By 8 November 1918, 100 years ago today, it was so nearly over. The war in Western Europe, I mean. Battles would still rage across the planet in the coming years, Ireland included, but the Big War, the Great War, was nearly at an end … 4 years, 3 months, and 16 days after it had started.
That long, brutal, bloody, futile war, so crammed full of sadness and twists and horror, was one of the most cataclysmic events in human history.
A century later, we are still grappling with its repercussions.
We have recalled so many events since the Centenary commemorations began … sometimes I feel as if I’ve been living a dual existence between the present day and a second life that took place a century ago.
First we marked the civil war that almost broke out between Unionist and Nationalist here in Ireland until Bosnian Serb nationalist assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo – and, in doing so, detonated the Pandora’s Box that was to become the Armageddon of the First World War.
Within weeks, the Germans had launched their astonishingly brutal invasion of neutral Belgium as the Kaiser’s army set its sights on Paris.
I think of the Wexford-born Dame Josephine, one of the Benedictine nuns at the Irish convent in Ypres, who, in her eighties, beseeched the Heavens as the German army rumbled ever closer, “Dear St Patrick, as you once chased the serpents and venomous reptiles out of Ireland, please now chase the Germans out of Belgium.” In her youth, Dame Josephine had known nuns who lived through the French Revolution; she would not survive the exhausting flight from Ypres to the coast.
It’s so confusing trying to understand the Great War – all of the alliances and ententes, the battle fronts and troop movements and military strategies … as all of those armies – vast and small – rushed to borders across Europe, north, south, east and west. And then the long slow grinding trudge … the relentless trench warfare, which – from an Irish perspective – led to so many grim battles on the Western Front – the Marne, the Somme, Cambrai, Amiens, Passchendaele …
The No-Man’s Land of machine gun nests and barbed wire entanglements, of artillery shells and pom-poms and Maxim guns and flamethrowers and gas masks and trenches caked in mud and blood. The clouds of poison gas that, for instance, spilled into the Irish-occupied trenches of Hulluch in France in April 1916, and killed more Irishmen than died across all of Ireland during the Easter Rising that very same week.
4,000 Irishmen died die in the bleak heat of Gallipoli. We have remembered Gallipoli – Suvla Bay and Seddelbahr – and all those forgotten fronts – Salonika, Serbia, East Africa, Palestine, the Sinai Peninsula, Mesopotamia … it goes on.
We have remembered too the poignant moments – the Christmas truce, the football matches and Silent Night, Stille Nacht, drifting on the winter winds from trench to trench. The nurses and orderlies doing what they could to treat the casualties of war and, by 1918, trying to contend with a new horror, the Spanish Flu influenza which would kill more people than the war itself.
We have recalled the war at sea – naval battles like Jutland and the U-boat campaign – the German submarines that prowled around the Irish coast sinking troop ships and merchant vessels and passenger ships like the Lusitania and the RMS Leinster.
We have looked to the air above us – there’s a memorial in the North Transept beside me to the Royal Air Force, honouring Irish air aces such as George McElroy and Mick Mannock who gave their lives taking on men like Baron von Richtofen, the Red Baron, as a new age of dogfights and aerial bombardments began.
I might add that on 10 November 1918, Erskine Childers very nearly blew up Berlin. The novelist, who became such a stalwart supporter of Eamon de Valera during the war of Independence and Civil War, was working as an Intelligence Officer with the RAF at this time. He was one of the brains who masterminded a major air raid — the first of its kind — which was scheduled to take place on Berlin on 10 November. The attack was postponed for 24 hours on account of bad weather. That was one of the greatest blessings Berlin has ever had because at 11am the following morning, the Armistice was signed and the Great War ended.
We have remembered so much of the war. And in between all that, our own commemorations of 1916 and the rise of Sinn Fein who swept to victory in the General Election 100 years ago this very month … as a new battle for independence began in this small nation.
In 2014, the Bushy Park Ironworks in Dublin was commissioned to design a memorial to the First World War for St Patrick’s Cathedral. They conceived the Tree of Remembrance, a lonesome wrought iron tree, ensnared in barbed wire, onto which visitors to the Cathedral could pin paper leaves, inscribed with messages of support and love for all those who suffer from conflict, past and present. The novelist Jennifer Johnston wrote and ‘barbed’ the first leaf. Every evening all the leaves were removed, ahead of the coming day, and placed in a box. By the autumn of 2018, over 220,000 leaves had been collected. By coincidence, this approximated to the number of Irish thought to have served in the war. To mark the Armistice on 11 November 2018, St Patrick’s brilliantly selected 36,000 of those leaves – each one representing an Irish man or Irish woman who died in the Great War – and threaded them them through long strands of fishing line that now hang down from the Cathedral’s roof, recalling all those who died in the war, serving as soldiers, sailors, pilots, nurses, engineers, medical corps, veterinary corp … many wearing the uniforms of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States and, needless to say, there were Irishmen in the German army too.
Statistics are hard to grasp but a measure of the First World War’s violence can be seen in the casualty figures for the final days before the Armistice. 6600 lives were lost in the last three days of the war, 6600 men killed during the final push across the River Meuse. 11,000 were killed or wounded during the last morning of fighting. That’s more than all casualties suffered by all sides on D-Day in the Second World War, the difference being that the Allies had already won the war when all those soldiers died on 11 November 1918. The last British soldier to die was Private George Ellison of the 5th Royal Irish Lancers. He was killed at Mons (where he had also fought in 1914) at 9.30am, just 90 minutes before the ceasefire.
On the Western Front alone, it works out that over 2,000 men died every single day of the war. The French lost 27,000 men in a single day. That’s the entire population of Kilkenny. At the Somme, 4,000 Irishmen died in a single day. On Bride Street, which borders St Patrick’s Cathedral, 31 men from the street were killed in the war.
All told, between 15 and 19 million men, women and children, lost their lives in the war, because of the war. And think of all the war widows and war orphans whose future lives were so harshly shaped by the conflict. Or the untold thousands of veteans who died in the decades after the war because of the war, who died of their wounds and the drink they drank to forget all those weeks and months spent wading through those poisonous trenches, watching their fellow men being blown apart in circumstances we cannot imagine. Thank goodness our understanding and empathy for what war does to a person has come on so much in 100 years.
As I say, these numbers are too overwhelming to get our heads around, but when you walk through the graveyards of the Western Front, you begin to get a sense of just how intense it was. At the Tyne Cot cemetery in Flanders, I was entirely overwhelmed by the immensity of it all when I walked alone down a path through line after line of those proud white headstones, with a wall blocking the view to my left. I thought I might have become immune to all the death by then but when the wall ended, I looked to my left and I slumped … because, behind the wall, the field of graves was replicated again and again as far as I could see, like the saddest dream ever dreamt. Endless rows of white upright slabs, framed at one end by the ‘Memorial to the Missing’ upon which were written the names of tens of thousands of soldiers whose bodies were never identified.
And for what? To fulfil the ambitions of a bad run of egotistical monarch’s and war-hungry generals? That’s too simplistic, I know, but 100 years on, you have to wonder how it would have played out if there had been more enlightened leadership at the time.
And more fool them. Because when the Great War finally ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, and when the world stopped to count the dead and the maimed, the shattered families and burning cities, most of those empires had fallen … Imperial Russia was no longer an empire, its entire Royal family murdered. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, the German Empire, the Ottoman Empires – they were all gone too. Britain, once the world’s impeccable creditor, was on the cusp of revolution and now hugely indebted to the banks of New York. Was that what they fought for?
I think of the Rev. Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy, a graduate of Trinity College Dublin better known as Woodbine Willie, so named for his propensity of handing out Woodbine cigarettes to the wounded and dying in No Man’s land. He won a Military Cross at Passchendaele and went on to become one of the world’s most outspoken pacifists. ‘When I went to the war, I believed that the war would end to the benefit of mankind,’ he declared. ‘I believed that a better order was coming for the ordinary man, and, God help me, I believe it still. But it is not through war that this order will be brought about. There are no fruits of victory, no such thing as victory in modern war.’
I think of Flora Sandes, the daughter of a Church of Ireland clergyman from Kerry, a veritable tomboy if ever there was one … she went out to Serbia as a Red Cross nurse and then, by dint of her sharp-shooting and excellent gait in the saddle, fetched up as a sergeant major in the Serbian Army, marching through the icy mountains of Albania, engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the Bulgarians – for we were at war with the Bulgarians too. She won the Star of Karaðorðe, the highest decoration of the Serbian Military. ‘I never loved anything so much in my life’, she said of her time in the army. ‘I felt neither fish nor flesh when I came out of it. The first time I put on women’s clothes I slunk through the streets.’ And spare a thought for her commander, Colonel Dimitrije Milic. He was so shocked by the sight of his former sergeant major in a dress and hat that he threw his hands in the air and ordered her to put on a uniform without delay.
I think of those who did not join up, the conscientious objectors, who were handed White Feathers and castigated as cowards and traitors until they too threw themselves into the insanity of war. And I think of the pacifist Archie Brockway who received so many white feathers that he turned them into a fan.
There is tragedy in every family, in every graveyard, but the Great War was a different type of tragedy. After an unprecedented breakdown of diplomacy, we launched a ferocious civil war between our species, an existential assault by the human race on the human race.
A huge number of people in this country today were defined by what happened to their families a hundred years ago. My mother lost two great uncles; the last sons of their line. My father lost a great uncle at the Western Front; his grandfather returned home battle-scarred like the artist William Orpen and, like Orpen, he did not live for very long afterwards. I have no doubt that many of you who are reading these words also mourned the premature death of men and women in your families 100 years ago. The ripples of pain and tragedy and loss and hurt and heartache affected the next generation and the next and the next, right down to the present day. That is why we must remember. Because we are who we are because of that war.
In the Ireland of my youth, the history books seemed to suggest that the only wars that the Irish ever fought were to break the shackles of Britannia’s rule. I think we have matured immensely since the Centenary commemorations began. We have moved on. The silence is over. We need not agree with the reasons for the war – but surely we can now openly and freely acknowledge all those Irish men and Irish women who served. And, as the centenary of the Armistice approaches, it is right that we remember all of those who lost their lives in that hideous conflict.
Perhaps, by remembering them, we can also acknowledge in our hearts and minds how fortunate we are with all of our present-day creature comforts, and do what we can to end the unacceptable situation of so many souls across the world today who continue to suffer from the barbarity of war.
[A longer version of the above formed the basis of a talk I delivered at the launch of ‘Fallen’ in St Patrick’s Cathedral on 1 November 2018]