MY GREAT-UNCLE MIKEY
This is an extract from my book LETTERS TO MOTHER AND OTHER DEAD RELATIVES, which is available to purchase on Amazon.co.uk
Dear great-uncle Mikey,
When you marched off to war in the spring of 1915 did you know what you were fighting for? Or did you care? Was it purely on economic grounds – at least the British Army would feed you and keep you and put a few shillings in your pocket at the end of each week – or did you have an overwhelming desire to kill Germans? But perhaps it never even entered your head that you might end up in the green fields of France, a part of the greatest military slaughtering exercise that ever took place?
You certainly never thought you would lose a leg in it, or that your friend, JN, would lose his life there. I still don’t know where you enlisted or with what regiment, but I imagine the place was either Waterford city or Clonmel and the regiment either the Royal Munster Fusiliers or the Royal Irish Regiment. Was it a spur of the moment decision? Did one of you say to the other – ‘come on, let’s join up, there’s nothing to do around this place?’ Was that how it was? And how did your sister feel about J going away? Or did J not know her then? Maybe it was later – when you were home on leave – that he met her? You see how many questions there are? The only people who know the answers for sure are all dead now so I can only guess what they might be.
I wish you were still around in 1973, when an Australian singer called Eric Bogle was so moved by a visit to the WW1 memorials in France that he wrote a song called ‘The Green Fields of France’. It begins:
Well, how do you do young Willie McBride?
Do you mind if I sit here down by your graveside
And rest for a while neath the warm summer sun
I’ve been working all day and I’m nearly done
I see by your graveside you were only nineteen
When you joined the great fallen in nineteen sixteen
I hope you died well and I hope you died clean
Or young Willie McBride was it slow and obscene
Did they beat the drum slowly, did they play the fife lowly
Did they sound the dead march as they lowered you down
And did the band play the Last Post and chorus
Did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest.
There is more in the same vein but I am sure you get my drift. I first heard it sung by a group called the Fury Brothers. You would have liked the Furies; saloon bar musicians with voices like a load of gravel sliding down a chute. The eldest brother, Finbarr I think his name is, played your favorite instrument, the melodeon. You told me many times you carried yours around with you during the war, strapped to your back. And showed me the dent in it which had prevented a lump of shrapnel from injuring or killing you. I wonder if it was true, or if you made stories up for goggle-eyed young boys like John and myself?
I still remember the one you told about the ‘Big Push’ of 1917 – November I believe it was – when one of your comrades took out a German machine-gun nest with a grenade using the road bowling technique he had perfected bowling the roads in his native Cork. You said he had saved many of you from being slaughtered that day, and that he had subsequently been awarded the Military Cross.
I wonder now if you knew John Condon from Waterford, who is widely acknowledged as the youngest soldier ever to enlist in the British Army? He must have stood out because he was only 12 years of age when he enlisted, and still only 14 years old when he died during a gas attack in 1915. His burial plot in France is now a shrine, and one of the most visited of all the graves. A shrine to what, I wonder…the folly of youth?
Your great nephew
I will call you Mikey if I may – It seems a bit daft calling you ‘grand uncle Mikey’ every time we speak. I have had information from sources in Cork about a JN from Kilmacthomas who died from his wounds in Flanders in August 1917 and I am now awaiting further information from them. I wonder if he will turn out to be my mother’s father?
My brother John (I am sure you remember John, everybody says he looked the spitting image of you when you were young) tells me he lived up the Portlaw road, five minutes walk from Carroll’s Cross – in which case you would almost have been next door neighbors.
I don’t suppose you would recognize ‘The Cross’ now. The pub is still standing – not yet quite derelict – although the old building has been swallowed whole by the new additions. The old rickety stairs still survives inside, and the ring-board underneath. The open fire still presides; and the hob where you used to sit warming your’ large bottles’, spitting brown globs of chewed tobacco onto the red turf-bricks, watching as they hissed and bubbled for ages before being consumed, and where you sometimes played half-sets and polkas on your melodeon. You called your melodeon Julia; ‘me and Julia have been together for more years than I care to remember’, you used to say, lovingly. I wonder who the real Julia was?
The Creamery has gone too, as has the railway station. And the fields alongside the Bog Road, which saw sheep-dipping and traveling shows amongst their varied occupants in the past, are now the site of a Cold Store. Parts of Europe’s ever-growing butter and beef mountains are stored in vast warehouses in those once-thistly acres – courtesy of the EEC. But of course you wouldn’t know anything about the EEC, although what you fought for in WW1 – if you ever knew what you were fighting for, or indeed cared – may have had some bearing on its formation.
And the New Line is busy all day long now with traffic hurtling between Waterford and Cork and every point north, south, east and west on the compass. I remember the time when cars were rarer than steak dinners around the place; the horse and cart, the bicycle and shanks mare were the favored means of transport. Only parish priests had cars – and big farmers. And what still remains of Queally’s hill sees a constant stream of ready-mix lorries depleting still further the ozone layer that you never knew or cared about.
I suppose you remember my father drawing loads of stones from there in our ass and cart when I was young. Maybe you helped us fill up for all I know. Why he had to come to Carroll’s Cross for stones I don’t know; we had plenty of them up our own boreen and in the fields and groves nearby, but maybe it was an excuse nip into the pub for a few ‘large bottles’. I can’t remember what he wanted them for now; I suppose it must have been for building one of the outhouses. Or for the new outside toilet that he was constructing.
Toilets were a luxury in those days as far as I could see. I didn’t know anyone who had one – outside or inside. We couldn’t have an inside one anyway because we had no running water. We didn’t have much of anything then; no running water, no electricity, no car, you name it we didn’t have it.
Father had got around the lack of running water by build a tank on top of the roof of the new toilet. This got filled either by rain, or by drawing water from the well in our ass and cart. I suppose we must have felt like Kings or Queens when the new toilets were eventually finished; it beat into a cocked hat going across the fields with a newspaper or toilet roll under your arm.
Your great- nephew
I expect there was a big hooley in Carroll’s Cross the night before ye left for Waterford to join the Royal Garrison Artillery. I now know that JN was a gunner – was that your rank too? What made you pick the RGA? Was it the notion of operating those big battering rams of guns? I see that your unit was the Ist Trench Mortar Battery, so I guess you must have been in foxholes, lobbing mortars across no-mans land, hoping to splatter the misfortunate on the receiving end all over the French countryside. How much damage could those 14lb-ers do to captive recipients cowering in their already-dug graves? But I guess that wasn’t your concern; your main priority was to stay alive and healthy enough to man the guns to enable them continue their bombardment
When did you find out about the Easter Rising of 1916? I expect you were in one of your ‘fox-holes’ when it all kicked off? I have often wondered since if you would have taken up arms against the British had you been around. Don’t you think it’s ironic that you were killing Germans for the English at the time that they were pounding the bejaysus out of a few hundred republicans behind the barricades at the GPO and at Bolands Mills in Dublin? And probably with similar guns to the ones you were manning.
Eighteen thousand men and a gunboat up the Liffey to put down what some have since described as a ‘minor disturbance of the peace’? How did you feel when they lined up Pearce, Connolly and the rest of them against the walls of Kilmainham goal and shot them in cold blood?
And then a few years later the civil war started, you must have been asked to take sides again. Who were you for? Collins or De Valera? You must have been in demand, even minus one leg, because you knew about shooting and killing – which is more than many of the others, did. Were you a trained killer, Mikey? Did the British Army show you how to kill your fellow human beings without mercy, and without any feeling of emotion? I suppose they must have.
But tell me, you must have felt some emotion when his own countrymen at Beal Na Blath ambushed Michaels Collins?
‘Twas on an August morning, all in the morning hours
I went to take the morning air all in the month of flowers
And there I saw a maiden and heard her mournful cry
Oh what will mend my broken heart, I’ve lost my Laughing Boy
That’s a sad song about Michael Collins – and I am sure you have sung a few verses of it yourself in your time. Do you think it true what they say about us; that all our wars are merry and all our songs are sad?
More information arrived today about JN He came from Ballybrack, (sounds like I am the right track) and he enlisted in Waterford in the Royal Garrison Artillery regiment. He was a gunner in the 1st Trench Mortar Bty, and his service number was 3373. Was that also your Regiment? The records show he was aged 23 when he died of his wounds at Flanders. Did you take part in that battle and was that where you lost your leg?
‘I hope you died well and I hope you died clean
Or young John Neill was it slow and obscene?’
I now know that J is buried in the Adinkerke Military Cemetery in Belgium, which is situated a couple of miles inland from Koksijde and about 20 miles east of Dunkirk.
I wonder, now, if you ever went back there in later years, just to say a proper goodbye? It must have been awful in those trenches; Dante’s Inferno endlessly repeating itself; missiles and gas raining down day in day out; the trenches themselves little better than cess pits when the weather was bad. I read somewhere that by early1915 there was one continuous line of trenches over 400 miles long stretching from Switzerland to the North Sea. There was no way round, was there? You could only go forward or back.
I wonder if mother knew of her father’s last resting place, and if she ever visited him there? She was never out of Ireland in my living memory, but I do recall her saying she spent 6 months in London before she married father. Perhaps she made the journey then.
If I can establish that he was definitely my mother’s father then I plan to visit the cemetery. I will say a prayer for all of you.
Your great- nephew