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Brothers in Arms

James Durney

On 26 March 1916 Private William Wilmot, Athgarvan, was killed in action while serving with the Irish Guards on the Western Front. Back home in Co. Kildare William’s death was received with shock and sorrow. However, his younger brother, Thomas, had only recently being seriously wounded in revolver practice with the Athgarvan Company, Irish Volunteers. The story of the Wilmot brothers is not unique. Many families in Co. Kildare, and throughout Ireland, had fathers, brothers, and sons serving in both, or either, the British forces and the Irish Republican movement.
William and Thomas Wilmot were born four years apart – William in 1892 and Thomas in 1896 – the sons of George Wilmot, a Devonshire-born stoker, and Catherine, or Kate, Wilmot, nee Dillon, a native of Co. Tipperary. The Wilmot’s lived at Linden House, Athgarvan, and had six children, all born in Co. Kildare. William was employed as a groom when he joined the Irish Guards on October 2 1914, at a recruiting office in Naas, at the age of twenty-three. There was a height restriction for the Guards regiment and William was recorded as being five foot eight inches; 135 lbs; with fresh complexion, hazel eyes and black hair. A day after signing up for three years with the colours, or the duration of the war, William was shipped over to England to join No. 5 Company (training company) at the Irish Guards training depot in Warley, Brentwood, Essex, England. He proved to be good at musketry and field work; was well turned out on parade and average at gymnastics. Passing out of the Depot as a private soldier William was posted to No. 2 Company, 1st Battalion, Irish Guards, and shipped out from Southampton to France on active service with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) on March 11 1915.
The 1st Irish Guards had been in France since August 13, nine days after Britain had declared war on Germany. They had fought in the retreat from Mons, and in battles at the Marne and Aisne river, and at First Ypres. The front had since stabilised into trench warfare where they received drafts of replacements to bring the battalion back up to strength. Intended to discourage the Germans from reinforcing their armies opposing a massive French attack towards Lens, the 1st Irish Guards were to suffer the true futility of the war they were now fighting. At the battle of Festubert, between Laventie and Richbourg, near Arras in Artois, they were caught by enfilading machine-guns on what had once been flat and open fields. The battalion was cut to ribbons and Private William Wilmot was wounded by gunshots to his right eye and left buttock. He was one of nearly 400 casualties the 1,100-strong battalion suffered.
William was sent back to a field hospital in Wimereux, a French seaside town between Boulonge-Sur-Mer and Calais. On May 25 he was sent to Boulonge for transport back to England and two days later he crossed the Channel. William spent almost two months recuperating in hospital and at the Guards Depot at Warley, in Essex. On July 20 1915 he returned to the front line in France. They were joined by another Irish Guards battalion, the 2nd, which along with the 1st, became part of a newly formed Guards Division. After a period of training the Guards Division were involved in the Battle of Loos, where again the Irish troops suffered heavy casualties. The fighting dragged on into 1916 and a period of bitter, tedious trench warfare followed. The 1st Irish Guards moved into billets at Brandhoek near Vlamertingheon on March 16 where they celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with a huge dinner and inter-company football competitions.
On March 23 the 1st Irish Guards moved into the front line trenches on the Ypres canal bank in Belgium. It was there on March 26 1916, that Pte. William Wilmot was killed instantly by a direct hit on his dug-out by a single ‘Whizz-Bang’ shell. (The German 77mm artillery shell was commonly known as a ‘Whizz-Bang’ because the noise the shell made as it travelled faster than the speed of sound – the soldiers heard the ‘whizz’ sound, before the ‘bang’ from the gun itself.) He is buried in Potijze Burial Ground Cemetery, north-east of Ypres, Belgium. In 1929 the Kildare Board of Health erected a memorial in the Newbridge Parish Cemetery, St. Conleth’s, on which William Wilmot’s name – and that of forty-eight other natives of the area – are inscribed. William was posthumously awarded the 1914-15 Star, the British War Medal 1914-18, and the Allied Victory Medal – which are still in the family’s possession.

Wilmot Medals WWIsmall.jpg
William Wilmot's medals

While William Wilmot joined the British army, his brother, Tom, a bookkeeper, joined the Irish Volunteers. When George Redmond, the political leader of the Home Rule movement, pledged that the Volunteers would join the British army in support of the European war, he initiated a split in the Volunteer movement. Athgarvan Company voted 3-1 to reject Redmond’s offer and Michael Smith continued as Company commander with William Jones, an ex-corporal in the British army, as drill instructor. Bill Jones later married Tom Wilmot’s sister, Annie, or Nan. A keen nationalist Tom Wilmot played hurling and football for Lord Edward Hurling and Football Club (Eyrefield), as did his brother George, who had returned home in July 1914 after being several years resident in England where he had served his apprenticeship in the horse-racing industry. George and his youngest sister, Kitty, were also active in Eyrefield Dramatic Class. As a young man Tom was a very good footballer and also played for Athgarvan GFC. As Athgarvan Company, Irish Volunteers was nearest the Curragh military camp it was giving the task of procuring arms and ammunition from sympathetic soldiers there. In January 1916 at revolver practice, Tom Wilmot was accidentally severely wounded. He was brought as a patient to Drogheda Memorial Hospital, near the Curragh Camp, but the whole incident was hushed up as he was attended by Dr. Laurence Rowan, who was a medical officer with the republican movement. Tom was well enough to attend the Kildare GAA annual County Convention in the Town Hall, in Naas, in March 1916. In early 1921 the British authorities opened a new internment camp for republicans at the Curragh, known as the Rath Camp. One of the first internees from the county was Tom Wilmot. He remained there until the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed in December 1921, when all the internees were released under the terms of the treaty. When the National Army was set up in 1922 Tom was offered a commission, which he refused.

Tom Wilmotsmall.jpg
Tom Wilmot c.1950s
Tom Wilmot was appointed assistant-librarian in 1927 with Kildare Co. Council, with who he remained for thirty years until his retirement. He moved to the newly-built Crescent housing estate, on the Curragh road, in 1939, where he cared for his widowed mother for the last ten years of her life, which she spent, confined to her bed. He never took a penny from the State for this. (Kate Wilmot died in 1957, aged ninety-five – her husband, George, preceded her having died in 1928, aged sixty.) Tom refused an IRA pension and an old-age pension and after he left the Co. Council worked for P. J. Cox as a book-keeper and as manager of the greyhound track when it was located in the GAA grounds. He was an accomplished musician and played the piano, violin, banjo, drums, and accordion. Tom formed his own céilí band and some of the famous Gallowglass Band cut their teeth with his Tom Wilmot Céilí Band.  In a 2008 interview Christy Moore cited Tom Wilmot as one of his musical influences. Tom was a founder member of the Ryston Pitch and Putt Club; a member of the Newbridge branch of Gael Linn; a member of the Gaelic League and a keen photographer. Tom Wilmot died on Christmas Eve 1974, aged seventy-nine. He is buried in St. Conleth’s Cemetery, Newbridge. Nearby is the WWI memorial where his brother, William’s name is inscribed.
WWI Death Penny Wilmotsmall.jpg
William Wilmot's - 'Death Penny'

My thanks to Deirdre Twomey, Kathleen Hewitt, Phil Tompkins, Mary Hogan and Marie Healy.

In 1916 William Wilmot, from Athgarvan, was serving with the British Army in Flanders, while back home in Kildare his younger brother, Tom, was preparing for the Easter Rising with the Irish Volunteers.

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