Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Athy Men and World War I

As the month of April slips away I am reminded that the last week of April 89 years ago marked one of the darkest periods in the history of Athy.  It was between the 26th and the 30th  of April 1915 that twelve young Athy born soldiers were killed fighting in battle fields far removed from the area in which they had grown up.  John Farrell, Christopher Hanlon and Larry Kelly were in the First Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and part of an unsuccessful attempt by allied forces to force their way through the Dardanelles to link up with Russia.  The British troops tried to land on the beaches at Gallipoli but were easy targets for the Turkish troops.  Major Lane, an officer who was involved in the Gallipoli landing attempt described the scene as “pure butchery”.  He saw men “mowed down in scores”  as they left the ships to attempt the short journey to the beaches.  The three Athy men, all colleagues in the same Battalion died together on 30th April 1915 and today lie buried in Turkish soil.

Thousands of miles away in the Belgian town of Ypres in Western Flanders another group of Athy men were destined to die in what history now recalls as the second battle of Ypres.  The first battle of Ypres occurred on the opening months of the War when a British offensive aimed at securing the channel ports of Dover and Ostend ended in the loss of almost 300,000 German and British soldiers.   Amongst the dead on that occasion were Athy men Patrick Curtis and Patrick Dunne, both members of the Irish Guards.  Patrick Curtis was the first of three brothers from Churchtown who were to die during the First World War.

The second battle of Ypres opened in April 1915 with a gas attack on the British held salient which had been extended into the German lines during the first Battle of Ypres and successfully held since then.  Over a period of five days, commencing on 25th April, seven Athy men died.  The first was Moses Doyle whose body was never found and whose name is commemorated on the Menin Gate at Ypres.  The following day, April 26th, four Athy born soldiers perished in what was the heaviest one day casualty loss for Athy during the 1914/18 War.  Patrick Tierney, Joseph Byrne, James Dillon and Christopher Power were colleagues in the second Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers.  Only Christopher Power’s body was recovered, while the names of Patrick Tierney, Joseph Byrne and James Dillon are recorded on the Menin Gate Memorial at Ypres as are the names of thousands of men lost in battle whose remains were never recovered.

The War which had been expected to end by Christmas 1914 had by then settled into a pattern which could be expected to cause anxiety and in time resentment back home in Ireland.  The recruitment office opened in Leinster Street registered a steady stream of enlistees during the opening months of the War.  Within just nine months over 800 men from the Athy district had joined up.  The enlisted men by and large came from a working class background and the subsequent casualties impacted largely on that socio-economic group.  The enthusiasm for participating in the War was endorsed by public representatives and local churchmen alike.  An Athy man, J.J. Bergin of Maybrook, a member of Kildare County Council and Honorary Secretary of the Irish National Volunteers, proposed the following resolution at a meeting of the County Council.
            “That in view of the present grave crisis whereby our country is threatened with calamity we, the Kildare County Council, endorse the action of Johnny Redmond pledging the support of the National Volunteers to defend our shores against invasion and hereby undertaking in the event of our office staff taking up arms to keep their respective offices open until their return and our Secretary is hereby directed to make the necessary arrangements for the carrying out of this resolution to effect.”

Young men continued to be encouraged to join the War effort unaware that the War Office took steps to censor the news coming from the battle fronts.  Soldiers were forbidden to keep diary accounts of what was happening and letters home were censored to ensure that the awful casualties suffered at the front did not cause alarm at home.  The censorship rules moved a London Times correspondent to plead with the War Office to allow his reports to be published.
            “I have nothing to say that is not known and noted already by the German general staff”.

Alas, his pleas fell on deaf ears, as knowledge of what was happening at the front was not so much to be kept from the Germans as it was from the home countries where ever increasing demands for recruits would continue to be made.  These recruits continued to appear bolstered by press reports such as that in the Kildare Observer of 30th January 1915 which under the headline “Helping the Empire” noted that “there is at present no less than five sons of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas King of Narraghmore on act of service, all five in the South Irish Horses, a highly credible voluntary contribution from the County Kildare family towards the defence of the Empire”.  Before the end of 1914 over 400 Athy men had enlisted, most of whom were in the Reserve or acting members of the local branch of the National Volunteers.  A newspaper report of 2nd January 1915 mentioned in an almost casual way “a few have been killed in action and a large number wounded”.  The same report carried the news of army commissions secured by local men Charlie Duncan, Harry Hosie, D. Telford, Dr. Minch, F. Monk, Solicitor and Dr. J.L. Kilbride.  Casualties during December 1914 and January 1915 were light but on 2nd January 1915 it was reported that well known handball player, Athy man George Robinson, had returned from the front minus the thumb of his left hand which was blown off by shrapnel.  He was perhaps one of the first of the many maimed and wounded who would return to Athy over the course of the War. 

The first identifiable expression of concern regarding the progress of the war is to be found in the Kildare Observer of 31st October 1914.  The report headed, “Athy Soldiers Prisoners of War” newspaper claim “a good deal of anxiety prevailed in Athy district for some weeks past concerning the fate of the expedition forces who have been missing.  Intimation has been received of the death of some and letters received this week from Germany intimate that many were captured at Moines and are Prisoners of War.” 

The news of casualties from the front must have had a dampening effect on the numbers enlisting. By June 1915 the necessity for a recruiting committee for County Kildare was mooted by George Mansfield, Vice Lieutenant of the County, and his suggestion was discussed at a meeting of Kildare County Council on 5th June.  M.J. Minch, a Justice of Peace for Athy and a Director of the Athy based Malting firm and Chairman of the County Council, raised the issue of a recruiting committee for County Kildare.  He expressed the belief that the county had done very well “taking the district of Athy alone over 800 men have already joined the colours from the district.  So far as I can see there are few men that are eligible to join the colours who are free at the present time”.  Nevertheless the Chairman proposed the forming of a County Recruitment Committee and his motion was seconded by Edward Hayden who in describing County Kildare as a tillage county, “did not know whether there could be anymore men spared”.

Fifty four percent of the Irish men who enlisted during the 1914-18 War were recruited in the first twelve months of the War.  Clearly the awful events of the last week of April 1915 acted out in Flanders and Gallipoli caused many back home in Athy to reflect on the futility of War and the personal sacrifices which would be required by anyone who enlisted.  Almost 200 men from the town of Athy and the surrounding rural district made that sacrifice.  The last week of April marks the anniversary of eleven such sacrifices. 

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