County Wexford and the Great War: remembering the war dead

Dr. Joseph Quinn

School of History
University College Dublin

On the 23rd of June, 2013, a solemn ceremony of ecumenical dedication and remembrance was held at Redmond Square in Wexford town. The result of a collaboration between the Wexford Borough Council and the Royal British Legion, this ceremony would bring together clergy of the Church of Ireland and the Roman Catholic faith, local political representatives led by Minister, Brendan Howlin T.D., and ex-service personnel organisations of the Defence Forces and the British armed forces, led by Wexford native, Major General The O’Morchoe, then President of the Royal British Legion – Republic of Ireland branch. This solemn service and wreath laying would be dedicated to the memory of all Wexfordmen who ‘sacrificed their lives in defence of freedom’ in the Great War of 1914-1918.1 In more ways than one, this service of remembrance set the tone for the series of First World War centenary commemorations that would be held over the following four years, not only in the county of Wexford, but across the entire island. Throughout this crucially important process, which was concluded by the recent historic state commemorations of the 1918 Armistice, it would not be lost on any one of the participants that the convening of such events, at both a national and a local level, would have been unthinkable in previous times.

At the recent state commemoration of the 1918 Armistice at Glasnevin Cemetery, on 11 November, 2018, President Michael D. Higgins reflected:

For many years, there was an uncertainty, even a reticence, to recognise the human cost and reality of the First World War and those who fought and died in it. In our public history, the reticence was reflected by a form of official amnesia that left a blank space in our public memory.2

There is something profound to be noted in the custom of remembrance, something evocative and undeniably spiritual which transcends mere ceremony and moves beyond what we can comprehend in this life. It is a quality that connects us with a world which lies beyond our knowledge and experience: the world of those who have died. November is, for many cultures around the world, a month of mourning, of prayer and of remembrance. It is sadly poignant that the ‘war to end all wars’ reached its bloody climax on 11th November, 1918, just a century ago. This catastrophic conflict claimed over 20 million lives, including the lives of an estimated 30,000 Irishmen and women3, many of whom joined either in defence of Home Rule nationalist aspirations of autonomy, or in solidarity with the cause of unionism and the sacred bond with Britain and her fragile empire. Some joined for more personal motives, ranging from the moral urge to seek justice for the violation of ‘little Belgium’ and right the wrongs of ‘Prussianism’, to the simple desire to avail of the potential opportunities that war on such a vast scale might bring – excitement, employment, escape. In examining the many factors that would propel thousands of young Irishmen into the dark abyss of the Great War, David Fitzpatrick argues that social pressures to enlist, reflected by high levels of voluntary recruits who joined together in groups from sports and social clubs, along with common fraternities throughout Ireland, contributed to what he labels ‘the logic of collective sacrifice’, illustrated by the ‘pals’ battalions recruited from the ranks of the British and Irish working classes.4

The men from Wexford who enlisted in the British army were influenced by the wider societal trends which influenced recruiting patterns around Ireland in 1914. In her observance of wartime recruiting patterns at a local level, Wexford historian Pauline Codd deduced from her analysis of British Legion records on local ex-servicemen that the agricultural orientation of society was the key factor affecting recruiting in the county. From her examination of lists of veterans compiled by the British Legion in Enniscorthy and district in 1932, Codd showed that 86 percent of ex-soldiers in the area were occupied as labourers, with 91 percent of these labourers coming from Enniscorthy town itself, suggesting that they were largely engaged in non-agricultural employment. In addition, her examination of war casualties among Wexford soldiers serving with the Irish regiments illustrated that some 56 percent of the war dead from the Enniscorthy and district area were from the Enniscorthy Urban District. Codd underlines the very striking fact that the number of fallen Enniscorthy townsmen was disproportionate in the extreme if one considers that the male population in the Enniscorthy Rural District would have been five times that of the Urban district. These facts, taken in conjunction with the oral evidence of local eyewitnesses, seem to indicate that many of the recruits from Wexford were poor labourers or unemployed young men from the towns who, ostensibly, had little to lose from taking the King’s shilling. Compared with their counterparts from the countryside, who obviously had more to lose, it appears that the poor working townsmen of County Wexford were enticed into British uniform by economic motives, along with the prospect of adventure and, quite likely, a chance to escape their poverty-ridden circumstances.5

Such were the likely motives of the men of Wexford who enlisted in the British forces from 1914 until war’s conclusion; over 860 of them would never see their native county again, and almost all were forgotten by the Ireland they had left behind. They would live on only in the anguished hearts of their loved ones, virtually ceasing to exist when those hearts too, in time, stopped beating. What little public memory remained of those vanished men of Wexford in the tense and unforgiving atmosphere of post-war Ireland was encapsulated by the monument to Major Willie Redmond that was erected in The William Redmond Memorial Park in Wexford town. Opened on 31 May, 1931, the memorial statue was unveiled by a delegation of old Home Rule nationalists who had been discarded in the 1918 General Election. Headed by Major General Sir William Bernard Hickie, the former commander of the 16th Irish Division, in which Redmond and his fellow Wexfordmen had served. The dignitaries included Major Redmond’s nephew, William Archer Redmond T.D., son of another forgotten Irishman who became an indirect casualty of that war, and Redmond’s friend and party colleague, Captain Stephen Gwynn. The speeches delivered on that Sunday by Hickie and Gwynn paid tribute to Redmond and his many achievements as a politician, statesman and a soldier, along with the 200,000 Irish who had fought in the war. Nonetheless, their rhetoric betrayed an agonising reality; all that Redmond and his fellow Irish comrades-in-arms had fought and died for had been eclipsed by the deeds of other Irish soldiers “who lost their lives serving for Ireland according to the lights in them”.6 Redmond’s brother, John Redmond, the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, had died of a sudden illness in March 1918 and died a broken man. As the undisputed leader of nationalist Ireland, he had committed his party, his movement and his country to the support of Britain’s war, publicly backing recruitment for the British army, touring Ireland at the side of the Lord Lieutenant to encourage military recruiting and taking his stand beside the King George V and Queen Mary at military reviews. This was a significant departure from the line that had been espoused by the IPP until 1914, and ran counter to the anti-Army feelings that had been popular in Ireland, particularly during the time of the Boer War.7 Like most Irishmen who followed their lead, the memory of both Redmonds was fatally tainted by their connection with wartime recruiting drives, Britain’s war effort and with the British army itself. Writing in the 1990s, Willie Redmond’s biographer, Terence Denman, concluded that he, like all the other nationalist Irishmen who fought and died in the Great War, had been ‘pushed to the margins of Irish history”.8

What also followed in the post-war period was a forgetting, not just of the dead, but of the living. The silent ghosts from the twenty-six southern Irish counties, which entered the long state of amnesia in the decades to come, were accompanied in their lonely sojourn by almost 100,000 Irish veterans of the war who returned home. Their presence was very much felt after independence. Keith Jeffery points to the 20,000 veterans who paraded past 50,000 onlookers in Dublin on Armistice Day, 1924, and that the Royal British Legion sold half a million poppies in the city on that day, indicating the strength of remembrance and popular memory of the war in the early years of the state.9 However, the economic fate of veterans left much to be desired, and this was, unfortunately, also to be the case in Wexford. Diminished job prospects at home, according to Kevin Myers, furthered a trend of overseas migration among Irish ex-servicemen, reducing the number of Irish veterans who could participate in Irish life, and, in time, convey the stories of their wartime experiences. When he commenced work on gathering oral histories of the remaining elderly veterans in the late 1970’s, Myers also observed that many of them were afraid to speak out for fear of reprisal from the IRA; he encountered this same muteness among even Protestant schools and institutions which had lost thousands of their graduates killed in the war, and was stunned by their conformity with a ‘nationalist orthodoxy of silence’.10

The post-war amnesia that gripped Ireland also cloaked the memory of the soldiers of the Royal Irish Regiment, the cap badge of which was worn by some 212 sons of Wexford at the moment they perished in battle, all of whom are listed in the Wexford Great War Dead database.11 Formed in 1684 by the Earl of Granard, the regiment later became known as the Royal Regiment of Ireland.12. This unit was the oldest of the Irish regiments in the British army and, at the time of the Great War, was recruited from the counties of Kilkenny, Tipperary, Waterford and Wexford, with its regimental depot located in Clonmel. The regiment’s 2nd Battalion was among the first Irish battalions to enter the fray during the early clashes between British Expeditionary Force (B.E.F.) troops and the Imperial German Army in late August 1914 near the Belgian city of Mons, just a short distance from Namur where the Royal Irish Regiment fought one of their first engagements in 1695. The battalion played a role in the episode, famously known as the story of the ‘Angel of Mons’, which was largely inspired by Quartermaster Sergeant Thomas Fitzpatrick, from Enniscorthy. The thirty-five-year-old Fitzpatrick, who joined the army at eighteen and was trained only for logistics and support, led 50 soldiers from A Company of the 2nd Royal Irish during a famous engagement at La Bascule on 23rd August 1914; this small band of Irishmen repelled repeated assaults from waves of troops of the German 17th Division without surrender or retreat. By the end of that bloody day, just 17 members of Fitzpatrick’s small band were left alive.13 Just two months later, on 19th October, the 2nd Royal Irish were practically annihilated throughout the course of a disastrous attempt to take and hold the town of Le Pilly in northern France. Among the Wexfordmen who perished in the assault on the town was Private Michael Whelan from Rathaspick, son of John and Elizabeth Whelan, whose name is inscribed on the Le Touret Monument in Pas de Calais; like the overwhelming majority of the 177 men of the regiment who died in the battle, Private Whelan has no known grave.14 Another casualty of the attack was Lance Corporal John Brien, from John Street, Wexford, a thirty-five-year-old veteran of the Boer War who had come through that conflict without a scratch and had served several tours of India during his pre-war military career. He went into the Special Reserve and would be immediately called up to fight when war broke out in August 1914, fighting alongside his own brother in the 2nd Royal Irish during the assault on Le Pilly. His family, particularly his wife, Nellie, would encounter eight months of uncertainty after he was first reported missing, with confirmation of his death finally reaching them in June 1915, by which time, according to Ronan McGreevy, ‘his three brothers and four nephews were still in the firing line’.15

According to the WGWD database, there are at least 31 Wexfordmen buried beneath a Turkish sky who would serve in Irish, English, Welsh, Australian and New Zealand infantry battalions. The most famous of these is Lance-Sergeant William Stephen Kenealy, VC, who would become Wexford’s first Victoria Cross recipient of the Great War. On 25th April, 1915, he partook in the landings at Cape Helles on the tip of the Gallipoli Peninsula as part of 1st Battalion, the Lancashire Fusiliers. Much of his battalion, including his company, was decimated by fire from Turkish machine guns, but the survivors managed to scramble up the cliffs, cut their way through the barbed wire and seize the enemy position. On seeing his company pinned down before the unbroken barbed wire and sustaining heavy losses, Kenealy volunteered to crawl through the wire and attempt to cut it. Kenealy, along with his superior officer and a sergeant, were singled out for their role in leading the surviving landing party up the cliff and breaking through the Turkish defences.16 Kenealy's father had also been in the army, serving as a colour sergeant in the Royal Irish Regiment. His family had emigrated to Britain, but while crossing over the Irish Sea on S.S. Slavenia, the ship sank and the family had to be rescued. The family settled in Wigan and William immediately went to work in the mines at just 13 years of age. He later enlisted in the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers and was serving with the battalion in India when the war broke out. In 1915, Kenealy left India for the Dardinelles, and was appointed company runner, delivering key messages between positions under enemy fire. Promoted to Lance Sergeant for his actions during the landings at Cape Helles, he would suffer fatal wounds two months later, at Gully Ravine, on the 28th June 1915. His commanding officer refered to him as “the bravest soldier in the Lancashire Fusiliers”. Despite having a grave marker, there is evidence that he may have been evacuated from the Gallipoli penisula, surviving until September and dying of his wounds in a military hospital in Malta.17

In forgetting Wexford’s dead of the Great War, as with their fallen comrades-in-arms from other counties, the state was often forgetting the brave deeds of heroic figures who, in the heat of battle, sacrificed their lives for the sake of others. When people are told of a Jesuit chaplain by the surname Doyle who died on the Western Front, those who are knowledgeable enough will immediately point to Father Willie Doyle, the famous Jesuit chaplain from Dublin. Fewer people who are versed in Irish involvement in the war have heard of the other Irish Jesuit chaplain, with exactly the same surname, who also perished in the line of duty. Father Denis Doyle, one of thirty-six Doyles from Wexford who never returned home, was attached to 2nd Battalion, the Leinster Regiment, who were fighting in the Somme sector in August 1916. On 16 August, Father Doyle insisted on accompanying the battalion during their assault on the German positions so that he could administer the last rites to wounded and dying troops. During the assault, advancing units of the Leinsters were hit by an artillery barrage, and Doyle’s body was very badly lacerated by burning shrapnel. He would be evacuated from the battlefield, but succumbed to his wounds the next day with another chaplain by his side. He was the third Irish Jesuit chaplain to die in the war.18 He is also one of ten sons of Wexford known to have died in the Somme Campaign, which lasted from July until November 1918, and claimed the lives of some 3,500 Irishmen who were among 420,000 Allied casualties.19

However, the most famous Wexfordman to die in the war was none other than Major Willie Redmond. He had been a somewhat reluctant recruit, regarding his age as a barrier to enlistment, but when the first Zeppelin raid occurred in England, killing innocent civilians including women and children, he was finally persuaded to enlist, joining his party colleague and friend, Stephen Gwynn, as a candidate for officer training. During a recruiting meeting in Cork, in November 1914, he declared from the platform: “I won’t say to you, but come with me”. After a long period of training, he would deploy to France as a company commander of the 6th Battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment with the 16th Irish Division in December 1915. At the age of fifty-four, and with the rank of Captain, he was certainly among the oldest British army company commanders on the Western Front, but excelled as an officer in the field, being mentioned in dispatches and receiving a promotion to the rank of Major.20 It was in Flanders fields that Major Redmond would meet his end, but not in the impersonal brutal manner in which other Irish soldiers had died. On 7 June, 1917, the first day of the Battle of Messines, the fifty-six-year-old led his men in the 6th Royal Irish out of the forward trenches to cries of “Up the County Clare”. Within moments, he received bullet wounds to the wrist and legs, and was famously rescued from the battlefield by Private John Meeke, a nineteen-year-old Ulster Protestant stretcher-bearer of the 11th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, who was serving with the 36th Ulster Division. Meeke’s heroism in attending to the wounded Redmond, while himself receiving shrapnel injuries in the midst of battle, has become a legendary symbol of unity and comradeship between unionists and nationalists. Although Redmond’s wounds were not life threatening, the rigours of his age are believed to have left him susceptible to the toxic shock to which he apparently succumbed in the field dressing station where he was brought. Death came to him as mercy; he confessed his own desire to die in battle since he was disillusioned with the trajectory which nationalist Ireland had taken since the 1916 Rising. However, his death profoundly affected public opinion in Ireland and came as a huge blow to his brother and party leader, John Redmond. Willie Redmond’s grave, originally located at the feet of a Statue of Our Lady of Lourdes in a grotto beside the convent at Locre, became a place of pilgrimage for nationalist veterans of the 16th Irish Division. It was moved many times, and later fell into disrepair, but now lies as a solitary grave in the old hospice cemetery. Taoiseach Enda Kenny and British Prime Minister, David Cameron, paid tribute to the fallen soldier and Irish MP in December 2013, an historic moment which signified unity between the two islands.21

Many names listed in the cadre of fallen Wexfordmen would also play their tragic part in Operation Michael, the last great German Offensive of the First World War, which occurred in March 1918, and is better known as the “Ludendorff Offensive”. This battle proved to be a sad and bloody finale for the men of the 16th Irish Division, a formation that had seen 50,000 soldiers serve in its ranks during the war, of whom 27,000 were casualties and 8,000 had been killed.22 However, the greatest losses the division suffered during the war in a single campaign were inflicted throughout the so-called Kaiserschlacht. The reason for this lay in the fact that the division was sandwiched between the British Third and Fifth armies in static positions, and also lay at the schwerpunkt, or epicentre of the German attack. On 21 March, 1918, the opening day of the offensive, the British forward trenches were subjected to the most powerful artillery barrages of the war, with 11,000 German guns and trench mortars, followed by a drenching of poison gas. Five German infantry divisions fell upon the 16th Irish Division, which lost almost 600 dead during that initial assault. During the thirteen days of the fighting retreat in which the 16th Division would participate, it lost 7,149 soldiers from its ranks, of which 1,000 were men killed in action. Ten days after the offensive commenced, an officer serving with the 16th wrote in his diary: “The division has ceased to exist. Wiped off the map. They took the Boche attack full smack, the first day they were in the trenches.”23 In the epicentre of the epicentre were two battalions of the Royal Irish Regiment, as well as several other Irish and British regiments who held Wexford soldiers within their ranks. This included 7th Battalion, Royal Irish Regiment, which started the battle that morning of March 21st with 650 troops of all ranks and had 41 men left standing by 7pm that same evening.24 It also includes the famed 2nd Royal Irish Regiment, already wiped out on several occasions during the course of the war, and practically annihilated yet again in the proceedings of that man-made apocalypse which, as Ronan McGreevy notes, would take away those men that John Redmond had envisioned would form the new National army of the new Home Rule Dominion in southern Ireland after the war.25

It is worth noting that Wexford ex-servicemen continued to play a role in the life of the state and, indeed, a number of them were present at, or played a direct role in the most defining moments of the history of independent Ireland. One example is Lieutenant John Joseph Smith, a National Army officer who had served with the British army in the Great War. Smith, who hailed from Enniscorthy, was the motorcyclist leading the armed motorcade during the ambush at Beal na Blath, West Cork, in August 1922, and was twice wounded by anti-Treaty gunfire during the engagement. Together with another ex-serviceman of the wartime British army, the Somme veteran and Military Cross winner, Major General Emmet Dalton, Smith was a witness to the tragic final moments of his supreme commander, Michael Collins.26 Another was a South Staffordshire Regiment officer named William Murphy, who would fight at Loos, the Somme, Ypres and in Italy throughout the entire war, ending his British military career with the award of Distinguished Service Order and the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. Murphy became a General in the National army, and was commander of all Free State forces in County Kerry during the Irish Civil War. He was the founder of the Special Branch of An Garda Siochana, and was also responsible for organising two auxiliary forces during the Emergency, the Local Defence Force and the Local Security Force. He died in Bray in 1975 and was given a state funeral.27 There were countless other officers and men of the contingent of Irishmen and women who served in the British forces, especially from Wexford, who returned to their lives at home, and played a very valuable role in shaping the free Ireland that they would inherit. However, most could not and would not bring themselves to talk or think about the war that had shaped them, and had taken the lives of their comrades and countrymen. Ireland’s war dead were, indeed, pushed to the margins of Irish nationalist society, and of Irish memory, as Denman would have it.

In November 2018, the honourable members of Wexford County Council, the staff of Wexford County Library, together with local scholars, historians and researchers, along with the people of County Wexford, can rightly and justifiably refute Denman’s claim, arguing that they have risen bravely, ably and imaginatively to all the challenges presented in this highly contentious era of centennial commemorations. Wexford has reclaimed the spirits of her lost sons whose bodies lie, like Redmond’s, embalmed in the sticky grey clay of Flanders and Picardy, or in the chalky soil of Greece, the Dardanelles and Palestine, or in the dry barren earth of Iraq and Egypt. There is surely an example in the Wexford Great War Dead Project, which many other counties have sadly not emulated during the past four years, projects that would have helped to resurrect the remainder of the war dead of our island. However, one must pay tribute to the stellar examples created by other local authorities and county libraries, such as the ‘Longford at War’ online database28, which was commissioned by the Longford County Library, Archives and Heritage Services, and the ‘Clare Men and Women in the Great War 1914-1918’ project29, sponsored by Clare County Library, both of which are impressive online database studies of local men who fought and died in the British and Allied forces. It is a triumph for public history on this island, and for First World War studies generally, that Wexford County Library and Archives have joined this endeavour, contributing a remarkable and thorough study of Wexford’s war dead, one which will be a model for future projects of this kind. Indeed, the work of First World War researchers on this island has only just begun.

In the equally challenging second phase of the centenary commemorations that follow from the formal conclusion of the First World War commemorations programme, we should continue to remind ourselves how this generation of doomed youth were forced to endure not one, but two agonising deaths in the Ireland that emerged from the hubris of a decade of war, revolution and civil conflict. Through this noble gesture, the wonderful team behind this inspiring project have introduced us to each and every fallen Wexford soldier who served in the British army and, in so doing, have brought an end to their sad exile and may well have helped to bring their lonely tortured souls to rest in the peace of their home county.

1 The following is taken from the National Library of Ireland (NLI). NLI 14A 294, ‘Ecumenical Dedication Ceremony of Remembrance and Wreath laying’ (Order of Service Booklet), Wexford Borough Council & The Royal British Legion of Wexford, June 2013.

2 Address of the President Elect of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, at the State Centenary Commemoration service for Armistice Day, 2018, Glasnevin Cemetery, 11 November 2018.

3 “Historian lists almost 30,000 Irishmen who died in WW1”, The Irish Times, 11 November 2017; for a more detailed assessment of Irish war casualties in the First World War see Tom Burnell, 26 County Casualties of the Great War, Vols. I-XXI (Scotts Valley: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2017).

4 David Fitzpatrick, ‘The logic of collective sacrifice: Ireland and the British army’ in Historical Journal, Vol. 8, No. 4 (1995), pp. 1017-1030

5 Pauline Codd, ‘Recruiting and responses to the war in Wexford’ in David Fitzpatrick (ed.) Ireland and the First World War (Dublin: Lilliput Press & Trinity History Workshop, 1988), pp. 15-16.

6 Terence Denman, A Lonely Grave: the Life and Death of William Redmond (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1995), pp. 134-36.

7 Terence Denman, Ireland’s Unknown Soldiers: The 16th (Irish) Division in the Great War, 1914-1918 (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1992), pp. 30-31.

8 Denman, A Lonely Grave, p. 36.

9 Keith Jeffery, Ireland and the Great War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 93.

10 Kevin Myers, Ireland’s Great War (Dublin: Lilliput Press, 2014), pp. 16-17.

11 This information was taken from the Finalised WW1 List (18/10/2018) datasheet, compiled by Susan Kelly of the Wexford Great War Dead Project.

12 Following the Siege of Namur in 1695,-"The Royal Irish Regiment". Archived from the original on 10 January 2006. Retrieved 27th November, 2018.

13 Ronan McGreevy, Wherever the firing line extends: Ireland and the Western Front (Dublin: The History Press, 2016), p. 51-4.

14 Private Michael Whelan, 8917, Wexford Great War Dead (WGWD) database: [last accessed 21/11/2018]

15 McGreevy, Wherever the firing line extends, p. 83.

16 William Stephen Kenealy VC, 1809, Wexford Great War Dead (WGWD) database: [last accessed 21/11/2018]

17 "THE BRAVEST MAN IN THE LANCASHIRE FUSILIERS" 25th April 1815 - 28th June 1915, Imperial War Museum (IWM) ‘Lives of the First World War’:

18 Tom Burnell & Margaret Gilbert, The Wexford War Dead: a history of the casualties of the World Wars (Dublin: Nonsuch Publishing, 2009), pp. 101-2.

19 Timothy Bowman, ‘The Irish at the Somme’, History Ireland, Vol 4., No. 4 (Winter 1996).

20 Denman, Ireland’s Unknown Soldiers, p. 107.

21 McGreevy, Wherever the firing line extends, pp. 262-69.

22 Brendan O’ Shea, ‘The last days of the 16th (Irish) Division’, 1918: Empires Fall, Nations Rise supplement, The Irish Times, 24 April 2018.

23 Ronan McGreevy, ‘“The division has ceased to exist” – An Irishman’s Diary on the German Spring Offensive’, The Irish Times, 20 March 2018.

24 O’ Shea, ‘The last days of the 16th (Irish) Division’, The Irish Times, 24 April 2018.

25 McGreevy, ‘“The division has ceased to exist”, The Irish Times, 20 March 2018.

26 Sean Boyne, Emmet Dalton: Somme Soldier, Irish General, Film Pioneer (Newbridge: Merrion Press, 2014), p. 226.

27 Neil Richardson, A coward if I return, a hero if I fall: Stories of Irishmen in World War I (Dublin: The O’Brien Press, 2010), p. 333.

29 Clare Men and Women in the Great War 1914-1918:…