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Local Studies Department

WORLD WAR I: Chapter 3 - The War - Letters From the Front

“One doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose
sight of the shore for a very long time.”
Andre Gide

During World War 1 soldiers exposed themselves to hardships never before envisaged. These faced weaponry so far advanced from any previous war that they named it The Great War, and with good reason. The Boer War, the most recent war previous to World War 1, proved insignificant compared to what greeted these men. It is impossible to relate county Kildare men’s experiences once they set forth from Irish shores, so I shall let them “tell you like it was” and largely in their own words.

The following was received by Mr. Bartle Byrne, Stephenstown, Naas, from his stepson Sergt.-Major Byrne and was written on the first campaign entered into by the Irish Guards who departed with the initial British Expeditionary Force;

Read Sergeant-Major Byrne's letter...


Sergt.-Major Byrne’s campaign with the Irish Guards is mentioned in Peter Verney’s book “The Micks- The story of the Irish Guards”. When Nicholas was writing his first letter, Verney says the Irish Guards were breakfasting “amongst wet Lucerne and dripping corn, for there had been a very heavy dew that night and a dismal, thin rain was falling. Behind them stretched the dark, damp beech forests of Villers-Cotterets. They took up a position outside the wood. One of the companies was in a graveyard, and there they sited themselves amongst the tombstones and loop-holed the walls of the enclosure”

A short time later “the Irish Guards prepared to receive the next attack, but alone. The enemy closed fast, and had even managed to bring up a gun which fired shrapnel low over their heads....” The Irish Guards lost nine officers and 115 men, including the Commanding Officer, Second-in-Command and one Company Commander and one Adjutant wounded. Verney confirms Sergt.-Major Byrne’s opinion of the Commanding Officer who he says was the “greatest loss”. Colonel Morris he says “had been a hard man, but a just one”. In late 1914 Sergt -Major Byrne himself was reported by the War Office to be wounded with no further information available, it is assumed therefore that he survived to return home. ( Unfortunately it was rare that a soldier was adequately recorded in the history of World War 1 unless he was either decorated or killed.)

Prisoners of war, in particular, went through hell during the war. The Earl of Mayo, a retired Lord Lieutenant and resident at Palmerstown House, Naas, reported from London hospitals which held Irish prisoners of war recently returned from Germany. The following is an extract from one of his reports:-

“I went to see Private T. Donohoe, 11282, Royal Dublin Fusiliers.
I saw him at York Gallery, Brompton Hospital, Fulham road, on
December 14th, 1915. He said: ‘I was taken prisoner on August 27th, 1914, and was then taken to Senelager, and there the food was very bad. All latrines were open, a very heavy fatigue duty in building huts, and the
men were hammered by the Germans in charge if they shirked work. Some parcels were received in November, 1914, at Senelager.....In July, 1915, I went into hospital with lung trouble. I was badly looked after in hospital. There was only one German orderly to about 50 patients in the ward; no medicines, but, they were given morphia. Some men never woke up from this morphia treatment, and they were buried. The morphia was given out in drops by the orderly, and he was not very particular about the dose.”
Kildare Observer, 1 January, 1916

In a letter to his mother from a convalescent hospital, on 25th June, Drummer Rodney Ahearn of the R.D.F., a native of Naas, writes that although he was wounded in the foot he was getting on very well, he says:-

“Dear Mother - Just a few lines to let you know that l am going on
well and that I got a slight wound in the foot on the 18th inst. But it is
getting on splendidly and I am now at Port Said Convalescent. So I think
I have escaped very lucky, as I think I am one of the last of the old 1st
battalion to leave the trenches. It is terrible the cutting up that battalion
has got - in fact, the whole division. Each time there has been anything on
the mat we have been there, so I think it is very near time that they gave
us a rest, but there is no such thing. There is no rest or playing football, as there is on the other side. It is a break to get away for a few days after being two months on the go day and night. I have been expecting one every day as I should like to know if my father is on his way out, as I have not hear of him.
I suppose “Titch” is getting on tiptop. Is he gone to Belfast yet? I wrote him a postcard to the Curragh, but I suppose it will be forwarded to him,
Your loving son,
Rodney”
Kildare Observer, 4 September,1915

In a War Office communication dated 20th July, Mrs. Ahearn received a document from the Infantry Record Office, Island Bridge, to the effect that Drummer Rodney Abeam was wounded in action and admitted to the Government Hospital at Port. This confirmed the above letter. However, Rodney quickly recovered from his wounds and was soon again with his regiment. In September, of the same year, he was very badly wounded in action at the Dardanelles. A further communication was received; a notification of death “from wounds”. At the time the 20 year old's father, Private Richard Ahearn, was fighting in the trenches, and was later killed in the war.

In the confusion and chaos of war reality became somewhat uncertain and many who received telegrams on the death of a loved one sought to confirm the details. News reached Colonel and Mrs. St. Leger Moore, Killashee, Naas, Co. Kildare of the death of their only son 24 years old Captain R.S.T. Moore, 12th Lancers, in September 1914. Both travelled to London to confirm the dreaded telegram with the War Office there. When they arrived in London the details were confirmed as definite. However, a further telegram was received by Colonel St. Leger Moore, on returning home, stating that his son was actually wounded and in hospital at Bavai, near Lille in the North of France close to the Belgian Frontier as a Prisoner of War.

This telegram was sent to the Moores by a Captain Dwyer R.A.M.C., who had been attending the wounded, as a doctor and Prisoner of War, in the hospital in Lille and had ministered to Captain Moore. Captain Dwyer, on informing Captain Moore of his intention to escape, was given the address of Colonel and Mrs. Moore to write to and inform them of their sons position, if he was successful in his escape. Captain Dwyer did escape and telegrammed Colonel and Mrs. Moore.

On receipt of the information Colonel Moore and his wife travelled to the home of Captain Dwyer, Brittas, Co. Dublin, to inform Dr. Dwyer’s parents of their sons escape and to tell them that he was alive, well and on his way home. Naturally another set of parents were delighted, as they had recently heard that Dr. Dwyer was missing in action.

The following appeared in the Kildare Observer which related a conversation that one of it’s reporters had with Colonel Moore:-

“On Thursday last Captain Dwyer was good enough to come and
see us and tell us what he knew. He was captured by the Germans,
who put him to attend the wounded in Hospital at Bavai. In the course
of his Ministrations he met some of the British wounded, amongst them
my son and some men of his regiment telling my boy of his intention to
attempt to make his case he managed to get away, and gave him our address.

“As you have gathered, Captain Dwyer did escape, and on his arrival
in London dispatched the telegram I have mentioned.

“My son”, he told us, “was seriously wounded in the foot, a bullet entering at his instep and coming out at the back of his foot, having shattered the ankle.

“From talking to the men in Hospital the Captain told us he learnt that
when in a hand to hand fight my son received the bullet wound in the
foot. He was about to shoot a German with his revolver when the man
bayonetted him in the hand, forcing him to drop the revolver. The man
then clubbed his rifle and swung it at my son’s head. He raised his arm to
protect himself and half warded it off, but the force of the blow caught
him about the right shoulder and felled him, he was taken by the Germans, and though I was anxious to go and see him, I could not, of course, manage it.

“Captain Dwyer told me the wounded were, as far as he saw, treated
in the kindest manner by the Germans.”
Kildare Observer, 26 September, 1914

Lieut. Moore was transferred to Switzerland, under the care of the Swiss Red Cross Association in 1915, still a Prisoner of War. For three whole years he remained in German hands but on October 6, 1917 the following was reported in the Kildare Observer:

“Lieut. R.S.T. Moore, only son of Colonel and Mrs. St. Leger Moore,
arrived home to Killashee, amidst much jubilation, on Tuesday morning.”

Seafaring men from the landlocked County Kildare was not unusual, Admiral de Robeck was probably the most famous of its naval personnel (more details later). Unfortunately, the following is just one of the many deaths reported from Naval Ships or Submarines:-

“A memorial service was held on Friday at St. Mary’s, Tealey, for the
late Walter Borrowes, Lieut. H.M. Navy, who was recently killed on
active service in a submarine. The deceased officer who was only 23 years of age was a son of sir Erasmus Borrowes, Bart., of Barrettstown Castle, Co. Kildare by his marriage with Florence Elizabeth, daughter of Mr. Win. Ruxton, Ardee House, Co. Louth. He was a half-brother of the present Baronet, Sir Kildare Borrowes, Bart., for whom much sympathy is felt in the loss of such a promising young officer.”
Leinster Leader-30 January, 1915

The part played by individual Kildare men in certain battles is hard enough to analyse but as a group, and within the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, they played many a role in winning the war.

The following extract is taken from the Leinster Leader Newspaper dated 15th May 1915. The article did not state who exactly the letter was from or who it was to, but mentions many interesting things; Corporal Cooke from Kilcullen and the use of gas in the war:-

Click here to read the letter...


Next to machine gun fire, gas proved the biggest killer throughout the War. Its use began when, in the Battle of Ypres, 1915, the Germans gassed the enemy for the first time. Ypres was a Belgian town in Western Flanders and it was here that three major battles took place during the war between 1914 and 1917. The first battle is the one mentioned above in which the Dublin Fusiliers featured highly.

It was later reported in the Leinster Leader that Corporal W. Cooke was promoted to Sergeant as a result of the above exploits. He was serving at the Dardanelles when he was further distinguished by the award of the Medal of St. George, 2nd Class conferred on him by the Czar of Russia “for conspicuous bravery and gallantry.” In July 1915 the Kildare Observer reported that Sergeant Cooke had been awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal: “For conspicuous gallantry and coolness on 25th April, 1915, and the following eight days, patrolling every night up to the enemy’s lines. From the top of a farmhouse he killed about ten Germans, and then went out and took prisoner their leader, an officer.” However, his luck was not to last and in 1915 he was reported killed in action while fighting in the Dardanelles on October 3rd.

Above all else the letter informing families (nearly always the mother) on the death of a son, husband or father must have been heart wrenching. The typical letter sent usually read something like the one below:-

“Dear Mrs Bruen, - I regret very much to inform you that your brother Sergeant WJ. Masterson was killed on 9th May, while gallantly leading his platoon in a charge. He was shot through the head and died instantaneously. I had a great respect for him and sympathise with you most sincerely in your loss - Yours very truly, Lt. C. Anderson, Lieut. Comd. A. Coy, 1st Batn. The Black Watch.”
Leinster Leader, 12 June, 1915

Sergeant W.J. Masterson of the Black Watch was a native of Naas and son of Mr. Masterson, Railway Terrace, Naas. His sister, Mrs. Bruen lived at Ely Place, Dublin where she received the above letter.

Private Anthony Byrne from Chapel Hill, Athy, died in May, 1915, and was obviously very well liked by his companions at the Front. His mother was sent three letters from three different soldiers commiserating with her on the death of her son. One such letter runs as follows:-

“Dear Mrs. Byrne, - Just a few lines to let you know that your
son Anthony, is dead. I am very sorry to have to send you bad
news, but, dear Mrs. Byrne, I hope you won’t worry over it, as he
was a very good lad and was praying night and day. So don’t
worry, as he is in Heaven, and may God bless and have mercy
on him. - I remain, yours - An Athy lad, J. Fanning”
Leinster Leader, 22 May, 1915

Indicative of the youthfulness of soldiers involved in the war was the fact that the mother was often the person that these letters were addressed to. An illustration of this is the amount of boys that went straight from Secondary School to take up with the Colours:-

“What is described as a Roll of Honour list containing the
names of about 15 students who have joined the British army
since the outbreak of the war has been hung in the porch of the
Naas Technical Schools by the Principal, Mr. J.R. Halsall, and
it has been the object of much interest and admiration to all
who have visited the school.”
Leinster Leader, 8 May, 1915

Clongowes Wood gave up many of its young men to the cause, not all necessarily of school going age:-

“Five hundred students and past students of Clongowes Wood
College are at present serving in the army and navy. The record
of the College up to the present is - Killed, 41; died on active
service, 5; wounded (about) 80. The honours conferred on students
and past students are - Victoria Cross, 1; Distinguished Service
Order, 8; Military Cross, 14; mentioned in despatches, 51 .”
Leinster Leader - 8 May, 1915

Of the battles fought in the Great War Gallipoli proved a particularly painful memory to those who partook in its failure. More than just the loss of human life, it had a disastrous affect on recruitment in Ireland (see next chapter). Gallipoli accounted for 9% of all Irish infantry deaths, as compared with 3% for the army overall. (Soldiers who died in the Great War, 1922 (Dublin)) The purpose of the Gallipoli campaign was to open up a new theatre of war as an alternative to the stalemate in France, to relieve Turkish pressure on Russian forces in the Caucasus, and by gaining control of Istanbul and the Straits, to provide a direct link with Russia via the Black Sea. (Perry, Nicholas; Nationality in the Irish Infantry Regiments in the First World War, Published in War & Society, Volume 12, Number 1 (May 1994))

Initially the Gallipoli campaign was supposed to be a naval operation involving the bombardment of the coastline by Allied ships. The presence of floating mines, however, led to the loss of four vessels. As a result of this disaster the local Admiral of the fleet collapsed with a nervous breakdown. His replacement was Admiral de Robeck, brother to the Baron de Robeck, Gowran Grange, Naas, County Kildare, who was also involved in the war with the Royal Field Artillery. Admiral de Robeck advised General Sir Ian Hamilton, Commander-in-Chief of the forces, that he would require the aid of troops if the campaign was to be successful. Hamilton decided on a series of landings at V Beach, this, Henry Harris explains (in his book; The Irish Regiments in the First World War), was based on misinformation. It was the decision to land troops on the European side of the Straits, on the narrow and mountainous peninsula of Gallipoli which proved disastrous.

On Friday the 23rd of April The Munsters, Dublins and Hampshires sailed from Mudros under a veil of mist and reached Tenedos on the 24th. The plan was to bombard the coastline at V Beach first and then to land safely. However, the well-concealed Turkish trenches were left largely unscathed. Eventually the “River Clyde” ran aground to land some troops, among them Dublin Fusiliers, ‘Hell burst loose on them. A tornado of fire swept over the boats....devastating casualties were suffered in the first few seconds. Some of the boats drifted helplessly away with every man in them killed. Many more of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers were killed as they waded ashore. Others badly wounded, stumbling in the water, were drowned.’ (Harris, Henry; The Irish Regiments in the First World War)

In what General Hamilton called a ‘death trap’ few passed unscathed. The colonel, the adjutant and many others of the Dublin Fusiliers were killed in the first phase. (Harris, Henry; The Irish Regiments in the First World War)

The following letter was received by Mr. E.L. Gray, Naas, from Dr. P. Burrows Kelly and published in the Kildare Observer dated 25th September, 1915. Dr Kelly was very well known in Clongowes College Cricket Club before he joined the Co. Kildare Cricket Club and it is obvious that he misses it. Dr. Kelly took part in the landing on V Beach as described above and gives an excellent account of the happenings:-

Read the Letter from the Dardanelles...

 

The following is an extract from a paper published in the Kildare Observer that was read in December 1915 by Lieut. J.M. Brophil, of the 6th Leinster, who was stationed at Gough Barracks, Curragh, having been invalided home from the Dardanelles:-

“The little ring of blue grey smoke, which marks a shrapnel, floats peacefully in the blue overhead like a halo, it seems, in the brilliant sunlight. But what a halo - a halo of death. You wonder when the next shell will fall and as you wonder you are deafened with a mighty roar. A blinding glare sears your eyes and you fling yourself flat on the ground; the next instant you are covered with dust and broken stones. You have been lucky this time, but others are not so, for around you are lying what a few moments before were men, but now are only a mass of quivering flesh. The cries of wounded and dying are heard on all sides, and in a few moments the doctor is here, wounds are bandaged, everything possible is done to ease the pain as the lines of stretcher bearers wend their slow way towards the shore, from whence the patients are sent on board the hospital ships lying close by....

“While our regiment was on Rhododendron the Suvla landing took place. From where we were we could see it all, and with our glasses we saw the Munsters and Dublins do their brilliant work. At night the village of Brijuk, Anafarta, set on fire by our guns, lit up the whole place, but after a time the smoke obscured our view, as it did in other places, but still we saw enough to know that it was not the 10th divisions fault that great success was not achieved. No word has been mentioned in the papers of the part the Leinster played in all that terrible August fighting.

“Separated from our division and placed amongst men to whom bravery is the breath of life, we held our own; but because we were nobody, and in no particular care just then, the regiment - like the Irish rifles, Hampshires and the Connaught - failed to receive the recognition they had so richly deserved.”
Kildare Observer - 18 December, 1917

Lieutenant Brophil gives an excellent account of his part in the attempted Dardanelles campaign which is documented in the Kildare Observer dated 18th December, 1915. His comment on the lack of recognition for his Irish Regiment was not uncommon. Many of the regular Irish Regiments that took part in the landings on V Beach were not mentioned in despatches because the 29th Division was not an Irish Division. It was also felt that the 10th Irish Division were ill used. In hindsight, many felt that the campaign was doomed to failure even without mistakes made by those in command. Many Kildare men fell at the Dardanelles and the horrific stories coming back, the useless slaughter of lives and the lack of recognition, incensed many and led directly to a fall off in recruitment numbers.

Air travel was practically non-existent at the time, although World War 1 used planes for the first time in warfare. A new military presence in County Kildare was that of the Royal Flying Corps at an aerodrome which was commissioned near the Curragh Camp in 1915. It was intended to be a temporary station for one Training Squadron (Day Bombing), and it remained in use until 1919. Canvas hangars were erected, and the station had an establishment of 332 personnel, who were accommodated in the camp. The 19th Training Squadron, which was equipped with 24 aircraft, was based at the Curragh from December 1917, and in October 1918 a new unit, the Irish Flying Instructors School, was established there. An early Kildare aviator who died while serving in the Royal Flying Corps was Lieut. Matthew Halligan;-

“It has been learned with much regret at Newbridge where his parents reside as well as at the Curragh and Naas that Lieut. Matthew Halligan, Royal Flying Corps, late of McElveen Terrace, Newbridge was killed in the recent advance. While flying over the German lines three British aeroplanes were engaged by German machines and after a short and sharp flight the plane in which Lieut. Halligan was flying was brought down by the enemy dropping a bomb and smashing the aeroplane. On being picked up Lieut. Halligan was removed to one of the Base Hospitals when it was found that he was suffering from a fracture of the base of the skull from which he died soon afterward. Lieut. Halligan, whose parents reside at Newbridge, was of very fine physique and a splendid type of Irish soldier, had been through the South African War with the Dublin’s having joined the regiment in Naas 19 years ago. Although he was through the several warm engagements in South Africa in which his regiment took part he escaped unwounded. He was afterwards a Colour Sergeant in the Naas Depot for a considerable time and while stationed at Kent when the opening of the present War came he accepted his commission as Lieutenant afterwards transferring to the Royal Flying Corps. Going to France some time after war was declared he returned to the Curragh where he was engaged as an officer instructor of the Royal Flying Corps. Some six months ago he went to England with the Corps and afterwards to France. Again returning to the Curragh Camp where he remained until a month ago he left there in charge of an aeroplane along with two other mechanics which had been at the Curragh for some time. It is said at the Curragh Camp that two out of the three machines which left there have been destroyed. Lieut. Halligan was very popular in the Co. Kildare and much sympathy left with his wife and child as well as with his parents, brothers and sisters.” Leinster Leader- 8 December, 1917

It is surely a credit to both the Leinster Leader and Kildare Observer that we can reproduce much of the material required for, in particular, this chapter. More and more stories abound in these newspapers and these few pages are just a small sample of available literature on the subject.