SEARCHING FOR A LOST UNCLE
March 21, 1918, Northern France. Pvt. John Keane and his comrades form a defensive flank, attempting to stop an overwhelming German advance. The British are forced to retreat and when the dust settles the Duncannon soldier is one of many never seen or hea
Many young Irishmen are known to have fought and died in the First World War. They enlisted for a variety of different reasons, but many of these young men suffered the same fate on battlefields across Europe.
In many cases whole streets in towns and villages across the country were decimated of their population of young men, due in no small part to the British policy of 'pals battalions' throughout the war.
One such young man was John Keane from Holdmanhill, Duncormick, Co Wexford, whose 94th anniversary took place on March 22nd 2012. John was born on the 18th of December 1897 to Michael and Catherine Keane (nee Quinn). He was one of a family of five boys and three girls.
John enlisted in the British Army in Widness, Lancashire, where he underwent military training before being posted to the 2nd Battalion, Prince of Wales Volunteers (South Lancashire Regiment). Along with many other young Wexford men, John was sent to Northern France.
At dawn on March 21st 1918, the German Army unleashed a huge barrage of artillery fire on British positions on the Western Front, which marked the deepest advances by either side since 1914. In just five hours, over one million artillery shells were fired at the British lines. By the end of the first day of the attack, 21,000 British soldiers had been taken prisoner and the Germans had made great advances through the Allied lines.
At 9pm on March 21st 1918, John Keane and his colleagues had formed a defensive flank on high ground above a small town called Vraucourt, South East of the French city of Arras, when they were ordered to withdraw from their position and reinforce the front line between Vaulx-vraucourt and Morchies. By 3am on March 22nd, his company was dug in on the front line.
Very heavy trench fighting took place with parties of the German troops succeeding in entering the trenches several times but being driven back. In spite of hard fighting on the part of the British troops the sheer weight of the enemy attack forced them to fall back.
Heavy fighting continued until about 3 pm when German troops had broken through in several locations and were advancing in strength.
Following these events, no further reports concerning Private John Keane were received by any of his surviving colleagues and it is believed that he was killed by German troops whilst they invaded the British trenches.
Like many thousands of others, his body was never identified. After a period of time, John Keane's mother received a Memorial Plaque and Scroll in respect to those who died in the war. A Parchment Scroll was also issued with each plaque giving the deceased's name and unit.
These were accompanied by a letter from His Majesty the King. He was also posthumously awarded the British War and Victory medals.
On March 22, 2012 Liam Keane, originally from Ballycogley, a nephew of John Keane paid tribute to his Uncle by returning to the location where John and his colleagues had been killed 94 years previously.
'It was something that I suppose I did for my mother and her family.' Liam said, 'It was very tough for them at the time. My uncle would have only been 21 when he was killed, and the fact that there was no grave or anything left to visit must have been awful.' He also visited 'The Pozieres British Cemetery and Memorial', situated 22km from where his uncle had been killed.
Whilst there is no known grave for John Keane, his name appears on one of the 99 panels of 'The Pozieres Memorial' which surrounds the 'Pozieres British Cemetery' between Bapaume and Albert. 'We didn't realise for a long time that John's name was actually on the memorial,' Liam said, 'but when we found out, I felt I had to go over for my mother's sake and for the sake of all the family, to pay my respects."
The memorial commemorates over 14,000 casualties of the United Kingdom and Ireland and 300 of the South African Forces who have no known grave and who died on the Somme from the 21st of March to the 7th of August 1918. The British cemetery contains 2,755 Commonwealth servicemen of the First World War buried or commemorated within its walls.
Liam said: 'What's very striking about the location is the fact that the cemetery and monument are far out in the countryside. It's so peaceful and serene there, which is somewhat strange considering that it's the place where so many young men met their untimely ends.'
The names of other young men from the Wexford area are also commemorated within 'The Pozieres Memorial' and the 'Pozieres British Cemetery', including a young Devereaux man from Rowe Street, a Rossiter from Taghmon and a Roche man from Maudlintown.
'There are 19 young Wexford men commemorated on the panels of the memorial,' Liam said, 'but there could be many more bodies buried within the vast grounds of the cemetery itself.'
Within the Pozieres Memorial and the Pozieres British Cemetery is the 'Cross of Sacrifice' which bears the inscription: 'Their Name Liveth For Evermore' and for people like Liam Keane, the sacrifice that these young men made will never be forgotten.