When the laughing boys went to war

Margaret Rossiter


Margaret Rossiter

MY FATHER, in old age, frequently talked about “the boys” who went to war in the early days of August 1914. They were his contemporaries.

MY FATHER, in old age, frequently talked about “the boys” who went to war in the early days of August 1914. They were his contemporaries.

He was a young carpenter, and had just completed his seven years of apprenticeship. They were Reservists in the British Army. They had completed their training as soldiers and had to be available for “call-up” whenever the army called them. And the army called on those early days of August a century ago, when the boys left their homes in the streets of Clonmel on a day that my father remembered as a day of celebration.

Neighbours came to their doors to say goodbye. They were hugged and kissed by women, clapped on their backs and their hands warmly shaken by the men. There was much laughter and joking. An old woman shouted: “Bring me back a Hun’s helmet,” and the boys promised they would - and it would be a Christmas present, because they would be back home again in Clonmel streets for Christmas. It was all an adventure, a jolly jape.

The “adventure” started on 28th June 1914, when the Austrian Archduke and his wife were both assassinated by the extremist, (and some would say) fanatical, Serb, Gavrilo Princip, in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo. (It’s a small world - one of my son’s colleagues in a Canadian hospital is a great grand-nephew of the said assasin).

In retaliation, Austria declared war on Serbia, and because of existing agreements and special interests and ententes, the crisis then started in the Balkans became a conflict between a German-Austrian-Turkish combination and a Russian-French-British alliance.

And like all wars, it took on a life of its own. Eventually it engulfed not only Europe but the Colonies and the United States. It became a world war, the original impetus for which was long lost sight of.

And it was a war which changed Europe. Old monarchies were banished forever. New borders were created. Power structures were changed. Millions of people were dead. If there was a cause or a purpose, some modern historians would say it was the emergence of nationalism, the extremes of identity.

‘theirs was not to reason why’

But the jolly boys whom my father remembered on that early August day in the streets of Clonmel in 1914 could not have foreseen these changes in Europe, nor in the structures of society, which the war eventually brought about. “Theirs was not to reason why.” They did what they were trained to do. War still had elements of excitement and glamour, and the boys who had grown up in the streets, played ball and “robbed” orchards were the sons of neighbours and friends, who were about to become heroes.

The romanticism faded and was replaced by fear, when the grim facts started to trickle back, through newspaper reports, into the streets. The Reservists formed the backbone of the British Expeditionary Force, and almost immediately were plunged into the chaos of modern warfare. They were rushed across the Channel on 22nd August and five days later were at Mons, with the French forces, and were driven back until they were almost cut off from the ports. After that there was Marne and then in October-November came the first Battle of Ypres.

By now, my father re-called, ordinary people in Clonmel were reading of places they had never heard of in their school geography lessons and making efforts at pronouncing place-names that were definitely foreign to the Irish ear. Ypres became Y-pers. The names of the generals and chief of staff became commonplace: the German von Moltke and von Kluck, the French Joffre and Gallieni, were all spoken about in the everyday accents of the streets. There was no official BBC or RTE guidelines on pronounciation.

My father recalled that people would gather in a neighbour’s house at night, where reports of battles were read aloud from the latest newspaper. As winter came in 1914, these reports told of a deadly stalemate, where both sides dug themselves into trenches, in a form of warfare out of which they were not to break until 1918.

The laughing boys, many of whom must have become unsung and unacknowledged heroes, did not come home for Christmas. The mud and blood and terror of the trenches became their home environment. In fact, my father never quite finished the story of the events which started in the streets in early August 1914, because he never speficially said if any of “the boys” returned to their homes again. But he did talk about some “men” he knew, and who did return to a very changed Ireland, where they were silenced and isolated and unemployed. He would say they were suffering from “shell-shock,” the description then applied to the phenomenon which has now been diagnosed as post traumatic stress syndrome.

It is estimated that at least 250,000 Irishmen took part in World War I. Though they are a very significant part of our history, Ireland has chosen to deliberately forget them and to write them out of that history, for the last 100 years.

Our distinguished poet, Michael Coady of Carrick-on-Suir, has written on the subject of memory, its importance, its endurance, and the significance of its transition from generation to generation. This year, a century after the outbreak of that terrible cataclysm, Ireland is, at last, remembering. And I find myself remembering the story my father told me of his memory of the day when the laughing boys walked through the streets of Clonmel and went to war.