes of a peaceful transition to Home Rule had been shattered by the 1916 Rising and the brutal British reaction to it. Ireland was on the verge of a war for independence, followed by civil war. Survivors from the formidable 10th and 16th (Irish) Divisions and their respective regiments, as well as those absorbed into the 36th (Ulster) Division and the Irish cavalry regiments, returned home to an Ireland once more embroiled in the long struggle to wrest its future from Britain.
Unlike for their British comrades, there were no homecoming parades for these men and women. Their vast sacrifice went without commemoration. By the early 1920s, while the huge losses at the Somme became an emotive symbol for the new Northern Ireland, the war was erased from history lessons in the new Irish Free State. In the years that followed, survivors’ medals remained locked away. They were denied public displays of sorrow for the fallen, or tribute to the disbanded divisions and regiments that had so crowned themselves in glory on the battlefield.
Soldiers need remembrance. The dignified commemoration of the fallen provides some reassurance that it was not totally in vain, while permitting a cathartic public release of what are often devastating memories. In Ireland survivors of the Second World War were denied this again in 1945. Despite another immense sacrifice, this time to defeat fascism, servicemen and women returned to a life of ignominy and prejudice, for which the Irish parliament only apologised in June this year.
Conflict – and especially the experience of the two World Wars – has been portrayed with such technological precision in film and television drama that we think we can imagine what it was like. But the reality of war of this nature, where you witness hundreds die within minutes, is unimaginable.
Carved on a cold granite slab in a Belgian cemetery are the words of one soldier who was there and who conveyed the reality. “It was ghastly to see them lying there in the cold,” he wrote, with all the understatement of the age and his class. The inscription can be found in the Irish Peace Park near Messine Ridge, which commemorates all Irish sacrificed in the First World War, regardless of political or religious divide. They are the words of Fr Francis Gleeson, chaplain to the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Munster Fusiliers, one of the many Irish regiments remembered in Westminster Cathedral, including the 5th Royal Irish Lancers, absorbed in 1922 into what eventually became my own regiment,
the Queen’s Royal Lancers.
Born in Tipperary and ordained in 1910, Fr Gleeson volunteered to serve with the British Army in 1914, one of only 17 priests to join the Army Chaplains Department at the start of the war. By 1915, he was already an experienced veteran. As the only unwounded officer during the Retreat from Mons, he had been forced to remove his chaplain’s insignia and forego non-combatant status to temporarily command the battalion. That Christmas he celebrated Mass under fire.
The following May, on their way to the front-line on the eve of the Battle of Aubers, the battalion’s 800 men halted by a broken shrine with a crucifix within it. Moving off the road they formed up by company, in front of each a green flag embroidered with the Irish harp and the word “Munster”. From horseback, beside the commanding officer, Fr Gleeson then administered general absolution, a scene later immortalised in Fortunino Matania’s painting The Last General Absolution of the Munsters at Rue du Bois. The filthy, weary soldiers stand with humble dignity, heads bowed and hatless in the fading evening sunlight. Their faces are drawn, in expectation of their fate.
Launching the attack at dawn the next morning the Munsters had barely advanced a few yards before they were mown down, a handful managing to advance far enough to capture a German trench before being forced to withdraw. Fr Gleeson spent the afternoon comforting the wounded and administering Last Rites. When the battalion reconvened on the Rue de Bois, there were barely 200 men present. Among the dead was the battalion’s commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Victor Rickard. “So the Munsters came back after their day’s work,” wrote his widow in 1918. “It seems superfluous to make further comment.”
Fr Gleeson originally agreed to serve for one year, but when he briefly returned to Ireland later in 1915 he had the courage to admit that he could not stand life at the front any longer, “though I love the poor men ever so much”. It was this love that led him to serve for another two years.
Love is rarely mentioned in the context of soldiering, yet the immortal words of John 15:13 are rightly forever associated with remembrance: “No one can have greater love than to lay down his life for his friends.” The great tragedy of the lost years of Irish remembrance is that even the most loyal of patriots rarely lays down his or her life for a monarch or even a country. As every serviceman and woman knows, it is the love of comrades, enshrined in their unit, its unique history and regional ties, that prepares the way for the ultimate sacrifice. It is this love we commemorate when we remember the fallen. I witnessed such love many times during my own military career, on and off operations. In the late 1990s I visited the Somme with my squadron, D (5th Royal Irish Lancers) Squadron, not long returned from Bosnia. One night we camped in old Army canvas tents in a farmyard strewn with tiny shell fragments and perfectly round shrapnel balls. It was an appropriately dank and misty evening. As the temperature fell before dawn we were restless on our flimsy
Army cots. A figure passed the foot of my open tent and moments later a heavy army blanket was placed over me. It was our regimental chaplain. Doing the rounds, as
Fr Gleeson once surely did.
As I write, the Queen’s Royal Lancers are deployed on their second tour of duty in Afghanistan. The spirit of the 5th Royal Irish Lancers is with them. I pray it keeps them safe that they may return with Godspeed.