Crunching the numbers and busting myths

Published in Decade of Centenaries, Features, Issue 4 (July/August 2014), Volume 22

The Last General Absolution of the Munsters at Rue du Bois [8 May 1915] by F. Matania. But not all those serving were actually from Munster, especially as the war progressed and casualties mounted. (NMI)

The Last General Absolution of the Munsters at Rue du Bois [8 May 1915] by F. Matania. But not all those serving were actually from Munster, especially as the war progressed and casualties mounted. (NMI)

One hundred years on, and there remain few periods of Irish history that are so confounded by myth and falsehood as that of the Great War. Indeed, I have repeated some of the myths myself—that the first British shots of the war were fired by Corporal E. Thomas from Nenagh, Co. Tipperary, of the Royal Irish Dragoon Guards, and that 49,400 Irishmen died in the conflict. Both assertions are untrue. Thomas wasn’t Irish, and the figure of 49,400 is too high. In 1979 I did an analysis of the records drawn up by Eva Bernard in 1921. I reduced that figure to around 35,000, but subsequent work by people such as the heroic Thomas Burnell suggests that actually some 40,000 Irishmen died in British service in the war. (Commonwealth- and US-Irish deaths are still uncounted.) Some historians have pointed to the anomaly of Irish recruitment not apparently being sufficient to account for the relatively high numbers of Irish deaths. They are overlooking one simple factor: around 40% of Irish-Irish deaths (as opposed to British-born soldiers in Irish regiments) were of Irish-born emigrants recruited in Britain. For example, 55 (38%) of the Kilkenny City-born dead were recruited outside Ireland: 26 in the north of England, fourteen in Wales, ten in London and the south-east, three in Scotland and two from the Commonwealth/Empire. Consequently they appear in recruiting figures for other countries.

Labour Corps fatalities
Moreover, many deaths (both here and in Britain) escaped a bureaucratic net that quite simply couldn’t cope, especially when the wounded died at home. Other deaths were neglected through policy; men who died after being officially discharged through injury or illness were not counted as war-dead, thereby sparing the War Office the obligation of paying death-in-service pensions to the families. Such breathtaking wickedness reached almost industrial proportions with the Labour Corps, whose fate has so far escaped the attentions of even British military historians. The official list of war-dead—‘Soldiers Died in the Great War’—contains some 5,000 Labour Corps fatalities. But nearly 3,000 were not killed, or died of wounds, but merely ‘died’—from exhaustion, heart failure, TB, exposure and rheumatic fever, lingering deaths for unfortunates who were made to toil seven days a week, without R & R or the pay allowed to front-line troops. In other words, effectively, they were worked to death. Unlike the War Office, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission insisted on acknowledging all war-dead, even after discharge, and it lists a total of 9,300 Labour Corps dead, which means that some 7,000 of these military-slaves were in essence worked to death.

Perhaps surprisingly, relatively few were Irish. So whereas 52 Sheffield men officially died with the Labour Corps, the figure for Dublin (a city of about the same size) was 28. Yet in another example of squalid War Office parsimony, almost all the 52 officers who died with the Labour Corps held merely temporary commissions, thereby sparing the War Office the burden of post-war pensions.

First Irishman killed? 
Who was the first Irishman to die in the war? That seems clear enough. ‘Soldiers Died in the Great War’ and the records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission agree: he was a Connaught Ranger, Private Stephen Brennan of Ballina, apparently fatally wounded in the first engagement at Mons on 22 August 1914, and then buried in the civilian Athis-Mons cemetery. Except there’s a small problem: the Connaught Rangers didn’t arrive at Mons until 23 August, and the dates of death of the five other military occupants of the Athis-Mons cemet-ery were all in September. But how could that be, Mons having long since been taken by the Germans?

One clue comes in ‘Soldiers Died in the Great War’, which says that all six dead in the cemetery ‘died of wounds’. Another clue is that they all came from different regiments. Soldiers killed in battle were usually buried near where they fell, so that men of the same unit tended to lie alongside one another. So these men, coming from different units, must presumably have died in a field hospital. Would even this be possible, in Mons, in September? Yes it would—but not as I’d been expecting, for it was only after checking the location of Athis-Mons that I discovered that it was not, as it appeared, in Mons, Belgium, but in a southern suburb of Paris. It was presumably, therefore, near a civilian hospital that treated victims of the Battle of the Marne in September. Brennan’s ‘August’ death is probably due to a tired clerk writing ‘08’ rather than ‘09’ on a death certificate. Thus does fatigue forge fact.

The first Irishman to die in the land war was probably from the Royal Irish Regiment, 21 of whose officers and men were killed at Mons on 23 August. There are two other possible contenders from that day—one Thomas Smith of Adare, in the Royal Field Artillery, and Thomas Redmond from Dublin, serving with the Royal Scots.

But that’s largely an irrelevance, for the first Irish casualties of the war were at sea—an element that is almost pathologically overlooked in both Irish politics and history (when maritime matters arose on the first day of the Treaty talks in 1921, they were, at the instigation of the Irish delegation, relegated to a subcommittee). On 6 August 1914, spurred on by the impetuous first lord of the admiralty, Winston Churchill, HMS Amphion sailed full tilt into a sea-minefield off the Hook of Holland. Of the 150 men lost, some twenty were Irish—mostly from Cork. One—Joseph Pierce Murphy—was from Dublin.

Days of carnage
In all, I have counted at least forty-four 24-hour periods over the following four years in which the Irish death toll exceeded 100 (though there could still be other, as-yet-undetected such days). They include the obvious multi-hundred catastrophes, such as Hulluch on 24 April 1916, the Somme on 1 July 1916, Frezenberg Ridge on 16 August 1917, and 21 March 1918. Most of the lesser slaughters are almost completely unknown, such as the battle for a 30ft-high hillock called ‘the Mound of Death’ on 14–15 March 1915, at St Eloi, just south of Ypres. And in a downpour on the eve of Third Ypres, over 100 Irish Guardsmen were killed when both Micks’ battalions were—rather obligingly, from the German point of view—ordered to occupy recently abandoned enemy trenches, on which the Germans had arranged a welcome with pre-registered artillery. Only slightly more aquatically, some 200 Irishmen were killed in the Battle of Jutland on 31 May 1916.

The myth of the Irishman at war after March 1918—namely that he was viewed by High Command as being thoroughly untrustworthy—is not borne out by the facts. Two Irish battalions, the 2nd Leinsters and the 1st Dublins, both still over 70% Irish-born, were in the élite assault infantry division of the British Army in the autumn of 1918, the 29th (the Incomparables), and four VCs were won by Irish regiments in the closing weeks of the war.

The very last soldier of the British Army to be fatally wounded in the war was Private Thomas Farrell from Navan, shot as his picket of Royal Irish Lancers seized a canal bridge outside Mons shortly before 11am on 11 November 1918. He died the next day; in time, so too did all memory of his fate and that of some 40,000 fellow Irishmen.

Kevin Myers is a columnist with the Irish Independent.

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