29 Jun 2022

‘Horror and humour, suffering and humanity’ - new book highlights Kilkenny voices in WW1

Book Review

‘Horror and humour, suffering and humanity’ - new book on Kilkenny voices in WW1

I’ve just finished reading Kilkenny Voices from the Western Front, edited by Niall Brannigan and John Kirwan. 

I wasn’t surprised at it being informative and interesting, but I was surprised by how moving I found it.

(Picture: The front cover of 'Kilkenny Voices from the Western Front 1914-18', the latest work from Niall Brannigan and John Kirwan)

The voices of three individuals, a chaplain, a private soldier, and a lieutenant, come through clearly and the reader is immersed in their experiences, the horror and humour, the inhuman suffering and losses endured, and their humanity, which somehow survived. 

I was struck by their eloquent honesty in the face of the horrors they experienced, Anthony Brennan in particular:
“The new Welsh Division, just out from home, left their bones amongst the shattered trees”.

Anthony survived the war and lived a full and honourable life in the UK.

More than 20 years later, he revisited the area where he had fought to find it returned to its pastoral serenity:

“Only the recollection of dying men and suffering souls and the unchanging landscape remained to prove that the ‘I’ of then and ‘I’ of now were identical.”

Fr Ned Dowling, who was a witness to an incident of the 1914 Christmas ‘truce’, reports himself ‘dreaming of home and other Xmases’.

A skilled horseman, he describes negotiating the mud of the war-ravaged landscape: ‘You ride through the desolate miles of it, bordered by sodden grass, to the trenches; you slip, you slide... and if you fall you fall like Lucifer…mud… ankle deep, knee deep, thigh deep’.

In April, 1915, he records the cruel absurdity of trench warfare when, while receiving their orders, an experienced soldier questions if there was any particular objective in view.

The response comes: “I’ve told you all the Brigadier was able to tell me. Digby Jones said it was not soldiering”.

For many years  I have thought that Wilfred Owen had had the last word on war: “I am the enemy you killed, my friend”, and that I had accepted his insight of our indivisibility. “Whatever hope is yours,/Was my life also,” he wrote.

However, I found new challenges to my preconceived opinions in this book, especially at the death of Christopher Wandesforde.

I was reading his letters with a slightly jaundiced view of his self-image as ‘quite a rich man’, able to order his creature comforts from a well-resourced family and an adoring mother:

“A very warm waistcoat fur-lined inside and leather on the outside.. also the warmest sort of trench coat or mackintosh”.

“I should like you to send me the following – 1 pr. pyjamas, 1 pr Drawers (thick), 3 prs Socks (thick), 2 shirts (thick): please be sure that none of the underclothing is itchy!”

But these details only confirm the human misery of trench warfare which he, like all combatants, was enduring. I was touched by his longing to be near his father, for the war to be over, for leave, (he can only describe his one leave home at Christmas 1916 as “almost a dream”).  

His last letter, where he very unusually says ‘I do not think I can be in the mood for letter writing’ has a tone not present in the other letters. Was it a premonition or just exhaustion?

I was ambushed by the pity I felt for him losing his life at 20, and by an unexpected empathy for the Wandesforde family in their loss.

The more we know of each other’s lives the better it would seem, even with an understanding and acceptance of the significance of these years in a very different national narrative.

I found the structure of Kilkenny Voices from the Western Front very satisfying - the placing of the narratives in a (rough) chronology of the war - and that the narrative ends in “the pity of war, the pity war distilled”.

However, the epilogue is a great addition to the book (Fr Ned’s piece in particular), as are the illustrations, maps and footnotes and the local interest, such as the story of the development of the Castlecomer to Kilkenny railway line.

I think the editors are to be congratulated on their work and I hope the book finds the readership it deserves.

I am reminded that it was only in the last few years that I have had conversations with friends about their family members who were combatants in World War One.

Books such as this and the meticulous research the editors have already undertaken to record ‘Kilkenny Families in the Great War’ (published in 2012), can help us tell ourselves a more complete and more honest story.

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