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War Letters of Nicholas Byrne, Two Mile House, Naas

James Durney

Sergeant-Major Nicholas Byrne, Stephensonstown, Naas, was serving with the 1st Battalion, Irish Guards, in Flanders, at the opening rounds of the Great War. The Irish Guards were assigned to the 4th Brigade, which was composed of four Guards battalions. Retiring to the village of Landrecies, the force of 4,500 men were quickly surrounded by a far superior force of Germans, estimated to be about 20,000. The Brigade, however, fought its way out of the trap. On 28 August 1914 Nicholas Byrne wrote one of many letters to his step-father, Mr. Byrtle Byrne, detailing his experiences:

'We defended the town so gallantly that the Germans were not able to break through, but were forced back. Our losses were about 14 killed and about 80 wounded. I got lost with a pack of animals and was very near walking into the German ranks. At daybreak I was at a place where the biggest attack was made at our lines and I could see nothing but piles of dead Germans and some of their wounded had not been taken away … During the last eight days we have marched over 160 miles, and in six of these days I could only manage 14 hours’ sleep.’

On September 2 Nicholas wrote: 'I hope you will excuse pencil, as pen and ink are as scarce as a bottle of Guinness. Tim Kelly, of Mullacash, is still safe and sound. You can tell his people. Jack Cummins did not come out with us, as he was not in London at the time. I lost yesterday one of the best friends I ever had. He was a Company Sergt.-Major the same as myself and we have been together for the last eleven years at Caterham and elsewhere. He was Nicholas’s [his son] godfather and I shall never forget his last words as he was struck twice in succession with bullets from a German machine gun, “Goodbye, Byrne, old man I’m done!” He said no more.’

After five weeks of action the Guards were relieved. Nicholas wrote of the soldiers’ allegiance to their Catholic faith. ‘The following day, Friday, was a rest day, the first one we have had for nearly two months. We had a good clean-up in the morning, and in the evening I took 93 men of my company down to confession in the town. We were to go to Communion yesterday morning at 7 p.m., but unfortunately we had to move off at a the time and we could not go to Mass on Sunday. Previously we generally had a big fight on Sunday. In fact, Sunday and Tuesday were our “scrapping days” up to now.’

Nicholas Byrne, Two-Mile House; Tim Kelly, Mullacash; and Jack Cummins, Newlands, Naas, all survived the Great War. Around 560 Kildaremen were not so lucky.

The war letters of Nicholas Byrne, taken from ‘Far from the short grass. The story of Kildaremen in the two World Wars,’ by James Durney.

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