In 2014, on the 100th Anniversary of the start of World War 1 I went to see the fantastic poppy installation at the Tower of London. The imagery was very powerful and has remained with me ever since. It took a considerable length of time to see all 888,246 of these poppies, each one representing a life lost. The sheer scale of it, the blood-redness of it made a huge impression on me and anyone who saw it.
One of the poppies from that installation has been framed and hangs in my home.
In memory of those who never came home from that awful conflict, especially those from my own parish of Mevagh in County Donegal and the countless others who suffered horrendous injuries from which they never recovered.
Just the other week, I came upon a grave in Trinity Churchyard in Carrigart, my hometown, on which was recorded a World War 1 death. Amazing to think that I grew up in a parish in north Donegal and never heard about a young local man who by the age of 23 had received two bravery awards and had given his life in the 1st World War
This family headstone in the Trinity Churchyard in Carrigart, records the deaths of three sons, two of whom predeceased their parents. One of these had two bravery awards and was killed in France in 1917.
So what is the story of James Fisher? Who was he?
James was born in Umlagh outside Carrigart on December 10, 1893, the eldest son and third child of James Fisher and his wife Helen McIlwane.
The 1901 census tells us that parents James and Helen were living in Umlagh with their 7 children, Rachel aged 10, Margaret 9, James 7, Kezie 5, Alexander 4, John 2 and David 6 months and James’ brother John. The census record can be seen here.
By 1911, David, born on October 9, 1900, had died in 1905, Rachel and Margaret were no longer living at home, but the family had 5 new members. The household at that time consisted of father James, mother Helen and John senior as well as young James, now 17, Kezie who was 16, Alexander who was 14, John who was 12, and new arrivals Annie aged 9, Margery 7, Catherine Susan aged 5, Aaron who was 3 and another David, then only 2 months old, born on January 21, 1911. The 1911 census record for the family can be seen here.
James enlisted in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and then transferred to the Machine Gun Corps, specializing in, as the name suggests, machine gun duties. In 1916 Lance Corporal James Fisher was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, (the DCM,) for gallantry and the news was carried in The Derry Journal in September of that year.
For conspicuous gallantry in action. When his seniors had become casualties he took command of the gun team and pushed forward. Later he took his gun into a shell hole, caught the enemy in the open , and drove back their counter attack.’
The Distinguished Conduct Medal
James was a very brave young man as he was again recognized for gallantry winning another Distinguished Conduct Medal or ‘Bar’. The 207th Machine Gun Company was attached to the 3rd Australian Division between October 1916 and October 1917 and it was during this time that he won the second award. The citation for his second or ‘bar’ award of the DCM is as follows:
‘A/Corpl James Fisher D.C.M. For conspicuous gallantry on the night of 17/18 May 1917, when in charge of a Machine Gun in very exposed position on ?? the enemy attempted a raid of ? Gap at the same time heavily bombarding ? . No 18679 Corporal J Fisher at once opened fire on his S.O.S target ‘D’ Gap(?) and continued to fire although shells were bursting all around his position, and in spite of the fact that he received blows on the head and in the small of the back from shrapnel. Owing to the protection of his steel helmet and belt respectively, the only injuries received were bruises. His sub-section(?) officer tried to persuade him to be relieved at the gun, but he stuck to his post till the situation became normal, although in a dazed and deafened state. After the raid was over he wanted to stay with his gun, but was ordered by his officer to go to Section Headquarters for the night. Besides materially helping to repel the raid, the example set to the N.C.O.s and men of this Company will have a far reaching effect‘
This recommendation is recorded is the 9th Infantry Brigade, 3rd Australian Division on 22 May 1917.
However his luck ran out and Sergeant James Fisher, DCM bar Service No. 18679, was killed on September 25, 1917, probably at the Third Battle of Ypres. At this time it appears that the Machine Gun unit was no longer attached to the Australian forces. James probably died around Polderhoek Chateau Ridge on the morning of September 25, 1917, when the British were about to launch their own attack.
In a History and memoir of the 33rd Battalion of the Machine Gun Corps, the events of the fateful day are recorded;
‘By 12 midnight on the 24th-25th September …the 207th Machine Gun Company..was ordered to be in position by 1 a.m on the morning of the 25th, about 159 yards behind our front posts.. About 3.30 on the morning of the 25th, the enemy opened a bombardment of hitherto unparalleled intensity upon our front.
The 207th Company, which…was close behind our front line grouped in batteries, opened fire with sixteen guns at almost point blank range into the massed hordes of the enemy. The enemy was concentrated behind Polderhoek Chateau Ridge… Low flying enemy aeroplanes soon, however, detected (them) and both by machine gunning and directing artillery upon the 207th Machine Gun Company, the enemy inflicted very severe casualties amongst the gunners’
The body of James Fisher was never found, possibly blown to bits. He is commemorated on the Tyne Cot Memorial for the missing, as his grave is not known. He is one of 34,992 young men whose remains were never recovered and whose names are inscribed on this wall.
At the time of his death, James was owed £45/10/5 plus a war gratuity of £16/10/0 which sum was paid to his father on November 15 1919. Not much consolation for the terrible loss of a beloved son.
When researching this post, I made a table of the men from our parish of Mevagh, either born there or who had lived there at one time, and was astonished to find so many who had died between 1914 and 1918. This data has been extracted from the County Donegal Book of Honour, The Great War 1914-1918. These records are confined to deaths in the years 1914 to 1918 only and do not include, for example, a Mevagh man who is buried in Clontallagh who died in 1919.
The statistics are quite startling. In 1914, 2 men from our parish died, 3 died in 1915, 1 in 1916. In 1917, 9 died – 4 of them in a 4 week period alone (and one on the same day as James Fisher) – and 7 died in 1918.
It would be interesting to cross reference the data in the book with the civil records and census records now online and to include those who died from wounds after the 1918 cut off date. and to find their military records.
Sergeant James Fisher D.C.M (Bar) of Umlagh is the most decorated of these Mevagh men and he lost his life 100 years ago. He deserves to be remembered as a son of our parish, as indeed, do all of these men who lost their lives in that conflict.
There is, I understand, a commemorative plaque in the Carrigart Presbyterian Church. I must try to get a photo, if that is allowed.
THE PITY OF WAR!
County Donegal Book of Honour, The Great War 1914-1918.
Australian War Memorial at https:/www.awm.gov.au/collection/R1590453
Fanad Head Lighthouse guarding the entrance to Lough Swilly, County Donegal, Ireland. (Thesilvervoice).
Fanad Head lighthouse features regularly on social media because of its splendid location. Whilst it is a major tourist attraction, it has also featured in some dreadful tragedies over the years. One such was the loss of the Laurentic on this day in 1917.
The Laurentic was an ocean-going liner of the White Star Line and,like their other world famous ship the Titanic, was built at Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast. Launched in 1908 she was considered a ‘magnificent ship’ at 570 feet long and she could ‘do’ speed! She plied the Atlantic operating a regular service between Liverpool and Canada, sometimes calling in New York. In August 1914 before the declaration of World War 1, she was filled with refugees fleeing the European situation. In September of that year she was commissioned as a troop carrier for the Canadian Expeditionary Force, and subsequently saw service in Sierra Leone, Hong Kong and Singapore.
On 23 January 1917 she departed Liverpool for Halifax, Nova Scotia, with about 479 people on board. In addition she was carrying a cargo of 3,211 gold bars for the purpose of purchasing munitions in USA and Canada for the war effort.
On 25 January she made an unscheduled stop in Lough Swilly at Buncrana to disembark a number of men who had contracted Yellow Fever and needed medical attention. While there, it was reported that the officers went ashore to enjoy a meal at the Lough Swilly Hotel and they were all back on board again by about 5 pm to set sail across the Atlantic. They headed out of Lough Swilly and no doubt Fanad Head lighthouse was one of the last things they saw. The weather was bitterly cold at -13c (9f) with blizzard conditions.
Less than an hour after departing Buncrana, the Laurentic struck two German mines in quick succession. The engine room was disabled, power and pumps were rendered useless and the ship listed. Many were killed. In pitch darkness the life boats were launched with some difficulty due to the list. The Laurentic quickly sank in 40 metres of water. Many had been injured as a result of the blasts and those who made the lifeboats rowed for Fanad Head. Newspaper reports stated that many were found “frozen to death in the lifeboats, hands frozen onto oars”. Buncrana’s Lough Swilly Hotel became a temporary morgue, but many bodies continued to be washed ashore for a number of weeks.
71 were interred at St. Maura’s Graveyard in Fahan, 2 at Cockhill in Buncrana, 1 in Arklow, 1 in Orkney and Memorials to those who died are at various locations including Plymouth in Devon, Chatham in Kent. The wreck that lies in 40 metres of water off Fanad Head is an official War grave site.
And what of the 3,211 gold bars? Between 1917 and 1924 the Royal Navy recovered all but 25 of them. In 1934, 3 more were discovered, so 22 remain undiscovered.
At Downings pier in north Donegal, near my home village, is one of the guns from the Laurentic, recovered by the Downings Diving team and presented to them by the owners of the wreck.
A gun recovered from the wreck of the Laurentic, sited at Downings Pier in County Donegal. (Thesilvervoice)
Next to the gun is a handsome memorial to the 354 men who lost their lives on that bitterly cold January evening, 100 years ago this very evening.
A memorial cannot portray the true horror that unfolded on that January evening, just off Fanad Head. But next time I pass it by, I will recall those who “froze to death, their hands frozen onto the oars”.
Just a year ago I visited the art installation at the Tower of London which commemorated the centenary of the beginning of the First World War. The installation Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red was made of ceramic poppies, one for each of the 888,246 men who perished in the British Army at that time. Tens of thousands of those who died were Irishmen.
Poppies flow from a window high above the moat
Tower of London at night
Seas of Red fill the Tower Moat
Poppies flow from the window – by night
Contrary to popular belief, Armistice Day continued to be observed in Ireland in the years and decades after the 1916 Rising. In 1926 for example an estimated 40,000 people turned out in Dublin in remembrance of fallen relatives and friends.
An estimated 40,000 attend Armistice Day commemorations in Dublin 1926
I was among the lucky ones who got to buy one of the ceramic poppies from the Tower of London installation. It is now beautifully framed and stands in sorrowful remembrance of the pity of war.
I have just returned from a short trip to London, England,where we lived for almost two decades before returning to Ireland. London is a city that I love and I look forward to each return visit. This year marks the centenary of the start of the First World War which has been commemorated in the most astonishing way at the historic Tower of London.
The ‘Weeping Window’ the source of the wave of poppies that will fill the moat
Some decades ago, when I worked in the banking area in the City of London, summer lunchtime would be spent sitting on the grass looking down at the Tower and enjoying the sunshine. We happily munched on our ham and mustard or cheese and pickle sandwiches while enjoying the historic view and discussing the gruesome executions that took place just yards from where we dined! The Tower itself dates back to the 11th century, and is one of London’s most visited tourist attractions, housing the Crown Jewels, and protected by the colourful Beefeater Guards and those fearsome Ravens!
My visit this week was very poignant as I revisited the area I know so well, for the entire scene has been transformed to mark the centenary of the First World War. Ceramic Artist Paul Cummins has created 888,246 poppies and stage designer Tom Piper planned the layout of this art installation, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red. Beautifully conceived with a flow of poppies coming from a ‘weeping window’ on the tower, and it has been slowly spreading in a wave, a river of poppies. Planting of the poppies(on wire stems) by volunteers began in July and has continued each day since then. At 11 am on 11 November the last poppy will be planted.
888,246 is the number of British army fatalities in World War 1. Tens of thousands of Irish men volunteered (we did not have conscription in Ireland) to serve in this army, for we were then part of Britain and tens of thousands of Irish men died. Up to 40,000 (the exact number is not definitively known) of these poppies represent Irish men – my countrymen – fathers, brothers, sons, cousins, uncles, nephews, who never came home from that war. They were from every County in Ireland from Donegal to Cork, from Dublin to Galway, from Sligo to Waterford to Kerry. Fathers, brothers, sons, cousins, uncles, nephews who died horrible deaths in muck filled trenches – often blown to bits, blasted to smithereens, dismembered, disembowelled, decapitated; many lay screaming in their last agony, many lay crying for their mothers or their wives in excruciating pain as the life drained from them; many gasped for air as their mustard gassed lungs turned into acid that burned them alive on the inside; many lay in mud filled trenches,with limbs missing and slowly bled to death, perhaps buried under dead comrades; many were vaporized and no trace of them was ever found.
For each of these, and those from whatever country that populated the British Military forces Scotland, England,Wales,Ireland, India,New Zealand, Australia, Canada and more,- whether obliterated or who died a slow tortuous death – a poppy has been planted in the great moat of this iconic palace.
4 million people will visit to see them and yesterday I was one of them. An astonishing number of people wept as they realized that each one represents a human being. The silence from such a vast crowd was very surprising.
These are the snaps of my visit in both daylight and after dark. I add my silence to theirs.
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.
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 John McCrae
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.
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 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. 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.
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.
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.
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.