“McAleese recalls Irish war dead on Turkey visit”, read the headline on the story in last week’s Irish Independent filed from Ankara by Fergus Black. A high point of the Irish President’s three day visit to Turkey was the ceremony at Gallipoli to honour almost 3,500 Irish men who died during the six months of the ill-fated campaign in the Dardanelles in 1915. Some of those men were from the town of Athy and the surrounding countryside.
The Gallipoli Peninsula became a military target following Winston Churchill’s decision to take Turkey out of the war, while at the same time opening up another warfront against Germany. It would take a heavy toll of regular soldiers and of the reservists and volunteers who enlisted following the outbreak of war.
The regular 1st battalion of the Dublin Fusiliers which had been based in Madras India at the outbreak of the war sailed from Bombay and arrived back in Plymouth on 21st December 1914. On 9th April 1915 the 1st battalion was deployed for duty in Gallipoli and on Sunday 25th April 1915 took part in a large amphibious assault on Helles beach intended to land at five small coves at or near the southern tip of the peninsula. The landing at what was designated “V” beach was to be made by boats containing three companies of the 1st battalion Dublin Fusiliers followed by an old collier “River Clyde”, carrying the rest of the Dublin Fusiliers and members of the Munster Fusiliers. The ‘River Clyde’ had holes cut into her sides from which the soldiers were to emerge once the boat had been beached. However, the Turks had anticipated the landing and were in place in well protected defensive positions before the Irish, Scots, Welsh and English soldiers attempted to walk onto the beach. They were met with a continuous and deadly gunfire which gave the Dublin Fusiliers little or no chance. Among the casualties that first day was Lawrence Kelly of Chapel Hill, Athy, son of James Kelly and the former Kate Lawlor. He was just 23 years of age.
The next day the surviving soldiers advanced against the Turks and under continuous fire managed to capture a number of trenches and a nearby village. However, a counterattack by the Turks which started on the 28th of April inflicted further heavy casualties on the advancing soldiers.
On Friday 30th April John Farrell, aged 31 years, of Janeville Lane and Christopher Hanlon, aged 27 years, both from Athy and members of the 1st battalion R.D.F. were killed. An Irish officer serving as surgeon on the ‘River Clyde’, Dr. P. Burrowes Kelly wrote a letter to his father Gilbert Kelly at Ballintubbert giving an account of the landing on the Gallipoli beaches, ‘when (we were) about 60 yards from the shore they (the Turks) opened up on us and such a din of pom poms and bullets I never want to be in again ..... our men were simply butchered and the water was red with blood and the air boiling with bullets.’
The first batch of wounded soldiers from the Dardanelles arrived back in Naas in July 1915 and an account in the Kildare Observer of one of those soldier’s experiences read : ‘the landing was something awful, it was like trying to scramble onto a rock with six hands to every one of yours pushing you back. There was no cover and we the Dublins and the Munsters who were with us suffered terribly.’
The next important date in the chronology of death of local men during the Dardanelles Campaign was 12th July 1915. On that fateful day two young men from this area died in Gallipoli. The Turkish trenches before Acai Baba were captured but Frank Fanning of Convent Lane and another local man Daniel Delaney were killed. By a strange coincidence a photograph of Frank Fanning was recently discovered and is reproduced with this article. Frank’s younger brother John had also enlisted as a drummer boy. He survived the war and returned to Athy where he died in 1955.
After the declaration of war in August 1914 the Dublin Fusiliers raised a total of eleven battalions as part of Kitchener’s call for a new army. Both the 6th and 7th battalions were formed at Naas in August and were assigned to the 30th Brigade in the 10th division at the Curragh Camp. These two battalions were to figure prominently and tragically in the Gallipoli campaign. On 11th July 1915 men of the 6th and 7th battalions sailed from Devonport, England to Mitylene and on 7th August 1915 landed at Gallipoli in Suvla Bay. With the extra troops then available the army launched simultaneous attacks on the Turks from the original landing point at Cape Helles, from Suvla Bay and from the area known as Anzac where the Australian and New Zealand troops had landed. However, the difficult terrain and stiff Turkish resistance soon lead to the stalemate of trench warfare. On Saturday 7th August Tommy Grimes of Ballitore was killed. He was a regular soldier and a member of the 1st Battalion.
On Monday 9th August 1915 two members of the 6th battalion, William Moran of Athy and Michael Kinsella, aged 26 years, of Hallahoise, Castledermot, were killed. Six days later Henry Price, aged 45 years of Ballitore, another member of the same battalion was killed in action.
From the end of August 1915 no further serious action took place and the battle lines remained unchanged. Despite this Patrick Byrne of Kilabbin, aged 32 years, was killed on 29th October 1915. He was the last man from this area to die in the Dardanelles from where the British Army began to evacuate in December 1915.
The Helles Memorial which stands at the top of the Gallipoli Peninsula is an obelisk over 30 metres high which records the names of soldiers killed in Gallipoli who have no known graves. Amongst those commemorated on the memorial are William Moran, Michael Kinsella, Henry Price, Daniel Delaney and Thomas Grimes.
At Cape Helles is the “V beach” cemetery where the remains of Lawrence Kelly, Christopher Hanlon and John Farrell are interned. Frank Fanning is buried in the Twelve Acre Copse Cemetery which is in Cape Helles. This cemetery was developed after the Armistice when bodies were brought in from isolated sites and small burial grounds scattered around the battlefields of Gallipoli. There are 3,360 First World War soldiers buried or commemorated in the cemetery but sadly 2,226 of the burials are unidentified. Frank Fanning’s body was identified and he lies in a marked grave. Patrick Byrne, the 32 year old son of Catherine Byrne of Kilabbin, is buried in Azmak Cemetery, Suvla.
The recent visit of President McAleese to Gallipoli is an important acknowledgement of an almost forgotten part of our national and local history. The men from Athy and the surrounding countryside who died in the Gallipoli campaign had long passed from memory but amongst us today are their descendents who can take consolation from the knowledge that names retrieved from the hidden folds of our forgotten history can now once again claim our respect and remembrance.