As the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 is marked, John Donohoe writes about his recent discovery of his granduncle’s involvement in the Battle of the Somme.
Thirty-five years ago this summer, my granduncle, Jimmy Englishby, died in Athboy. He lived in a cottage at Pluckstown on a small farm inherited from his uncle, Owen Englishby. It was adjoining his own homeplace, where his sisters still lived on another small farm. You could cross the fields from one house to the other. Every other Sunday, we made the trip to Pluckstown with my grandmother, Mag Donohoe, the youngest of the Englishbys, as she visited her sisters and brothers. Another brother, Pat, farmed across the hedge and across the county border at Addinstown, in Westmeath.
I can recall crossing the fields to Jimmy’s little cottage as a child - a very young child. When he died in 1979, I was just five years old, so my memories of him are vague. But he had a most interesting life story, which I have only discovered in recent years.
Jimmy was a veteran of World War I, and served in the trenches at the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest battlefields in the theatre of the ‘Great War’. With the rank of Private in the 7th Leinster Regiment, 16th Irish Division No 2 Platoon A Company, he apparently was awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal following the Battle of the Somme.
All of this would have meant nothing to a five-year old running around Pluckstown in the 1970s. And, like most men who fought in and survived World War I, Jimmy didn’t talk very much about it afterwards, although did touch on it at times with relatives. They had seen horrific sights on the battlefields, and as well as that, came back to a changed Ireland in the years and decades that followed. The new Irish Free State wasn’t going to celebrate those that had fought in the British Army.
However, in the 1970s, Jimmy and a fellow Athboy man, Mattie Mooney, wrote down their wartime memories for a French writer who was researching a book on the Somme. Phillippe Lerat lived in Ronchin, a small town in the south-East of Lille, close to the French battlefields, and corresponded with Mattie Mooney, who worked as an orderly in hospital camps during the war.
There is a discrepancy on Jimmy’s date of birth on his record, as he probably was younger than he should have been when he signed up for the Army. He gives his date of birth as July 1896 on the paperwork, to add an extra year onto his age, as he wasn’t born until June 1897. And on some of his recollections, he has written the names of French battlefields as they would be pronounced in English, for example Loos as Lewis.
He says that his first time in action was five days in mucky trenches with no trench boards at Loos, with no sleep or rest, and not much food. This was in late 1915. His notes continue: “March 1916 moved up to Pethoon (Bethune) to relieve an English division ... in front line trenches for a month ... got a flesh wound on arm and spent 20 days in hospital. On return to the front line, all my old comrades were almost completely killed or wounded. All service transport was by horse or mule.”
He says that at the Battle of the Somme, the transport was motorised where possible, mainly by a sunken road in a foot of muck.
“After being wounded, I was lying in the trenches for five days without any medical attention, food or water. The ambulance got stuck in the sunken road, as it was struck by a shell, killing two patients.... my big toe and some of the foot was blown off in action. I spent 10 months in hospital and was then discharged as medically unfit for military service.”
Jimmy writes that the winter of 1915-16 was very hard, with snow, rain and frost, and many of the men suffered from frostbite. Places of combat he fought at were Troneswood and Guillemont, as well as the Battle of Loos in December 1915. He was badly wounded on 3rd September 1916.
He also wrote: “I was awarded the DCM at the Sommme for carrying a badly wounded officer from no man’s land back to the safety of the trenches under heavy fire.”
Mattie Mooney wrote that his own war service in France was at the beginning and end of the war.
“At the outbreak of war, I had two years service with the RAMC (Royal Army Medical Corps), and my unit was on manoeuvres in the south of Ireland. I was appointed to No 1 General Hospital, 1st Army Corps ... the GOC in chief was Sir John French, and my CO was Colonel Dalton. We landed in France on August 18th 1914 at Le Harve and pitched our canvas hospital about ten miles northwards near the railway line, and erected an impromptu siding for loading and unloading casualties. Ten days later, we got an order to strike canvas and get going as quickly as possible. Colonel Dalton joined a medical unit at the Marne and he was killed at the battle. Our unit went to St Nazaire by sea, and after a week we returned by land to Etretat, a tourist village in the coast, and we took over some hotels as hospitals, one of which was Hotel De Roches Blanches.”
Mattie recalls that before striking canvas during the retreat from Mons, they treated many casualties which were sent to the hospital ship, Austurias, at Le Harve. The wounded were in a dirty condition, and many wounds were septic.
“Many of the casualties were suffering from frostbite in addition to their other ailments, and they told us of the terrible conditions in the front line. No regular food, no letters, no heat, no medical attention until they were carried back to the first aid station ... we learned that as the winter advanced, conditions in the trenches were appalling, irregular food, mostly bully beef and biscuits which resembled extra hard dog biscuits. Goatskin coats were issued to the men which were good breeding banks for lice and fleas.”
Referring to Jimmy Englishby’s mention of his DCM episode, Mattie says that soon after the battle of the Somme, an order came out that no man was to stop and pick up a comrade - that would mean two men less in attack or defence.
It wasn’t all work, as the medical orderly explains: “During off duty hours, we were allowed out in the village, and if we had a little money in our pockets, we went into bars where drink was served, we drank red wine, white wine, rum served in black coffee, got drunk if the money lasted, had a fight among ourselves and went to bed, and were up and shaved and breakfast over, we were on duty next morning at 8 o’clock.”
Mattie contracted diptheria in February 1915, and was sent back to England as dangerously ill and spent many weeks in hospital. His next assignment was in Egypt, before returning to France with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers B Company.
“Soon we were up at Guillemont in the wake of the front line men, no buildings left there, many animals lying around unburied, the stench of the place remained in my nostrils for many weeks.”
After the war, Matt Mooney returned to Ireland, trained as a watchmaker in Carlow and opened his own business on Main Street, Athboy, which he operated for many decades afterwards. Jimmy Englishby didn’t return home immediately - he went to America, where his sister, Betty Peterson, and his mother’s people, the Vaughans, were living. He worked as a deckhand for the US Merchant Navy, travelling on many sea journeys and seeing a lot of the world, including Alaska. In America, he worked as an extra on films, including the 1924 epic ‘The Thief of Baghdad’, and movies with cowboy actor, Tom Mix.
Jimmy’s cousin, Ray Vaughan, a chef who also worked on ships, recalls having many ‘seaman’s chats’ with Jimmy in latter years, and has a photo of him with Tom Mix. Jimmy returned to Athboy around the time of the deaths of his father and brother in the mid-1930s, and lived at Pluckstown. He was well looked after by the British Legion - a specially fitted winter boot and a summer boot came every year for the injured foot, and he and Matt Mooney received pensions. A grant was also available for their funeral when the time was to come.
Jimmy received three war medals marking his role in ‘the Great War for Civilisation’ with his name ‘Pte J Englisby’, his number ‘3292’ and ‘Lein R’ inscribed on the edge. His set of three medals are the Victory Medal, the 1914-15 Star, and the British War Medal. These three medals were sometimes irreverently referred to as ‘Pip, Squeak and Wilfred’. There’s no sign of the DCM, if indeed, it exists, as it doesn’t seem to be recorded on his medal rolls index card at the British National Archives, with the other medals.
Some 200,000 men from the island of Ireland served in the First World War, and between 35,000-50,000 of them, perhaps more, never returned home. This is roughly the same amount as Americans killed in Vietnam. Writing in his book ‘A Hero if I Fall, a Coward if I Return: Stories of Irishmen in World War I’, in 2010, Neil Richardson says that while the impact of the war in Vietnam is seared into the American psyche, these 50,000 Irishmen have seem to have been forgotten in that surge of nationalism in the 1920s and ‘30s in Ireland.
In Easter Week in Dublin, 450 civilians, rebels and British soldiers were killed. In that same week in Loos in France, 538 Irish soldiers, mainly from Dublin, met their death, mostly by chlorine gas, a horrible killer. Over three quarters of a million men soldiers were killed fighting for Britain and its empire during the Great War from 4th August 1914 to Armstice Day on November 11th 1918. Irishmen had joined the army for many different reasons in those days, some for the perks, wage and job security and army pension (these joined before war broke out)’ those who wanted to defend Belgium against Germany; those who wanted to fight ‘For King and Country’; those in the Ulster Volunteer Force who wanted to fight for Britain; those in the Irish Volunteers who wanted to show Home Rulers wouldn’t turn anti-British if independent; and those who saw war as a great adventure, simply bored with their monotonous life in Ireland, which is probably the reason many from Athboy, including Jimmy Englishby and Matt Mooney, decided to enlist.
(Article first published in Meath Chronicle print edition, 11th January 2014)
if you have a story about a relative who served in World War I, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 046 9079655
‘A Hero if I Fall, a Coward if I Return: Stories of Irishmen in World War I’, by Neil Richardson, O’Brien Press.
‘The Meath Ward Dead- a A History of the Casualties of the Great War’, Noel French.