With John Kirwan

The First World War could be said to have begun in Sarajevo on Sunday 28 June 1914 at 10.45 am. On that fateful day, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand (b 1863) of Austria-Este, the heir to the Habsburg dominions, was visiting the Bosnian capital, as inspector general of his country’s armed forces, to direct military manoeuvres. As the archducal car drove through the streets, Gavrilo Princip, a young Bosnian-Serb, trained by Serbian nationalists known as ‘The Black Hand’, stepped out of the crowd and fired two shots. The first shot hit the archduke’s morganatic heavily pregnant wife, the former Countess Sophie Chotek, now ‘Her Highness the Duchess of Hohenberg’ in the abdomen. The second struck ‘His Imperial and Royal Highness the Archduke’ in the jugular as he turned to help his stricken wife, whom he had married in July 1900, against the wishes of his uncle, the Emperor Franz Joseph, because of her non-royal blood, though having a Habsburg and a princely descent in the female line. The archduke’s dying words to his stricken wife have been recorded: ‘Don’t die darling, live for our children’ 1. Within minutes he was dead while his wife died on the way to the hospital. The assassinations triggered a chain of events that led to the outbreak of the Great War. Many families were to endure similar and far greater tragedies as a result of the war. Europe would never be the same again.

The First World War could be said to have begun in Sarajevo on Sunday 28 June 1914 at 10.45 am. On that fateful day, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand (b 1863) of Austria-Este, the heir to the Habsburg dominions, was visiting the Bosnian capital, as inspector general of his country’s armed forces, to direct military manoeuvres. As the archducal car drove through the streets, Gavrilo Princip, a young Bosnian-Serb, trained by Serbian nationalists known as ‘The Black Hand’, stepped out of the crowd and fired two shots. The first shot hit the archduke’s morganatic heavily pregnant wife, the former Countess Sophie Chotek, now ‘Her Highness the Duchess of Hohenberg’ in the abdomen. The second struck ‘His Imperial and Royal Highness the Archduke’ in the jugular as he turned to help his stricken wife, whom he had married in July 1900, against the wishes of his uncle, the Emperor Franz Joseph, because of her non-royal blood, though having a Habsburg and a princely descent in the female line. The archduke’s dying words to his stricken wife have been recorded: ‘Don’t die darling, live for our children’ 1. Within minutes he was dead while his wife died on the way to the hospital. The assassinations triggered a chain of events that led to the outbreak of the Great War. Many families were to endure similar and far greater tragedies as a result of the war. Europe would never be the same again.

These murders at Sarajevo, along with the arms race, nationalism, imperialism, militarism and the alliance system, all contributed to the beginning of the Great War, which was to go on for over four bloody long years.

The First World War, was one of the most significant events of the twentieth century. It led to the collapse of empires, the exhaustion of Britain, the creation of new countries including the Irish Free State, and saw the emergence of the United States of America as a world power. Negatively the post-war settlement laid the foundation for another even more cataclysmic world disaster and this within a generation. The war directly - or indirectly through the ‘Great Flu’ - caused the deaths of millions and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people. In Ireland the outbreak of the conflict immediately resulted in the suspension of the Home Rule Bill of 1914, which John Redmond and the Irish Parliamentary Party had so successfully sought. This ‘betrayal’ facilitated the 1916 Rising (which had been promised gold and arms by Imperial Germany through Sir Roger Casement), the subsequent executions of Pearse, Connolly and their colleagues and ultimately contributed to the victory of Sein Fein in the general election of December 1918, which resulted in the consequent withdrawal of the Nationalists from the United Kingdom Parliament at Westminister. The period in Irish history known as ‘the Troubles’ which included the War of Independence and the subsequent Irish civil-war inevitably followed and it can be argued that the Northern Ireland ‘troubles’ which largely erupted in 1969, were yet another consequence of the Great War.

The sacrifice of the Irish men and women who took part in the Great War remained, until very recently, largely unremembered. After the war the emerging Irish state turned its back on the returning veterans. A recurring theme of our research was the discrimination which many of them experienced, particularly in the area of employment which forced many to emigrate to find work. Republicans were openly hostile to war veterans who they felt had fought in a ‘British’ war and had advanced the latter’s imperialist ambitions. The ambivalence of even moderate nationalists is evidenced in the words spoken by Kevin O’Higgins, Vice-President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State, in the Dáil in March 1927 when he said that while he hoped there would ‘always be respectful admiration - for the men who went out to France - yet it was not on their sacrifice that this state is based, and I have no desire to see it suggested that it is.’2 At a time when we are being urged once again to stand in solidarity with our European neighbours it is perhaps apt to remember an earlier generation who gave their lives standing with these same allies.

Military life in Kilkenny just before the war

Kilkenny’s Army Reservists were in the final week of their four-week annual training at Camp Scartnagloran, on the south-eastern edge of the Galtee Mountains, as the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was gunned down. When Lieutenant-Colonel Mervyn de Montmorency of Inch House, Kilkenny, led his fourteen officers and three hundred and seventy-one men of the 4th Battalion (Extra Reserve) Royal Irish Regiment back to Kilkenny Barracks on 2 July 1914, there was little to indicate that this obscure Balkan affair would lead to outright war within forty days. And so the men of the 4th Royal Irish dispersed as usual to their homes throughout County Kilkenny and the adjoining counties, in order to resume their full-time occupations, many as farm labourers.4

The 4th Royal Irish had returned from Scartnagloran in July 1914 to find Kilkenny Barracks nearly empty. Major Harold T. Belcher, DSO, of Brighton, commanded the 87th (Howitzer) Battery, few of whose gunners were Irishmen, much less local men, the battery having been posted to Kilkenny in July 1913. Barrack’s life in Kilkenny restricted the battery to little more than parade drill and maintenance duties, for in order to fire their six 4.5” guns, they had to journey to the Glen of Imaal in County Wicklow, or to Kilworth Camp, County Cork. So in April 1914, Major Belcher’s gunners had departed to the Glen of Imaal, and remained there for most of the summer.

When the drama resulting from Franz Ferdinand’s assassination had played itself out, and King George V ordered mobilization on 4 August 1914, the 4th Royal Irish assembled at Kilkenny Barracks and within the month set off for Queenstown, County Cork, never to garrison the Kilkenny Barracks again. The regulars of the 87th Battery RFA departed Kilkenny Barracks for England in the second week of August 1914, where they joined the 43rd and 86th Batteries from Fethard and Clonmel to form the 12th Brigade, RFA, of the 6th Division. They disembarked at St. Nazaire on 9 September 1914, and ten days later were engaged in the Battle of the Aisne.

The enlistment euphoria of August 1914 didn’t quite sweep Kilkenny, as it did much of the Empire, especially its urban centres, and understandably so, as Kilkenny was a county of relative prosperity and little unemployment. But if the Kilkenny Journal is to be considered an accurate gauge of local sentiment, the outset of the war had seen ‘a spirit of forgiveness for England’s wrong doings uppermost in Irish hearts.’5 For the first nine months of the war, Kilkenny’s recruiting officer, Captain J.P.T. ‘Mack’ Mackesy (qv) reported that 556 recruits had enlisted at his office in Kilkenny Barracks, or in recruitment rallies that he held throughout the county.6 Statistics from Mackesy’s office withered thereafter, particularly in the wake of partisan milestones such as the split of the Irish Volunteers, Easter Sunday 1916, the Parliamentary election of August 1917, and the conscription ‘threat’ of 1918. In writing home to his wife in December 1915, Captain R.H. Prior-Wandesforde (qv) commented on a recent newspaper report to the affect that: 1,800 men recruited for Kilkenny 7 is out of a population of 40,000 so it’s not much to boast of – about 4.5% that is all!8

As Lieutenant-Colonel Winston J. Dugan, of King’s County, commanding 2nd Battalion Royal Irish Regiment on the Somme, near Albert, exclaimed in January 1916: Tell Tipperary and Kilkenny that our men are magnificent, but that we want more of them – badly….’9

Yet Kilkennymen and women, whether natives, or long-term residents – the focus of this work – were of course scattered across the globe, and so they enlisted, or were conscripted, in untold numbers, at innumerable locations, for a multitude of reasons, to serve in the air, land, sea, and auxiliary forces of the wider Anglophone world. An additional untold number of such men and women were already serving in uniform when war broke out in August 1914. What follows is the authors’ seventeen-year endeavour at locating and portraying that untold number of Kilkenny people who served in various uniforms during that Great, or First World War. Although not a single, woven story, what follows is nearly 2,900 individually remarkable stories with regrettably many omits. It would be to the authors’ delight to learn from readers of such omissions, and to accordingly publish a revised edition at some future date.

The following are a few Kilkenny folk of ‘record’ from among the multitude in our findings: Corporal Percy Kennedy of the RAMC, regimental no. 5971 (qv), appears to have been the first Kilkennyman to disembark in France, having done so on 10 August 1914. The first Kilkennyman known to have perished in the Great War was Private James Ryan, 4th Battalion Royal Irish Regiment, regimental no. 4485 (qv), but he died in a railway mishap near Queenstown on 20 August 1914. The first known combat fatality was on 23 August 1914, during the opening Battle of Mons, in which John Connolly, regimental no. 7622 (qv) and William Walsh, regimental no. 6520 (qv), both Kilkennymen of the 2nd Battalion Royal Irish Regiment, were killed in action. Joseph Gardiner, regimental no. 10765 (qv), also a Kilkennyman of that same battalion may have perished that same day, but most surviving records indicate he died on 24 August.

Jeremiah Purcell, of the 6th Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers, regimental no. 24871 (qv), if not the youngest individual from Kilkenny to see active service, was seemingly the youngest to make the supreme sacrifice, at the age of 16, in October 1916, along the Struma River of Macedonia, in a fight against Bulgarians for the village of Yeniköi. On the other hand, Gunner John Fitzpatrick of the RFA (qv), regimental no. 88656 (qv), seems to have been the oldest Kilkennyman to have served, having first entered the army in the year 1871 and re-enlisted in 1915 at the age of 68. He deservedly only saw service on the Home Front, to include a period in Kilkenny Barracks with the 75th Brigade, RFA.

James Darcy, of the 2nd Battalion Royal Irish Regiment, regimental no. 2589 (qv) would appear to be the last Kilkennyman to have been killed in action, losing his life in Belgium a day before the Armistice. And the last known combatant survivor of the Great War from Kilkenny was Ben Williams,of an unknown rank and unit (qv), who died at his home in Bramblestown, Dungarvan, County Kilkenny, in March 1992, at the age of 91.