MESSINES TO CARRICK HILL: writing home from the Great War

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 5 (September/October 2017), Reviews, Volume 25

TOM BURKE
Mercier Press
€17.99
ISBN 9781781174845

Reviewed by: Patrick Callan

Patrick Callan is a visiting research fellow at the Centre for Contemporary Irish History, Trinity College, Dublin.

Michael Wall enlisted in January 1916 as a second lieutenant in the Royal Irish Regiment. A nineteen-year-old officer, he died during the Battle of Messines in June 1917, most likely owing to ‘friendly’ artillery fire. He kept up a regular correspondence with his mother until days before his death, when he informed her that he was due to go ‘over the top’.

Tom Burke was one of the founders of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers Association. In 1999 he promised the Wall family that he would use the letters to write about Michael’s experiences in Flanders. Burke writes that he knew all about Michael’s pipe, his Irish Times, his sense of adventure, and how it gradually turned into dejection and regret. This book details that and much more.

So many of the soldiers whose lives have been publicised during the past three years serve as ‘local’ evidence of the Irish experiences of the Great War. Often, however, their histories are limited by a paucity of archival sources, a minimal awareness of the complexities of Irish cultural or political life, or relevant knowledge of the campaigns of the Continental war. Not so here. Burke richly establishes the detailed strategic context of Wall’s final battle at Wijtschate. He presents a minute configuration of the battle area, which Michael’s 16th (Irish) Division shared with the 36th (Ulster) Division. The book is laced with observations that bring home essential aspects of life on the front line, including field punishments, sex and alcohol, as well as debilitating trench foot and typhoid. He alludes to the training of officers in Ireland, looks at the nuanced reaction to the 1916 Rising amongst Irish soldiers and their families, and briefly references the experiences of Irish chaplains such as Francis Gleeson SJ, who served with the Royal Munster Fusiliers. Wall had a close relationship with Gleeson, a family friend, corresponding with the Jesuit even before he enlisted. Gleeson was attached to the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes, Lower Gloucester Street, Dublin. Gleeson told Wall that he was ‘most required to help the poor Catholic soldiers to live well and to die well’. Poignantly, Wall met Fr Gleeson at the front line just a few days before his death at Wijtschate.

Burke also reproduces a letter that Gleeson wrote to Wall about the ‘mountains of work and worry we priests bear in a hard parish like this with thousands of souls’. My great-uncle, James Callan, came from that ‘hard parish’, and his family lived on Gloucester Street. He joined the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and died in Messines on the same battleground as Wall, although four months earlier. They are both buried in Kemmel Château military cemetery.

As a Dubliner, Wall was probably fortunate to be shipped up to County Dublin on Easter Sunday 1916. During his training in County Down, he wrote home in May 1916 looking for golf balls and golf paint, to be found in the ‘room where you had the jam stored’. Not so unusual a request, given that Portmarnock golf club was just down the road from his family home in Carrick Hill!

The training idyll passed. A year later, in more serious vein, Wall wrote from the front that Sinn Féiners should be sent out ‘to do a few nights on the fire step’. From the muddy fields of Flanders, he told his mother, ‘I put myself in God’s hands’. Wall had the soldier’s fatalistic acceptance of death, asking his mother to keep a weekly ‘roll of honour’ published in Dublin’s Evening Herald. She in turn sent out ‘some blessed palm for Easter’.

While Michael’s voice is at centre stage, the concerns of his mother for his safety provide an important subtext, drawing attention to the impact of the war on families. Wall had the unenviable task of writing letters of consolation to the families of deceased soldiers, such as the relatives of a platoon sergeant from Templemore. Survivors valued the belongings of the deceased, assigning them the status of emotive memento mori. Mrs Wall unsuccessfully appealed to the War Office to locate some of Michael’s personal possessions, including a ‘fountain pen (Waterman)’, a creative instrument as important to Michael as to Seamus Heaney, whose pen is now displayed in the Heaney Centre in Bellaghy.

Burke concludes the book with a consideration of the controversial 1927 Armistice Day events in Dublin, and recalls a visit to Flanders in 2000, when he attended an event with some of Michael Wall’s descendants. A Flemish woman joined them in commemorating ‘your Irish relatives, friends and acquaintances who fought for our freedom’.

Wall’s sustained lyrical conversations with his mother transcend the great battle narratives, bringing an intriguing level of intimacy that is seldom found in war memoirs. The chronicle of a witness is invested with knowledge of outcomes, while reflections are conditioned by concepts of success or failure, of victory or defeat. A letter-writer cut off in the full flow of authorship, Wall wrote for an audience of one, with no regard for the vagaries of reputation or the judgements of posterity. Wall’s letters alone are a rich source in relation to the Irish experience of the war.

Burke’s anthem for a doomed youth has the potential to become a classic account of front-line life, owing to Wall’s perceptive observations on home life, military education and front-line experiences, as well as the author’s skill in illuminating them.

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