This week the people of Dublin have as their greatest worry the sorry state of public transport in the Capital, while their neighbours in County Kildare share worries and concerns of even more mundane nature. Eighty five years ago both shared a common cause of concern as the Great War which had been confidently expected to end before Christmas 1914 rumbled on, with no sign of any early conclusion. In the town of Athy which had seen so many young men succumb to the blandishments of the local recruiting officer, concern was deeply felt amongst the families living in the lanes and alleyways of the ancient town. That concern was not misplaced.
Between 21st April and 31st May, 1915 twenty-seven men from the town of Athy were killed on the battlefields of the First World War. In the same period approximately 108 men from the town were wounded.
It is a startling figure when you consider that they died over a 35 day period. Some days were worse than others. Four were killed on 26th April. Three men lost their lives on both 30th April and 25th April. The remainders of those who died did so during the month of May 1915, the bloodiest month for Athy in all the four years of the Great War.
War had raged in Europe since August 1914 but the opposing armies entrenched and facing each other across the battle lines of France and Belgium were stalemated. The Allies planned to break the deadlock with an attack on Turkey by means of an assault at Gallipoli in the South-West of the country. On 25th April the steam collier the River Clyde stood off the shores of Gallipoli. Within its hold among many regiments was the 1st Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, whose home barracks was at Naas. The regiments consisted mainly of men drawn from Dublin City and the County of Kildare.
That same morning, its sister Battalion, the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers, was formed up in the trenches near the town of Ypres in Belgium. Both battalions were to attack enemy positions later that same day.
At daybreak the men of Kildare in the Dublin Fusiliers cooped up in the hold of the River Clyde launched themselves onto the Beach at Cape Helles in Gallipoli. They were met by the devastating fire power of the Turkish Army who, forewarned of the proposed landing, had brought up reinforcements. One Officer wrote :-
`The boats came in, they were met by a perfect tornado of fire, many men were killed and wounded in the boats, and wounded men were knocked over into the water and drowned, but they kept on, and the survivors jumped into the water in some cases up to their necks, and got ashore; but the slaughter was terrific’.
The men from Athy were lucky, although many were wounded, none would die that day. Five days later in defending the beachhead from a ferocious counter-attack by the Turks, John Farrell, Christopher Hanlon and Larry Kelly, all from Athy, were killed.
On that same day as the River Clyde steamed into Cape Helles the men of the first battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers marched in the early hours of the morning to the outskirts of the Belgian town of Ypres. The march by the heavily armed men was an extraordinary achievement. They struggled on the cobbled Belgian roads in the dark, burdened with all the trapping of an infantryman but still managed to march 30 miles to reach their intended positions. At 6.30am with the morning still shrouded in mist, the men of the Dublin Fusiliers left their trenches with the objective of capturing the town of St. Julien. Advancing in parade ground fashion towards the German trenches they were mowed down by the intense German machine gun fire. The Dublin Fusiliers suffered 510 casualties that morning.
Among the dead were Athy men William Supple, Moses Doyle, and Martin Halloran. Martin Halloran was a Sergeant with the Dublin Fusiliers. The Kildare Observer on the 10th July, 1915 published a description of the fighting at St. Julien by James Rogers, a soldier from Naas. Rogers who was severely wounded himself reported that Sergeant Halloran who had served in the regiment before the war had both his legs blown off by a shell during the German bombardment.
On the following day the German artillery went into action. In the ensuing bombardment Joseph Byrne, James Dillon, Christopher Power and Patrick Tierney, all from Athy were killed. Owen Kelly from Mount Hawkins, Athy was seriously wounded in this action and died of his wounds in a French Hospital on the 3rd May. His brother John Kelly serving with the Leinster Regiment in France would be killed in action almost three weeks later. The loss for the Kelly family at home in Athy would be compounded by the death in action of another of their sons, Denis Kelly of the Leinster Regiment. Denis died on 30th September, 1918, six weeks before the Great War came to an end.
It is difficult for us nowadays to imagine the devastation and loss felt at the time by parents and families in Athy as news of local mens’ deaths in April and May of 1915 filtered back to the town. What is certain is that the initial enthusiasm that had existed for enlisting in the Army quickly dissipated.
Frank Laird, an officer in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers who was wounded in Gallipoli found himself on a recruiting drive in Kildare in 1916. Recruitment meetings were regularly held in Naas, Athy and Castledermot. He described the meetings as being large with imposing platforms of speakers. However, they met with little success. He did not feel aggrieved at this lack of success. As Laird put it :-
`To do Kildare justice it should be said that many parts, such as Naas and Athy in particular had already sent a noble proportion of volunteers to the front’.
The social and economic life of Athy did not easily recover from the losses suffered during the four years of the First World War. Indeed it might well be claimed with some justification that the consequences of the loss of so many local men effected successive generations to the extent that the social equilibrium of the town has never recovered. It’s an interesting thesis and one to which I propose to return at another time.