Last week I travelled to Belgium with a group of local historians from Northern Ireland and from the Republic to visit sites associated with the Great War. The human evidence of the tragedies of that war can be found there in the cemeteries and memorials dotted across the Flemish countryside.
The main setting off point for any visit to the Great War sites is the town of Ypres. The nearby countryside was the location of various battles including the third battle of Ypres, commonly known as Passchendaele where the British army suffered huge losses in what is now regarded as a senseless and pointless battle.
On the eastern side of the town on the road to Menin is the Menin Gate memorial on which are listed the names of more than 54,000 soldiers killed in and around Ypres and whose graves are not known. Their names are engraved in Portland stone panels fixed to the walls of what is called the Hall of Memory and included are the names of at least 19 men from Athy and south Kildare. Many of them were killed in action on 26th April 1915 including Joseph Byrne of Chapel Lane, a sergeant in the Dublin Fusiliers. Other casualties on that day were James Halloran of Crookstown, Patrick Tierney of Foxhill and James Dillon, Christopher Power and Patrick Leonard, all of Athy. Leonard died of his wounds on 29th April, while Power at 59 years of age was possibly one of the oldest recruits from this area.
Each evening at 8 p.m. a short ceremony takes place at the Menin Gate memorial when the Last Post is sounded by buglers of the local fire brigade. The poignant scene as a wreath was laid by two members of the Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic groups was evidence of the shared history of the two parts of our island boosted by the involvement of the 16th Irish Division and the 36th Ulster Division in the Great War.
A few days later we visited Thiepval, that other great memorial to soldiers who died in the Somme battle sector before 20th March 1918 and have no known graves. The names of approximately 72,000 soldiers are listed on this memorial for the missing, including the names of 18 men from Athy and district. Two of the south Kildare men named on the memorial died on 6th September 1916. They were Peter Keogh of Ballindrum and Robert McWilliams of Athy. Three days earlier Thomas Stafford of Butlers Row was killed. His brother Edward was killed in action two years earlier. John Mulhall, a 20 year old from Athy, joined his comrades in death on 23rd October 1916, as did 25 year old Athy man Joseph Murphy eleven days previously. John Delaney was killed in action on 9th September 1916, while Edward Dowling of Castledermot died six days later. James Dunne of 3 Offaly Street was killed on 13th November 1916, while Robert Hackett died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. None of these men have known graves and their names are included on the Thiepval memorial. I was delighted to see at the Thiepval memorial a wreath placed there on behalf of the people of Grandvilliers, the French town twinned with Athy.
Not far away Guillemont was the scene of continuous fighting in the second half of 1916 as the English soldiers fought to take possession of the village. As the scene of repeated attacks and counter attacks the village of Guillemont was virtually a fortress with numerous dugouts and tunnels which defied the heaviest artillery barrages. On 3rd September 1916 soldiers under the command of Lieutenant John Vincent Holland of Athy broke through the defences of what was regarded as one of the strongest fortified villages held by the Germans. Holland, who was attached to the Leinster Regiment, gained the Victoria Cross for his bravery on that occasion.
The capture of Guillemont by Holland and his men was regarded as one of the most important events of September 1916. Today a Celtic cross stands outside the Parish church in Guillemont and on the church wall is a plaque commemorating the deeds of John Vincent Holland, Thomas Hughes and David Jones, all three of whom received the Victoria Cross for their actions at Guillemont on 3rd September 1916.
Not far from the village is the Guillemont Road Cemetery in which those killed in action in the September attack are buried. Amongst them is Raymond Asquith, son of the British Prime Minister. Nearby is the last resting place of John Hayden of Castledermot who died at Guillemont on 3rd September 1916.
Many of the young men from Athy and district who died in the Great War have no known graves. It was the French herald in Shakespeare’s play Richard III who seeking permission spoke the lines:-
‘That we may wonder o’er the bloody field
To book our dead, and then to bury them.’
Thankfully today we don’t need permission to ‘book our dead’ of the Great War.