Category: Archive

A View North World War I’s impact still with us

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

When I was a child, the Great War (World War I), which transformed the course of Western civilization, was fixed in my mind thanks to a story about my grandfather eating a rat. According to my grandmother, my grandfather William Holland was so hungry in the trenches that he and his fellow soldiers were forced to hunt rats for food. It certainly made me look at the line "dolce et decorum est pro patria mori" with skeptical eyes. A rat is definitely not very dolce.

My grandfather served in a cavalry regiment, and was one of about 200,000 Irish men who marched off to the trenches between 1914 and 1918. During the recent ceremonies marking the 80th anniversary of the war’s end, for the first time an Irish president, Mary McAleese, took part in the commemoration held in Belgium, standing next to Queen Elizabeth.

The Irish have always had mixed feelings about how to recognize the war in which some 50,000 Irishmen died — far more than in the War of Independence or probably any war fought in Ireland itself since the 18th century. But for a long time it has been regarded as somehow unpatriotic to recall their service in the British army. It was felt that paying respect to them insulted the men of 1916 who had seized the opportunity the war offered to rebel against Britain. This is just another example of how things become politicized in Ireland and how politics twists and sometimes completely distorts the country’s view of history. The vast majority of those Irish who died in the Great War had signed up not because of any patriotic devotion to the British Empire but because they were poor. And if they were killed, their widows had a guaranteed income. It was not much, but it was at least something.

That was why my other grandfather, Edward Rodgers, joined, according to my mother, along with his two brothers, Jimmy and Willy.

"They had no money in them days," she said. "They got a pension for it afterward." Grandfather Rodgers and his brothers were in the Royal Irish Fusiliers. He was only 17 at the time he signed up, too young to legally joined the ranks. But he pretended to be 18. He was sent to France and his two older brothers went to the Dardanelles. They were both killed in that disastrous undertaking, which has been described as the most poorly managed operation in British military history. Winston Churchill, who was first lord of the admiralty, was forced to resign.

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My mother remembers with fondness the large, beautifully framed photograph of her uncle Willy that hung in the small back room of her home in Norton Street near the Belfast gasworks.

"He was wearing a peaked cap, sitting on a stool, in his uniform with a stripe on it," she remembers. "He was a lance corporal — awful handsome." Unfortunately, someone in the family lost this, the only record of the uncle she never knew.

For the first five years of my life I lived with Grandfather Holland, but he never spoke to me about his experiences in the war, and it was only after he died that I heard from the family some tales of what happened to him. He was wounded by a shell which killed his horse. Fortunately, his wound was a "good" one — not in the head or stomach but in the shoulder. He was sent behind-the-lines to hospital. It must have been near the war’s end because my grandmother would always say that it probably saved his life.

Grandfather Holland also had an apparently magnificent photograph of himself in full uniform standing beside his horse. But by an unfortunate coincidence, it too was lost to the family, having been pawned by one of my aunts when her family was in need of a little money.

In Irish history, the Great War is always associated with Ulster Protestants, many of whom served with great gallantry in the Ulster Volunteer Force, which was recruited as a division — the 36th — into the British Army. But of the 50,000 or so Irish volunteers who died, more than half — some 30,000 — came from Munster, Leinster and Connaght. That is, there were more Catholic volunteers fighting for Britain than Protestant. My grandfather Holland was a Presbyterian from Portadown. But Grandfather Rodgers, and his two brothers who were killed, were all Catholics.

The impact of the Great War on the world is still with us. Around nine million people, nearly all of them men between the ages of 17 and 40, perished. The war had a profound affect on the history of Ireland. Indeed, it could be said that it determined the course of events which led to the creation of modern Ireland. It sparked off the Easter Rising, which in turn set the course for the War of Independence and the eventual partition of Ireland. Among those who fought in Ireland’s freedom struggle, quite a few had gained military experience in the Great War, including Tom Barry. Barry was serving in the British army in Egypt when he learned of the rebellion in Dublin. He returned and before long was leading the Flying Columns of the Kerry IRA against his former comrades. In the North, of course, the former Ulster Volunteers confronted nationalists with a powerful military force determined to resist Home Rule, which undoubtedly was an influential factor in leading the British government to opt for partition.

In his history of Ulster, Jonathan Bardon quotes a letter from Herbet Beattie, a young Belfast soldier who fought at the Battle of the Somme, one of the worst bloodbaths of the whole war, in which 5,500 men of the 36th Division died in the first two days; one described it as "a Belfast riot on top of Mount Vesuvius."

The young soldier’s words sum up the horrors of the war more effectively than anything. "Dear Mother," he wrote, "tell them that there is not another grosvenor Rd fellow left but myself. Mother wee were tramping over the dead i think there is onely about 4 hundred left out of about 1300 hundred . . . Mother if God spers me to get home safe i will have something ufal to tell you if hell is any wores i would not like to go to it."

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