Recently Clem Ryan, a history teacher in Scoil Mhuire came to me with a number of letters which came into his possession some years ago. He was anxious to trace the owners of the letters and his best efforts in that regard had proved less than successful. Two of those letters concern a young man named Anthony Ovington who died in France on 13 November 1916. A Corporal in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers he was born at Woodfield, Co. Wicklow and was apparently known to his friends and acquaintances as Tony. One of the letters is a copy of the original and is dated 9 December [presumably 1916]. It was from a fellow soldier who served in France with Tony Ovington and was addressed to Mrs. Ovington, whether Tony’s mother or wife, I do not know. The letter writer was Sgt. T. Priest who was apparently well known to the Ovington family. In his letter of 9 December Priest refers to Mrs. Ovington's letter of seven days previously and continues.
“I regret to say I have bad news for you about poor Tony. It was only yesterday I heard definitely the very sad news that he was dead. Until then I hoped that he might be only wounded and in hospital but alas my hopes were not realized. Tony and I went into action on the 13th November and I came out of it without a scratch, but poor Tony was knocked out. I don’t know how I came out of it safely. It was a perfect hell. I am feeling awfully lonely after Tony and indeed so is everyone in the company. He was loved and admired by all for his simple and jovial manner, but none of them can miss him as I do as he was a true and faithful comrade, but we must all die sooner or later and I think there is no one more prepared for death than a person going into battle. I have no doubt that poor Tony is quite happy now. Needless to say Mrs. Ovington you and your family have my deepest sympathy in the irreparable loss which you have sustained in the death of dear Tony.”
The second letter, also from Sgt. Priest, is an original letter dated 12 January 1917 and sent from “Somewhere in France” to those whom he addressed as “My dear fellas”. After acknowledging a letter received from them Sgt. Priest continued.
“I know that Tony has been reported as missing but he is now reported as killed on the 13th November. Well you would like to hear something about the battle. I cannot tell you very much. It commenced about 6.00 a.m. on the morning of the 13th November and was practically over the next day. I saw Tony immediately after the start but I never saw him afterwards although I searched the ground we had captured two or three days after the attack but I could not find him. One fellow states he saw Tony dead on the German front lines in a dugout. His pay book and identification disc have been sent into the orderly room which shows that he must have been found and buried. Yes we were expecting that the attack was coming off but did not know the exact date until the day before it actually came off. Tony was not with the machine guns in the attack. Any letters you have sent to him will probably be returned to you by Head Quarters if the address of the sender is known. Yes, if I get back to Ireland I shall certainly call to see you”.
He concludes with a reference to his friends father, mother, brothers and sisters before signing off as “your sincere friend”.
The battle referred to, in which Tony Ovington died, was the Battle of Ancre which started on Monday, 13 November 1916. Part of the extended Somme battlefield the engagement at Ancre resulted in the capture of Beaucourt. On the same day as Tony Ovington died upwards of 360 German soldiers of the 62nd Regiment were buried alive when a 30,000 lb. mine was detonated by the British at Hawthorn Crater. On 13 November James Dunne, the 20 year old son of Mr. and Mrs. Peter Dunne of 3 Offaly Street, Athy like Tony Ovington a member of the 10th Batallion Dublin Fusiliers was also killed on the Somme. [I believe James had a brother and one sister who later became a nun]. The bodies of Tony Ovington and James Dunne were never identified and their names are recorded on the Thiepval Memorial in France. This Memorial to the missing of the Somme, records the names of more than 72,000 men who died on the Somme up to 20 March 1918 and who have no known grave. Over 90% of those commemorated died between July and November 1916.
Sergeant Priest whose letters would indicate a friendship with the family of Tony Ovington, was from Knockroe in Co. Roscommon. How Priest and Ovington came to know each other becomes apparent when their regimental numbers are checked. Priest had the Regimental Number 25462 while Tony Ovington had the next number 25463. Both men had obviously enlisted on the same day. Was this the first time they met or were they workmates who decided to enlist together? Probably Tony Ovington, on weekend leave home from the Royal Dublin Fusiliers Barracks in Naas or elsewhere was at one time or another accompanied by his friend Thomas Priest who later corresponded with the Ovington family when the 10th Battalion went overseas.
Thomas Priest, the kindly Sergeant who survived the battle of Ancre in which his friend Tony Ovington died, was killed in action in France on Sunday, 11 February 1917. He never did get the opportunity to return to Ireland or to re-visit his friend’s family. Priest is buried in Ancre Cemetery, Beaumont-Hamel near the Somme which was enlarged after the Armistic of 1918. The majority of those buried in that cemetery died on 1 July, 3 September or 13 November 1916 and of the 2540 graves, 1335 contain the remains of unidentified soldiers. It is possible, that the two Irishmen, Tony Ovington and Thomas Priest, two friends who died within three months of each other, may have been reunited in death in the cemetery of Ancre on the Somme?
Who were the Ovington family and where did they live? I would be delighted to get any information which would help to give us a better understanding of the young man and his friend Thomas Priest who died more than 85 years ago. The letters passed on to me by Clem Ryan will be returned to the descendants of Tony Ovington if they wish to contact me. Otherwise they will be retained in the Heritage Centre where so many relics and mementos of the Great War are kept for display and for future research purposes.
As I mentioned in the book published last year on Athy Urban District Council, that Council ordered that a list be compiled of Athy men who enlisted to fight in World War I and those killed or wounded in action. The list if compiled cannot be traced and I have tried for sometime to put together details of those men. I would welcome any information from any source to allow a comprehensive record of Athy’s involvement in World War I to be put together.