Tag Archives: Remembrance Day

Postcards from London, England – Remembrance Week

On a visit to London this week, I took the opportunity to pop along to Westminster to take a look at the Cenotaph which is a focus of Remembrance Sunday ceremonies in Britain. The London Cenotaph is in Whitehall,a wide street that houses many headquarters of government departments, and links the Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament) and Trafalgar Square. The Cenotaph was erected in memory of the fallen of World War 1, but has since been engraved with the dates of  both WW1 and WW2. It is however used to commemorate the fallen in all wars and it is here that they are remembered on the 2nd Sunday of November each year. Millions watch the poignant ceremony on television as Big Ben tolls the 11th hour, beginning the minute’s silence which is followed by the  sounding of the Last Post.

The wreaths make a colourful display that is retained for a number of weeks.

Just a short distance down the road at Westminster Abbey there  is the Field of Remembrance memorial garden, organized by the British Legion. First begun in 1928, the lawn is marked out in  250 – 300 plots, where poppy crosses are planted in memory of regiments and  armed services associations. The Field of Remembrance is located in front of Westminster Abbey and alongside St Margaret’s Church which is right beside the Abbey.

A list of the plots is provided

A list of the plots is provided

I think that it is hardly possible to look at the vast numbers of crosses planted here in each plot and not deplore the waste of  – mostly young – human life. In particular it is hard to look at the plots of regiments involved in recent and ongoing conflicts where there are often photographs of laughing, smiling  handsome young men,whose only presence on earth is now denoted by a small wooden cross. Regardless of feelings about the rights and wrongs of particular conflicts, I am left with a sense of appalling waste of life and deprivation of families and communities that each cross represents.

But the past is just the same-and War’s a bloody game…
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget. – Siegfried Sasoon ( 1919) 

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We are the dead, short days ago we lived…

At the 11th hour of the 11th  day of the 11th month in 1918, fighting in World War 1 officially came to an end, in accordance with the Armistice between Germany and the Allies. On the anniversary of this event, men and women who gave their lives  in conflicts are commemorated, and people all over the world wear poppies  in remembrance of them.

Irish Poppy Badge PNG (website)

The Irish Poppy Badge

The wearing of the Poppy in Ireland remains  a contentious issue, although it has become more popular  in recent years. Not so many years ago in this country, families of those who had gone to war were, often with good reason, reluctant to speak of their soldier sons, brothers, fathers, uncles.  The story of their loved ones was buried- lost and unspoken for decades. However,  there has been a gradual rehabilitation of those mostly young Irishmen who went off to fight in the British Army of World War 1,  some 35,000  of whom never came home.

The tradition of wearing the Poppy began back at the end of World War 1. A Canadian Doctor, Lt.Col John McCrae, having witnessed the death of friends and colleagues in Ypres, penned the haunting and imaginative poem, ‘In Flanders Fields’ on May 3, 1915, the day after he officiated at the burial of his best friend.

In Flanders Field - the iconic poem by

In Flanders Field – the iconic poem by John McCrae

Lt.-Col._John_McCrae_and_his_dog_Bonneau_Le_lieutenant-colonel_John_McCrae_et_son_chien_Bonneau

Lt-Col John McCrae and his dog Bonneau. Image Wikimedia Commons

John McCrae had noticed that poppies readily sprung up where the earth had been disturbed. May 1915 was a particularly warm month and it is thought that this facilitated the germination of thousands of poppies that had lain dormant in the ground until it was disturbed.  As anyone driving along motorways in Ireland can testify, poppies will readily colonize any patch of poor ground, and so it was in  the battlefields of Gallipoli, Belgium and France. Lands  devastated  and pock-marked by shelling, littered with the remains of human beings – total wastelands, described as ‘murdered nature’, by the American pilot, James McConnell who flew over Verdun – often produced blazing groups of red poppies.

Poppy Field on the Somme. Picture from the BBC.

Poppy Field on the Somme. Picture from the BBC.

Moina Belle Michael, (1869 – 1944) an American teacher,was so inspired by McCrea’s poem that  in 1918 she set about having the Flanders Field Poppy recognized as a symbol of remembrance of those who had lost their lives in  the war.  

Moina Michael Commemorative Stamp

Moina Michael Commemorative Stamp

Moina achieved her ambition and on September 29 1920, the American Legion agreed to use the Flanders Fields Memorial Poppy as a national symbol of remembrance of those who did not return from war or who returned with physical or mental scars.

Moina Michael autobiography, The Miracle Flower. Picture from Amazon.com

Moina Michael autobiography,’The Miracle Flower. The story of the Flanders Fields Memorial Poppy’ Published in 1941. Image from Amazon.com

Another remarkable woman, Madame Anna Guérin, on a visit to the USA in 1920 was inspired by the efforts of Moina Michael and saw the  potential for raising funds by making and selling paper poppies to help French orphaned children and the war torn regions of France. She founded the ‘American and French Children’s League’ through which she organized French women, children and war veterans to make artificial poppies out of cloth. Anna sent thousands of poppies to be sold in America and then brought her campaign to all the countries that took part in the war. Canada adopted the poppy symbol in 1921 and in that year Anna herself went to London  to meet Field Marshall Earl Douglas Haig, founder and head of the British Legion who agreed to adopt the poppy as a symbol of the legion and the first British fund-raising poppy appeal was held in the run up to November 11 1921.

DSCF2614

The Tipperary Annual Remembrance takes place each September to honour Irish fallen,in all conflicts. The inscriptions on the arch are of Irish who have died in service in the uniforms of other countries

The poppy is now recognized as a symbol of remembrance in Australia, New Zealand, the U.S., Canada, South Africa, Singapore, Thailand, Germany, Poland, Russia, France, Belgium, India, China, Ireland, Israel and Pakistan  and its symbolism has evolved from one commemorating lives lost or destroyed  in World War 1, to  one of remembrance for all those who gave their lives in all conflicts.

Notwithstanding the general acceptance of the Poppy as a universal symbol of remembrance, there are many in Ireland who see it as nothing more than an emblem of British imperialism. Just  a couple of years ago I was berated in public for wearing a poppy on my coat. ‘Are you a Brit?’ challenged  a work colleague (who happened to be wearing a Liverpool Football Club jersey and is a daily reader of an English tabloid newspaper). I have never understood how men who signed up to join the army often simply as a means of getting paid employment to help support a large family at home, became ostracised because of a ‘green’ discourse in Ireland after Independence. Nor have  I understood why that ‘green’ discourse led to families being fearful  of  honouring their lost loved ones. All down the centuries,Irish men have traditionally fought in armies and wars across the world, as evidenced in the Soldiers and Chiefs exhibition at the National Museum of Ireland.  Even in 1926, some 40,000 people gathered in Dublin to honour the dead on Armistice day. There is a magnificent  image of crowds of people gathered for the occasion in the blog of Come Here to Me. which can be seen here . This post looks at  remembering the dead  and the republican response to it. Looking back at this story now, it looks very much like the commemoration of Armistice Day was, as we say here in the mid west , ‘bate out of us’ by men with guns.

The sacrifice made by our people is part of our heritage, so why will we not join with other nations across the world  on November 11 to recognize them?  Are we not sophisticated and independent enough to do this?  In 2011 I posted about Fr Gleeson and the iconic image of him on horseback giving a last blessing to the Munster Fusiliers here just hours before they were killed and wounded in their hundreds.

Last ab

The Blessing of the Munsters by Fr Gleeson on horseback, by Mattania

Fr Gleeson kept a diary, now  in the National Museum of Ireland. that captures the horrors of war. In it he wrote

Spent all night trying to console, aid and remove the wounded.  It was ghastly to see them lying there in the cold, cheerless outhouses, on bare stretchers with no blankets to cover their freezing limbs. … Hundreds lying out in cold air all night at Windy Corner.  No ambulances coming.  They come at last. – at daylight.” (May 10th ,1915) These words are now engraved on  one of the slabs that lime the entrance to the Peace Park at Messines that commemorates  the joint action of the 16th (Irish) and the 36th (Ulster) Divisions in June 1917.

Gleeson

Royal Dublin Fus 1915

Image from https://www.facebook.com/pages/Its-Time-To-Remember-200000-Brave-Irishmen Royal Dublin Fusiliers  leaving what is now Collins Barracks in Dublin, on their way to Gallipoli where weeks later they were slaughtered by the thousand

We must remember all of these Irishmen with pride – husbands, fathers, sons, uncles, lovers, neighbours, – not to glorify war but  rather to acknowledge the horror and obscenity of it, in every generation.

We are the Dead……. Short days ago
We lived,….. felt dawn,…… saw sunset glow,
  Loved and were loved, …….and now we lie
         In Flanders fields.

References

http://www.militaryheritage.ie/research/milmuseums/collins-articles/chaplain.htm

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Its-Time-To-Remember-200000-Brave-Irishmen/153705051393544?id=153705051393544&sk=photos_stream

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Remembering

Today, Remembrance Sunday, the Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) and Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) attended Remembrance services in Northern Ireland for the first time. Today too,  the President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins will attend the annual commemoration of the War Dead at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin.

Many ‘ordinary’ people of Ireland are passionate about NOT commemorating this day, in some cases probably because of a lack of understanding of the social conditions at the time,that compelled Irish men and boys in their tens of thousands to go to war.  It is true that after the conflict, many families  were ashamed of relatives returning from the War, but as this article in yesterday’s Irish Times demonstrates, things are changing. Those who had been ‘airbrushed’ out of Irish family history are now being honoured and remembered with pride.

The wearing of a Poppy in Ireland remains controversial in 2012 as demonstrated by this article from The Irish Independent on the reaction to a Poppy wearer in the streets of Dublin .  The reaction of the Chelsea Football supporter in this item is interesting  – sadly he probably verbalized what many think in private.   Why can we not treat the wearing of a Poppy as a memory of men  who died in awful circumstances, and not as a symbol of British Imperialism?

I recently discovered the website of the Limerick Branch of the Royal British Legion on which they have displayed a new Irish Poppy badge – a poppy overlaid on a shamrock. It’s a truly beautiful emblem and having worn it for the past few days myself, it has elicited a very positive response. I have no doubt that it will become a popular emblem for those who wish to commemorate the sacrifices of people from this island who put themselves in harm’s way in the most horrific circumstances. They deserve to be remembered.

The badge can be ordered here

Last year I attended a Conference in Ennis that resulted in the following  blog post – which I reprint here in tribute and in memory of all those who died .

A Poppy for Claremen,Munstermen and Irishmen

On Saturday October 1st 2011 at the Clare Roots Genealogy and Family History Conference, historian Liam Curran delivered what was to me a fascinating presentation on ‘The Irish Soldier in the British Army in the First World War’. Liam presented an account of the horrors of war that featured real people, including members of his own family, who lived and loved not far from where I now live; real people who died in the most horrific of circumstances  – sons, brothers, uncles, fathers.

During that presentation we saw a very famous painting entitled ‘The Last Absolution of the Munsters’ by the war artist, Matania.

 

On Saturday evening the 8th May 1915, prior to the battle in the Aubers Ridge area, the 2nd Battalion Royal Munster Fusiliers marched through Rue du Bois, about one mile out from the town of Neuve Chapelle in Belgium. The Battalion halted near a wayside shrine. Moving off the road they formed up in their respective Companies, ‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’ and ‘D’. In front of each Company was a green flag with the Irish Harp and word “Munster” embroidered on it’

Most if not all the men depicted here are from Munster. The priest on horseback who gave a general absolution to these men was Francis Gleeson, one of 13 children from Templemore, Co Tipperary. On the extreme right is Regimental Sergeant Major John Ring born in Bandon. Also here are many men from Clare. The second mounted figure is 40-year old Colonel Victor Rickard, husband of Louise Moore from Mitchelstown, Co. Cork, whose father founded the  Cork Historical and Archaeological Society and was a Protestant Home Ruler. She herself wrote articles for the Cork Examiner Newspaper.

At dawn on 9th May, just hours  after the general absolution, these Irish men came out of their trenches. Within hours, 151 of them lay dead, including the Commanding Officer Rickard, and 16 men from Clare.

Just one of a number of Irish Regiments, the Munster Fusiliers consisted in the main of Munster men – mainly from Clare, Kerry, Cork and Tipperary. They fought and died in their hundreds in various areas of conflict during their long history including Afghanistan 1839,  Burma 1852,  The Crimea, the Boer War. It is reckoned that about a quarter of a million Irish men were involved in the First World War. They endured the horror of the killing fields of the Western Front, often cold and often hungry, surrounded by the stench of death, hearing the screams of the dying, with rats eating their feet. They were slaughtered, drowned and maimed in Gallipoli and in many places whose names they could not pronounce.

Text from Fr Gleeson’s Diary entry 10 May 1915 as inscribed at the Messines Irish Peace Park.

Growing up and educated in Ireland in the 1960s, I was never aware of the tens of thousands of our countrymen who fought and died in horrific conditions in many theatres of war down the centuries. These people had effectively been wiped from the history that we were taught in schools, wiped from our national memory, wiped from our very DNA.

The truth is that most were volunteers.  The truth is that, fired up by calls by Irish Nationalists like John Redmond, who claimed that ‘Ireland’s highest interests’ lay ‘in the speedy and overwhelming victory of England and the Allies’ they volunteered in their droves; the truth is that many went because they needed the money for their families; the truth is that many went because they belonged to large families with low-income and it would be one less mouth to feed. Undoubtedly some also went in search of adventure and perhaps also to escape issues at home.

The First World War was the war in which most Irish lives were lost and in which the Irish performed amazing acts of courage and bravery. However, when the survivors returned they were shunned and met with hostility and even physical violence. The honour with which they had departed was in stark contrast to the changed circumstances when they returned. Ireland had staged an uprising against British rule at Easter 1916 and the Ireland to which they returned was one with a new sense of nationalism and a different set of values.

We in Ireland have come a long way in redressing the airbrushing of our past. President Mary Robinson was the first Irish President to wear a poppy on November 11th each year and President McAleese has kept up her predecessor’s practice of attending the remembrance Sunday services in St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin.  President Mary McAleese also stood shoulder to shoulder with the Queen of England at the opening of the Island of Ireland Peace Park in Mesen (Messines) Belgium on 11 November 1998. We still, however, have a way to go.

Poppy Field on the Somme. Picture from the BBC.

In Flanders Fields – the iconic poem by John McCrae, MD, (1872 – 1918)  Canadian Army.

If ye break faith  with us who die,

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders fields’

I will not break faith and will proudly wear a red poppy on 11 November 2011 to honour all Claremen, all Munster men, all Irishmen who made the ultimate sacrifice.

Epilogue

Fr. Gleeson volunteered for a second time and returned to parish work in Dublin where he died in 1959. He is buried in Castlelough, Co Tipperary.

Sgt Major John Ring served for 5 years in France and repeatedly refused promotion to stay with his battalion. He retired to Limerick  and died in 1960. He is buried in Mount St Lawrence Cemetery.

References

Royal Munster Fusiliers Association

Royal Munster Fusiliers

http://www.limerickcity.ie/media/Media,3979,en.pdf

Liam Curran’s lecture – which also included an account of the Munsters in Gallipoli, notably those who landed from the steamer ‘River Clyde’ – is available on DVD from Clare Roots here

 

 

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