This week marks the centenary of the Armistice that eventually brought an end to the Great War (1914-1918). It came into effect at 11 am on November 11, 1918 now famously remembered as the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.
It was one of the deadliest conflicts in human history with some 16 million people losing their lives and around 20 million people being injured. The fighting was furious and the conflict unleashed unspeakable human misery all across Europe and farther afield. Though described at the time as the “war to end all wars”, human history since has shown that not to be the case.
It is fitting to pause at the centenary and reflect on the wastefulness of war and violence and the role of Irishmen in the Great War. Some 200,000 Irishmen served in the British army during the war and an estimated 49,435 were killed.
Fr Willie Doyle was a Dublin-born Jesuit priest who volunteered to act as a chaplain to the Catholic soldiers. His wartime letters paint a vivid picture of the experiences of the young men of Europe as they fought together and died together in the muddy trenches. In a letter dated April 1, 1916 he writes: “A large mound caught my eye. Four pairs of feet were sticking out, one a German judging by his boots, and three Frenchmen – friend and foe are sleeping their long last sleep in peace together.
“They were decently covered compared with the next I saw; a handful of earth covered the wasted body, but the legs and arms and head were exposed to view. He seemed quite a young lad with fair, almost golden, hair. ‘An unknown soldier’ was all the rough wooden cross over him told me about him; but I thought of the sorrowing mother, far away, thinking of her boy who was ‘missing’ and hoping against hope that he might one day come back.
“Thank God, Heaven one day will reunite them both. I found a shovel near at hand and after a couple of hours’ stiff work was able to cover the bodies decently, so that on earth at least thy may rest in peace,” he added.
It’s a moving account of the dignity that priests like Fr Doyle tried to bring to the bloody battlefields. And, like the heroic Irishmen who fought in the Great War, it’s a story that has gone unacknowledged in Irish history for too long.
Centuries of British misrule in Ireland long meant that the Irish role in what was seen as Britain’s war was not seen as something worth commemorating. Many servicemen returned and were treated appallingly so decisively had the mood shifted in the time that they were away.
Just weeks after Fr Doyle wrote this letter, the Easter Rising had happened and the violent British response to this rebellion poisoned attitudes further to the British presence in Ireland. The men who returned from Flanders Fields having liberated Europe from the spectre of tyranny found themselves cold-shouldered in their own country.
Recent decades have seen attempts to right this historic wrong. There has been a greater appreciation that Ireland and the relationship with our nearest neighbour is a complex one with sometimes competing and overlapping loyalties.
Michael Kelly is co-author of a new book with Austen Ivereigh ‘How to Defend the Faith – Without Raising Your Voice’. It is available from Columba Books.