.Longford volunteers played their part in the Great War

Between 1914 and 1918, a large number of local men fought for the British in what will always be known as the Great War. They fought for many different reasons, ironically some to bolster Home Rule, others against it. Some sacrificed their lives, others survived, often injured, only to return to a different Ireland than the one they left. Their experiences on the front was airbrushed out of the official history of the new Irish State, until quite recently.In the first of a two part special report by David Clarke, this week the Longford Leader has a look at just some of the Longford men who fought in the most terrible of conflicts.During the period of 1914-1918 Ireland though far removed from the battlefields of Europe was a place which World War 1 impacted in a very definite way. There was drilling of volunteers on the streets of provincial towns and there were rallies all over the country, for example the rally in the Phoenix Park, Dublin on April 10th 1915.

At this rally, or the National Review as it was called there was a strong Longford representation. Indeed a special train left Longford on that morning at 8am. The crowd was so big that after Streete station no more people could be accommodated on the train and they had to wait for later trains.
The local Foresters band made a fine display later that day as they marched on the Phoenix Park and their playing was much admired by all in Dublin that day. These rallies were the norm during a period when many men enlisted in the Irish Volunteers to go and fight the Germans in Europe. Some of these men never returned, others were grievously injured. They were however brave men who seemed to think nothing of risking their lives for this cause.

Indeed the Longford Volunteers’ under the leadership of Lord Granard, were held in high esteem by all in Longford and further afield. The Longford Leader of May 15th 1915 has an account of three men who volunteered for active service in the Royal Field Artillery. Apparently for every men that was killed two others volunteered in his place. The men who enlisted were Francis Gillian, son of Mr Patrick Gillian, Cam and Mr James Nangle, shop assistant in Mr Quinn’s, a shop in Edgeworthstown at the time and thirdly Mr James Keegan, a local postman enlisted in the Leinster Regiment and was based in Cork barracks.

The following is a list of young men who were members of the Edgeworthstown Volunteer Corps and who volunteered for active service and left to undergo a course in military training at the nearest military depot: Patrick Cullen, Thomas O’Rourke, John Keena, John Grimes, Peter Dempsey, Patrick Dermody, Patrick Gallagher, Francis Dooris, John Nugent, William Nugent. There were also 23 others belonging to the regular army and reserve force who were on active service in France or with the colours. They were : James Courtney, Patrick Keena, Edward Grimes, Michael Dempsey, James Dempsey, John Dempsey, Richard Dempsey, William Dempsey, Michael Baldwin, Terence Dempsey, James Dempsey, Francis McGuinness, Willie Dempsey, Patrick Green, Willie Green, Willie King, John Mallon, Jas Feally, Gerald Conderson (missing since the battle of Mons), James Smith, Serg Michael Kiernan. F O’Hara. Most of the above young men were in the 1st and 2nd battalion Leinster Regiment but a good number were in the Royal Irish Fusiliers.

Most Longford Officers got their chances to serve in the war. Many of them would have returned being wounded and others were just listed as “missing “.

The daily papers at the time listed the wounded and missing. The Hon FGA Forbes, brother of the Earl of Granard was reported missing. He was 32 years of age and was Captain in the Royal Irish Regiment since 1912. He was half brother to lady Maurice Fitzgerald of Wexford. His twin brother, the Hon BA Forbes was a captain in the Royal Irish Rifles. Another officer reported missing in September 1914 was Captain HB Wilson-Slator of Whitehill, Edgeworthstown, who was popular in sporting circles in Co. Longford. Captain Wilson-Slator was lucky as it was learned from a private source that he was in hospital in England, wounded but not seriously. He in fact wrote to a friend in Longford stating that he hoped to be soon back in the continent to have another crack at the Germans. Another officer belonging to County Longford who was next in command under Sir John French, and at present in France was Major Wilson of the Rifle Brigade. He was son of the late Mr James Wilson DL of Currygrane and brother of Mr J Mackay Wilson DL.

One interesting account related by a Corporal Gobble, a wounded soldier in a Dublin hospital, concerns a Longford man Private James Bartley. Private Bartley captured nine German prisoners during the fighting on the French frontier. The soldier relating the story was out patrolling with two privates when he opened the door of farmhouse and saw nine German soldiers inside. He sent Private Bartley into the house with fixed bayonet and told him to be careful he didn’t get shot. Private Bartley went into the farmhouse and the Germans reluctantly surrendered and walked out of the farmhouse with their hands in the air leaving their rifles behind them. Private Bartley was a native of Longford Town and belonged to the Leinster regiment. He served throughout the South African campaign as well. His two brothers also fought in the war, one of whom was killed at the Relief of Ladysmith. Despite the danger looming at the front it is sadly ironic that Michael Kelly never got the chance to go with Lord Granard’s regiment to the battlefields of Europe. There was indeed great sadness occasioned by the death of this young man at his parents’ residence in Newtownforbes. He had been in Lord Granard’s regiment and stationed in Longford since September 1914, this being now April 1915. Feeling unwell he had applied for and was granted a pass to go home for a few days but during the night he succumbed to heart failure. The funeral took place to the local cemetery and was attended by the military from Longford with their band, full military honours being accorded the deceased.

The Roscommon correspondent of the Dublin daily papers writing in October 1914 supplied the following item of news: “ It is learned today officially at the Roscommon Constabulary headquarters that Constable William Hudson, formerly attached to the Beechwood station and at present at the front has been promoted on the battle field to be Lieutenant for the distinguished service during the progress of the battle. Hudson served six years in the army and retired as a six years reserve man. He belongs to Co. Longford and after leaving the army joined the police and was stationed at Beechwood, one of the sub districts of Roscommon. When the war broke out he was called to the colours”. Lieutenant Hudson was a son of Mr John Hudson of Great Water Street, Longford and a brother of Mr R Hudson,one of the teachers of St Michael’s National School, Longford and he was well remembered by comrades here in Longford, all of whom were proud of his gallant conduct which has won fame and glory for himself and his country on the battle fields of France and Belgium.

Indeed life in the trenches at the front was not very healthy, often with soldiers becoming sick from the poor conditions and constant soakings from rain never mind the risk of being shot. In despatches sent home by Sir John French around Feb 1915, giving an account of the fighting on the lines around Ypres, the Hon Donald Forbes, second eldest brother of the Earl of Granard, and a Major in the army was honourably mentioned for bravery and dash in battle. Major Forbes was serving in the Royal Field Artillery perhaps one of the most dangerous arms of the war service. He was for many years an aide-de-camp to the late Viceroy, the Marquis of Aberdeen and was an enthusiastic lover of his country and particularly of his native county of Longford. He was quite a young age to have his name mentioned on the roll of fame.

The daily papers in February 1915 contained a long list of names of officers and men mentioned in despatches and honoured for distinguished conduct. Four Longford men were mentioned. The first was Major General HH Wilson, mentioned previously and promoted to be Lieut General. He was brother of Mr J Mackay Wilson DL, Currygrane and had a remarkable military career serving in Burma and South Africa when he was several times mentioned in despatches. Then there was Captain JA Edgeworth and Captain KE Edgeworth both sons of Mr TN Edgeworth DL, secretary of Longford Co Council. They were officers in the Royal Engineers and were commended by Sir John French for gallantry on the field. Lastly there was Mr Thomas F O’Beirne JP, Crosshea, Edgeworthstown. He passed through the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich and obtained a commission in the RFA and was then second Lieutenant attached to the 1 ‘A’ Reserve Brigade at Newcastle-on-Tyne.

Longford friends and families did not forget sons and brothers at the front

A cursory look through the old files of the Longford Leader from the First World War years immediately gives us a sense of how the war impacted on the community - whether it was a case of those who left for the front, or those who did what they could to aid and the soldiers and victims of the war from home.

While the heroics of the men at the front filled the papers, people at home did their bit for the war effort as well. Mrs Daly of Danesfort, Longford sold a number of household pets the proceeds of which she gave to the Prince of Wales Fund in aid of the soldiers’ and sailors’ families who were engaged in the war. The war brought with it its own security alerts and Longford was no exception in that regard.
Some Irish emigrants in Europe particularly in France and Belgium had to flee during the opening days of the war. Miss Mollie Higgins of Melview House, Longford told a Leader reporter of her experiences in Belgium during the opening days of the war and of her experiences in trying to get out of the country to her home where she eventually arrived safely. She certainly had as much excitement in one week as many people have in their whole lives. In August 1914 Dr Robinson, a popular young medical practitioner of Longford, son of Mr Joseph Robinson, assistant Co. surveyor and brother of Mr Thos Robinson, Engineer volunteered for active service in the Royal Army Medical Corps and was called away for duty during the war.

Also in August 1914 another very popular young man who left to join the ranks in active service was Mr Joe Skeffington, a leading handball player and a member of the Post Office staff in Longford. He left to join the Royal Engineers. He was given a hearty send off the night before by the members of the Handball Club and other friends.

The Longford Leader issue of August 22nd 1914 carried the story of two foreigners who were arrested at Tarmonbarry in suspicion of being German spies, by Constable Kemp. The men were brought into Longford and taken first to the military barracks and as they marched through the streets a large crowd gathered and followed the prisoners and their captors. The military authorities referred them to the RIC barracks in Dublin Street. However a short investigation showed that the men were two Russian subjects whose papers and passports were in proper order and they were travelling in Ireland for sometime as pedlars. They had been lodging in Longford for some weeks past and were well known to the police here but the Tarmon authorities were alarmed for the security of the bridge when they saw these strangers of foreign mien and accent in the locality.

During this period of July and August 1914 the Longford Volunteers Corps were constantly drilling in case the need arose to defend the nation against the Germans. Even if such a need didn’t arise many of these volunteers went to the front in any case.

Later in February 1915 two well known young Longford men who had been at the front from the very start of the war arrived in town for a brief holiday. They were Mr Joseph Skeffington, who joined the army in August 1914, 6 months previously, and formed principal clerk in the PO here in Longford and now in the field telegraph service at the seat of war and Lieutenant James Plunkett VS, son of Mr Joseph Plunkett of Lisbrack. Both young men looked very well considering the great hardships they had been through and the many times their lives were in danger.

The local Longford clergy were also involved in and affected by the war. In Jan 1915 the people of Longford held a collection to present a testimonial to Rev Peter O’Farrell CC on the occasion of his departure from Longford to act as chaplain with Lord Granard’s regiment. Marching orders for the regiment were expected in about March so there wasn’t much time in which to make the presentation. May non Catholic fellow citizens contributed to the collection which shows how the war brought people together and united people despite the fact that Ireland at this period in history was being ruled by a predominantly Protestant England.

In the weeks just prior to Christmas 1914 a tremendous surprise was caused in Longford when Pat Durkan, who was reported of having died of pneumonia in the trenches at the front and who was actually prayed for at all Masses at that time, stepped from the evening train on its arrival in Longford. It appears Mr Durkan had been ill with pneumonia and had been invalided home but he made a fast recovery and in a few weeks he hoped to be as fit as ever and again off to the congenial task of evicting the Germans from Belgium territory.

In Longford in December 1914 apart from the drilling of volunteers another aspect of life was the numerous charity functions. On Friday night December 4th 1914 a dance was held in the Town Hall, Granard in aid of the Belgian Relief Fund. An energetic committee was formed including: Mrs White, Mrs Davis, Mrs Pettit, Mrs Maguire, Mrs Brown, Mrs TP O’Reilly, Mrs Grier and Mrs J Cosgrove. Messrs WH Connell and LD Kiernan were the hon secretaries and in the their capable hands nothing was left undone to ensure a capital night’s enjoyment. Around this time District Inspector Yeates, Ballymahon took his departure from Ballymahon and joined the colours. Also Dr Kenny, medical officer of corps at the front and it was also reported at this time that Mrs Susan Murtagh, maternity nurse for the Abbeyshrule dispensary district of the Union, who attached to the Red Cross Society was also bound for the front.

In December 1914 sad news reached Longford that James Keenan of the Royal Irish Rifles, Richmond Street, Longford was killed in action at Newience, Chapelle in France. His death caused a terrible sensation in Longford among his family and friends and all who had the pleasure of knowing him. Also in December 1914 a number of young men of the town belonging to various regiments arrived home on furlough. Amongst their number was Mr Wm Sargaison, son of the popular protestant school principal, Mr. Sargaison was attached to the Rugby Football Volunteer Corps and stationed at the Curragh. It was expected that his regiment would be sent to the front possibly after Christmas.

The Irish fought alongside the English in the war but during this period there was another question which dominated Irish thinking and that was Home Rule and freedom from English rule. The English were our allies in the war but yet people were willing to fight for Irish freedom from English rule. Both the war and Home Rule seemed to exist side by side during this period from 1914 to 1918. In Sept 1914 the news of the final triumph of the Home Rule Bill and its being placed on the statute book as an act of parliament was received with manifestations of great joy in Longford. A huge bonfire was lit on the Market Square when night fell and the Foresters Band turned out and paraded the town playing national music. An important meeting held on the Square beside the bonfire and speeches and delivered by Messrs P Igoe Co Council; JP Farrell MP and Joseph Deane. The same evening at a meeting of the Urban Council a resolution was proposed by Mr Molloy and seconded by Mr Deane and passed with acclamation congratulating Mr Redmond of Ireland’s long struggle for freedom. At the meeting of the Longford branch of the United Irish League a similar resolution was adopted. It must be remembered that there was a lot of poverty during this time in Irish history and so a lot of Irish men joined the army because of unemployment and the need for money. But whatever the reason it was a time for Irish and English people were brought together to face a common enemy.

Courtesy of the Longford Leader