The release of many British Army service records for the 1914–20 period on the internet courtesy of the UK’s National Archives has made available the file of one Thomas Bernard Barry of Roscarberry, Co. Cork. The file is part of the ‘Burnt Documents’ series and accordingly has suffered some fire damage as a result of the bombing of the London Public Records Office during the Second World War. In all the publications over the years on Tom Barry, little substantiated reference has been made to his British Army career. The 23-page file does not contain a vast amount of detail but clearly corresponds with many of the facts outlined by Barry himself in his book Guerilla days in Ireland.
The file records that Thomas Bernard Barry, with an address at The Arcade, Roscarberry, Co. Cork, enlisted in the British Army on 30 June 1915 and was posted to the Royal Field Artillery depot at Athlone on 1 July 1915. His next of kin was his father, also Thomas Barry of Roscarberry. He was 5ft 71⁄4ins tall, and according to the record he declared himself to be over nineteen years old, although on discharge from the army in 1919 he recorded his correct year of birth as 1897.
The service record indicates that he was posted to Iraq on 21 January 1916 as part of the Mesopotomia Expeditionary Force with the 14th Battery, 4th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery, and remained there for two years until 20 May 1918. Tom Barry himself recorded that he was involved in the attempt to relieve the British army besieged at Kut-al-Amara. Barry’s unit was part of the 3rd (Lahore) Division of the Tigris Corps. The 4th Brigade of the Royal Field Artillery consisted of the 7th, 14th and 66th Batteries, each battery consisting of six 18-pounder field guns.
Barry was in action on 5 April 1916 in one of many unsuccessful attempts to relieve British positions at Kut. As mentioned in his own work, his unit was positioned twelve miles from Kut in May 1916 when he heard about the Easter Rising in Dublin. This was as close as his unit got to Kut and was where they were stopped by Turkish counter-attacks. The British suffered 23,000 casualties during this engagement and in appalling weather were resigned to the loss of the army at Kut, which subsequently surrendered on 29 April 1916.
In January 1917 his battery was in action at the Hai salient, south of Kut, where they supported an assault by the 13th and 14th Divisions on Turkish trenches. In March they were at Falluja and Baquba and suffered heavy casualties in tough fighting on 21 March 1917. By late 1918 his unit was continuing its progress up the Tigris valley, north-east of Baghdad, attacking Samarra and eventually forcing the Turks back to Tikrit.
In the meantime, with experienced forces leaving Palestine for France because of the German offensive of March 1918, more units were required in Palestine and the forces there were reorganised in summer 1918. The 33rd (Lahore) Division was sent from Iraq to Egypt, and Gunner Barry’s 4th Artillery Brigade went with them in June 1918. After eighteen days by boat he was in Egypt on 8 June 1918, and remained there until 20 February 1919. Then he set sail for home, where he arrived on 4 March 1919.
Barry never attained the rank of sergeant, as claimed in some works. He was attested as a gunner and was appointed bombardier on 1 March 1916, but at his own request he reverted to the rank of gunner on 26 May 1916, remaining at this rank for the remainder of the war. Barry’s life in the British Army was not without incident. On 28 October 1915 he was reprimanded for ‘when on active service being absent from 6 a.m. parade until 6.20 a.m.’ and ‘not complying with an order’. On 27 May 1916 he was reprimanded again for ‘irregular conduct’. On 7 June 1918 he was guilty of being late for parade, stating a falsehood and disobedience of battery orders, enough to warrant ‘field punishment No. 2’ (being shackled for up to two hours a day). On 19 December 1918 he was given seven days’ field punishment No. 2 by Major Reynolds RFA for ‘creating a disturbance and improper reply to an NCO’. Nevertheless, when he was finally discharged from the army he was described as sober and ‘a good hardworking man’.
Barry’s career in the British Army ended on 7 April 1919. He was awarded a small pension for suffering malaria and DAH (Disordered Action of the Heart, a medical condition on his file). He was granted a pension for 66 weeks from 3 September 1919. His address at this time was given as Convent Hill, Bandon, Co. Cork. The war in Iraq was not like the trench warfare of the Western Front. When in action, the Royal Field Artillery batteries moved quickly in close cooperation with infantry and cavalry. Disease, hunger and the heat were as great a risk as the enemy, and the British suffered heavy casualties. Perhaps in the heat of Iraq Barry learned the need for innovation in warfare that made him such a successful guerrilla leader in the period after the war.
Mark McLoughlin is a local and military historian living in Kildare town.
T. Barry, Guerilla days in Ireland: a personal account of the Anglo-Irish War (Cork, 1949).
M. Farndale, History of the Royal Regiment of Artillery: the forgotten fronts and the home base 1914–18 (Woolwich, 1988).
M. Ryan, Tom Barry, IRA freedom fighter (Cork, 2003).