In the third year of World War I Douglas Haig, Commander of the British Forces on the Western Front planned a military offensive in Flanders to commence on 7th June 1917. This offensive which lasted during June and July included the third Battle of Ypres (commonly called Passchendaele) and the Battle of Cambrai. Ypres was a British held salient which projected into the German lines and Haig planned a full-scale offensive from there to divert attention from the French army which had suffered huge losses during the month of April. Those French losses, amounting to 120,000 men in one five-day period, were deeply resented by the surviving French troops who mutinied and refused to attack the German lines. Haig had planned his offensive strategy for some months and had Welsh miners excavate several tunnels under the German lines. He realised that if an attack from the Ypres salient was to be successful it was necessary to secure the high ground dominating the area which was known as Messines – Wtyschaete Ridge.
The tunnels dug by the Welsh miners were packed with explosives and at dawn on 7th June the explosives were set off, producing a blast which we are told was heard in London. The explosion was followed by British troops going over the top and using, amongst other forms of weaponry, poisonous gas canisters which were hurled into the German trenches. The week-long battle at the Messines Ridge saw for the first time the 36th Ulster Division and the 16th Irish Division fighting alongside each other. The German casualties at Messines were approximately 25,000, while the British Army casualties accounted for 17,000 men wounded and killed.
Among the Irish causalities was Athy man Thomas Alcock, a member of the 1st Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers and William King of Crookstown who was a private in the South Irish Horse. William was the brother of Jim King and Tommy King who also served in the South Irish Horse. Many years ago I was told by a family member that Tommy King later deserted from the army and dumped his uniform down a well at Burtown. Was Tommy Alcock, I wonder, a brother of Frank Alcock who aged 20 years died of wounds in France on 4th July 1916? He had enlisted in the 2nd Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers and in the 1911 Census was recorded as living in Woodstock Street. Another possible member of the Alcock family, Richard Alcock, born in 1892 was noted in the Irish Military Service Pension Records as a member of the Volunteers during the Irish War of Independence.
Clem Roche, whose book on Athy men killed in World War I, was recently published (copies can be purchased in the Heritage Centre) has embarked on a project with me to identify those local men and women who were involved in the Volunteer movement during the Irish War of Independence. Clem has trawled through the I.R.A. pension records, the War of Independence medal records and statistics compiled by I.R.A. leaders in 1921 and 1922 and has identified many individuals, some whose involvement was confirmed by the award of an I.R.A. pension or a black and tan service medal. Many others who may well have been active during that period, did not succeed in getting either a pension or a medal and consequently their involvement has not received the attention it deserves. Clem has identified 33 local men whom he is satisfied were members of the Athy Company of the 5th Battalion Carlow Kildare I.R.A. Brigade. More names will undoubtedly be added as there are a few men generally believed to have been involved who are not included among the 33 already identified.
As we come to commemorate the Irish War of Independence it is important that those men and women from Athy who were actively involved should be remembered. If any reader has any information about any local person involved in the Irish War of Independence I would welcome hearing from them.
The following list of Cumann na mBan members in Athy in July 1921 has recently come to hand. I am familiar with some of those named, but others are unknown to me and I would welcome hearing from anybody who can help identify those involved.
Julia Whelan, Kilmoroney
Mrs. Julia Dooley, St. Michael’s Terrace
Mrs. May, Woodstock Street
Mrs. O’Neill, Newbridge
Alice Lambe, Upper William Street
Mrs. John Whelan, Ballylinan
Miss Murphy, Maganey
Let me hear from you if you can help in the search to identify local patriots of almost 100 years ago.