Saturday 17 August 2019

Remembering at last the 'Forgotten Few' who died in the wars

AUTHOR Christopher Power is back in print. However, the writer from Ferns is not standing by with a Swiss bank account ready to stash away the royalties.

His latest work will not trouble the statisticians who compile the bestseller lists. The scribe of Tinnashrule realises that he has selected a subject which has been ignored by many for far too long.

His booklet, The Forgotten Few, is aptly named, for it deals with a group of long-gone people who have largely been the subject of collective amnesia in their home country. The memory of many of the Irish soldiers who perished in the World Wars has been quietly brushed under the carpet for decades.

' There's a general blanket on it,' muses Christopher, who points out that practically every village in Britain has its memorial to the war dead. Similarly, France is littered with monuments on which the names of the casualties of the fighting are inscribed one by one in the stone.

The Irish from the south of this island who fought in the French trenches or threw themselves at the Turkish guns in the Dardanelles, they were caught up in a global conflict. The survivors returned to a country that was intensively pre-occupied with local matters and they were never recognised with any hero's homecoming.

Many of them were too traumatised by the horrors of what they had seen to make any song and dance about their experiences. Those who never made it back are commemorated a distant remove from home in the former killing fields of France and Belgium, where we continue to ignore them.

Then along comes Christopher Power, whose interest in the subject has propelled him five times to the Somme, scene of some of the most bloody battles of that most bloody of wars. Among the gravestones and the memorials he has found 25 men from Ferns who met their fate in the 1914-18 conflict.

His book also gives a brief biography of another Tinnashrule man, George Crowley, gunner aboard an RAF Hawker Henley aeroplane which crashed while on a training flight in Wales during 1942. The 20-year-old now lies interred in Llangadwaladar.

The casualties of the Great War were numerous. As Christopher relates, they were stimulated to enlist for a variety of motives. The recruitment posters he reprints put the emphasis on patriotic duty. 'Answer the Call', they trumpeted, as they appealed to ' The Real Irish Spirit'.

The summons to arms was backed endorsed by John Redmond MP, whose party was effectively redundant by the time the guns were stilled in 1918. The reality was that many of those who responded were moved, not so much by the urge to come to the aid of small nations like Belgium, as by the lure of a uniform and steady pay.

The toll of Ferns dead commenced with a triple fatality on October 19, 1914. The trio of Private Richard Carroll from Ferns, Private Patrick Doyle from Tomsollagh and Private James Hayden (originally from Camolin) were all members of the Royal Irish Regiment.

The slaughter was so intense that their bodies were never recovered, though their names appear on the Le Touret war memorial. The last of the 25 to go was Albert Edward Buttle from Craan, a second lieutenant in the Royal Irish Rifles, fatally wounded at a place called Haringhe just a month before the war concluded. He is interred in a Belgian military cemetery not far from where he died of his wounds.

The sheer scale of the killing makes their sacrifice all the harder to ignore. The War of Independence and the Civil War were bun fights by comparison with the Battle Messines Ridge, for example, where Private Michael Murphy from Kilrush, of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, met his Maker at the age of 30, one of thousands of obliterated there.

For those who were not blown to untraceable bits, their final resting place is a Commonwealth grave. The very word Commonwealth, which labels them as somehow British rather than Irish, offers one large clue as to why ' The Forgotten Few' have been forgotten for so long. The endless ranks of identical Commonwealth headstones strung out across the old battlefields are a long way not just from Tipperary but also from Tinnashrule and Tomsollagh.

On one of his visits to the Somme and district, Christopher Power discovered one grave that stood out from the rest. Although it was the name of Wexford member of parliament John Redmond which appeared on the posters, it was his brother Willie who actually served in the trenches.

An unlikely warrior, he trooped off to battle hardly suited to a military life as he was in his fifties. Like Michael Murphy, he died at Messines but his grave is marked by a substantial stone cross specially shipped from Wexford to the Lockar cemetery in Belgium.

The island of Ireland has not always been served well by the way in which it has remembered its dead fighters in ways that have proven poisonously divisive. Christopher Power (a man proud of his Old IRA antecedents, incedentally) merely makes the point that forgetting is not necessarily healthy either. His latest copiously illustrated volume may be obtained by contacting Expect to pay €7 plus the cost of postage.

Most Read