This is a story based on my great-grandfather, William Walsh. It covers the battles the Royal Dublin Fusiliers fought in the first half of 1915. Astonishingly, the Battalion (at full strength 1027 officers and men) suffered just under 1,500 casualties from 24 April – 24 May 1915. Just 17, William arrives in France in early 1915 as both sides begin to dig in. I wrote this story in November 2018 to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War. This month marks 105 years since the events at Mousetrap Farm. All the names and information presented herein are as accurate as possible, drawing on the Battalion War Diary and surviving first-hand accounts. Only the deeds of William and most of the other characters are fictional.
With a sharp crack, the flare burst into seven or eight small pieces, each drifting to Earth, twirling, burning and hissing in the cold night air. I was transfixed by the beauty of it. It was as if time had stopped. I felt such delight, that I had created this beautiful moment, that I was finally making my mark on the world. I tried to picture my beautiful, smiling Mother, she would have been so proud of me. The smoke from the sharp smell of the charge cut through the cold night air and caught the back of my throat. It ripped my thoughts clear. The flickering light picked out some shapes close to the ground in front of the farm, their shadows lengthening alarmingly as the flare fell. I could not tell if they were moving. As I peered into the gloom, I felt an intense pain in my right hand and all down my arm. Suddenly I didn’t feel so purposeful; I was terrified. I screamed and dropped the flare pistol, it disappeared into the water at the bottom of the trench. I sank to my knees.
“Jesus, I’ve been shot.” I whimpered as tears filled my eyes and urgent figures gathered around me.
I would say that the magic of my childhood died with my Mother when I was seven. My Father quickly remarried, and being an unwelcome reminder, I went to live with my Grandparents in Dunlavin in County Wicklow until I was old enough to work. Now, I was nearly seventeen and finding that good, regular work in Dublin was very scarce. There was the Army. Home Rule was coming, but so was a great war. Joining the Army would help me to find some structure and purpose, to just belong. It would be a great adventure and I would be getting paid for it. I knew I could get a job as a Porter with my Dad at Gilbys if I needed it when I came back. The owners of one of Dublin’s main distributors of alcohol were brothers who were veterans of the Boer War themselves and made it clear at every opportunity that the British Army had made men of them and that they would always try and help fellow ex-service men. My Dad respected them a lot. That was enough for me. I told no one in my family of my intention, but many of my friends felt the same. I cheerfully told the recruiting Sarjeant on that bright sunny Dublin morning that I was eighteen. I thought that was a realistic stretch of the truth. The Regiment’s other Battalion were still in India, and after basic training, I was sent with my battalion, the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers, to Gravesend. Not to fight in France as I had hoped, but to defend England. They really thought the Kaiser was going to sail up the Thames.
After two weeks in Gravesend, we got word that our boys had taken a pasting in Northern France. They had been pushed back by the might of the German army, cut down as they attempted to pull back. This small professional army was in tatters and desperately needed reinforcements. Our battalion, nicknamed the Old Toughs, was the last of the regulars to be sent to France. Our orders were to form a line to screen the retreat and stop the German advance. We were to be ready to move in a few hours’ notice, but I was to stay. The minimum age for overseas service was nineteen. I begged for special permission to go, like many I thought the War would be over by Christmas. I feared for some of my mates who were going out there and still boys themselves, but the British Army were adamant I could not join my battalion until New Year 1915 – when I had told them that I would be turning nineteen. I was sent back to Dublin to continue training until then.
As 1915 began, I was finally given my papers to go to France. Some of our boys who were home for a few days on leave said they would escort my draft of twenty or so. They said that the Old Toughs had not swept the German Army aside as hoped, that it was hard fighting and the Hun was a worthy opponent. Relived, I said my goodbyes. Back to Gravesend, to Calais and on to Poperinghe by cattle truck. It seemed to get colder with every mile. The smiles became thinner, the laughs became shorter as we marched the last of the way in silence, we began to pass some newly dug artillery positions.
There was still snow on the ground as I joined my mates at last, digging plots in the new Prowse Point cemetery. I knew how to dig; I had dug latrines, foxholes gun-pits and trenches for the last six months in Phoenix Park, but never graves. It was great to see my friends again, but I had some trouble recognising them. They all looked like old men, stooped and gentle in their movements, as if they were slightly apart from the rest of the world. The colour seemed to have drained from them and the landscape around. A heavy silence seemed to surround each of them.
The Serjeant in charge of the work detail gave me a spade and pointed at the end of a row of newly dug graves.
“Three feet wide, four deep and seven long.” he called at my back as I trudged over. The first cut with my shovel barely left a mark, the ground was frozen. “Sure, but I came here to fight, not to dig.” I muttered under my breath, mainly for the benefit of the others in the work party. My attempt at humour drifted away with the morning breeze. The feller I was digging with was an older man from the Royal Warwicks, with whom we shared this sector. He did not smile but looked at me with such great sadness.
“There’ll be plenty of time for that later, these were my friends. Now get on and dig, son.” He did not speak to me again that day.
As each grave was finished, a body wrapped in a groundsheet was laid with great care next to it. I had never seen a dead body before. I could tell by the way they were laid on the ground that the corpses were stiff, I realised with a shiver that some were horribly incomplete. I felt the chill wind and wondered if the wind blew a sheet loose, would there be a face underneath for me to recognise? I started to dig, jumping into the grave to break the frozen earth.
“So, you’re here now are you?” called a voice I recognised from above. I looked up and saw a gaunt soldier, the pale winter sun behind him casting him in shadow. I still recognised him, it was James Potter, my best-friend who had pushed in front of me at the recruitment hall complaining “You’re so tall, the rest of us will have no chance of passing for fully grown men after they see you.” James was a little older than me, but still under eighteen. He had cut his fiery hair short and grown a moustache for the occasion. He lied about his age too, but when I said I was eighteen, he had said he was already nineteen. That meant he got to go to France that September. I wish I’d done that. I hadn’t seen him for four months, but he’d aged four years. Deep lines were pressed hard around his eyes, he looked tired. “I always knew I’d find you at the bottom of a grave.” He gave a grim smile as he reached down to grab me. I took his arm swung myself out. I brushed myself down.
“Your mammy sends her love.” I teased. This was the trigger for a joke we had always shared but seeing me here seemed to have stopped him from giving his response. Again, I broke the silence between us, my voice low. “James you’re looking well.” Still nothing. “I heard you had a tough time at Hacourt.” I almost whispered, afraid my voice would startle him. James’ eyes misted over, raw pain passed over his face as the memory took him, he sniffed and looked away. “I wish I could have been there with you, what was it like?” Another silence, then at last, he spoke. Each word was pulled from deep within him.
“We never got the word to fall back. We fought on, when we were surrounded, some of us broke out, but the others, I don’t know, nobody knows.” As his gaze passed over the Cemetery, his voice broke and he covered his eyes with his hand. “Two hundred of our boys never came back.”
Those first few months of 1915 were filled with back-breaking hard labour, digging trenches, channels, latrines or graves, laying out wire or cables, carrying or unloading ammunition. As we were joined almost daily by new drafts of men mainly from Dublin or Northumberland, I slowly began to feel that I had more in common with the veterans. Sure, we were being shelled, but as we were at some distance behind the front, it was only with a sense of mischief, mostly falling around the edges of our position, but just when you’d got used to the distant rumbling and explosions, a few heavy shells would land in amongst us vaporising unlucky men and mangling machinery. The Germans owned the skies too. There was even a Zeppelin raid when we were billeted in a nearby town. It killed a Belgian family and destroyed a lot of houses. It was very difficult seeing damage that the shells did to people, sometimes we could not find anything to bury. I always said a quick prayer for them. Neither could we avenge ourselves properly, our artillery had still not arrived in France, so the only answer we had to the German artillery was the rest of the Divisional artillery and some French guns.
There had been heavy fighting around Ypres for a couple of weeks now, on Sunday 25th of April, we were forced marched thirty miles with our friends, the Royal Irish Fusiliers, to take the village of St. Julien. We arrived at our start positions on the St. Jean road in the early hours of Monday and slipped out of our packs just before the attack began. It was misty, and we advanced in two lines about fifty yards apart, one line passing the other every two hundred. This became quite a fun game, as our line advanced into the silent mist and waited for the others to pass us. I remember watching the other line rush forwards as the wind finally rolled the mist away and we could see the buildings of the St Julien catching the watery morning sunlight. A cheer went up. Then we saw the wire, banked up against the houses at the edge of the village. Then the guns started, and plumes of soil rose from the ground and those men fell like silent stones, never to rise again. I dropped too, I lay with my face pressed into the wet earth. Praying, cursing, pleading, crying, frozen. I lost sight of James. Heavy shells began landing amongst us. The high explosives sent men cartwheeling through the air. More men passed me, trying to reach the village. I remember calling to them, trying to warn them that they were going to their deaths, but they couldn’t hear me above the chaos of battle. I looked either side of me. A few figures were kneeling next to fallen comrades, a few were limping or crawling back. There were none of our officers. It was chaos. The noise and smoke totally isolated us.
“Fall back” someone shouted, and then screamed. As we did, we saw a lone figure wearing a greatcoat and with a blackthorn stick raised high in the air, walking carefully towards us. It was our battalion commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Arthur Loveband. A grand and experienced old soldier from Nass outside Dublin. We all moved towards him. When he got closer, he motioned with his stick for us to lie down. We did and dug in as best we could and were pinned down by shellfire, terrified and cold, stranded there, listening to our friends dying in agony until darkness fell. In that darkness, we carried those who could not crawl back to our lines. That attack cost our Battalion five hundred men killed and wounded. I heard that some of our lads made it to the village but could not hold their positions. That chaotic day was my first taste of battle; I hadn’t even seen a German.
Once we had rested and increased our numbers, we spent a few days in the frontline trenches outside the village of Wieltje being shelled and sniped mercilessly by the Germans.
On the 19th of May, after some time out of the line, we marched up to relieve the Warwicks in the frontline trenches at Bellewarde. No more than fifty yards from our parapet were some ruined buildings, clustered together. The surrounding ground had been churned and pock-marked with shell holes. Several German aeroplanes wheeled around lazily in the sky. As I stared, trying to guess what purpose these lonely buildings served before the war, Potter whispered.
“That is Shell trap farm, the Canadians captured it and set up there, but it was destroyed about a month ago. We still have forward positions there, at night.” He smiled, “the lads of the Warwicks tell me that If you volunteer for that duty, you get double pay, extra rations, excused work and a chance of a good fight.” He shook his head. “What mad eejits!” I couldn’t return his incredulous grin. I was thinking.
Lieutenant Judd was a quiet, unassuming and gentle man from Gateshead. Although only in his thirties, his hair and neat moustache were totally grey. He had joined us in a draft that arrived after mine. As his accent sounded close to mine accent, I found his quite easy to understand. Looking over at the ruined farm as the sun set, he explained.
“It’s our turn to hold those forward positions tonight.” I looked around at the others. Sensing my thoughts, Potter gripped my arm and whispered,
“It’s a death sentence, Willie”.
“I need volunteers.” Desperate to get into the action, my hand shot up. “Thank you Walsh, are you sure?”
“Yes sir.” I replied, pushing out my chest and saluting smartly as I could.
“Good, here is another one for you Mac.” said the Lieutenant, gesturing to a shorter man
standing patiently beside him.
Corporal Francis MacCormack was a Cork man, a dark, wiry, regular who had served with the regiment in India. Although it was Winter, he had his sleeves rolled up. His home was in the army and a clearly at home in the trenches. MacCormack smiled,
“You didn’t have to volunteer for that, but we will look after you.” He looked over the farm, “It’s of no value to anyone during the day, but at night we send a few men to listen for any unusual sounds and to repel any German raids”. He handed me a heavy brass pistol and a bulging canvas bag. Before I could ask what the objects inside were, MacCormack sighed deeply shook the bag. “These are spare cartridges. For the love of Jesus, keep them dry. If you see any movement, you send a flare up and our lads will do the rest.” I looked blankly at him. He raised his club, a stout piece of oak with barbed wire wrapped around the end and rested in on his shoulder. “We’ll go at dusk, take plenty of those new grenades.” I had just finished a week’s course in using the new Mills bomb and relished the chance to use them. He turned and added, “And leave your badges and papers here and put plenty of dubbin on those shiny buttons.”
As soon as MacCormack had left, Potter came to me with a pained expression face.
“Oh, really Willie, there was no call for you to do that now, it’s suicide, there’s no one to help until the morning.” He paused, looking at me to see if I was suitably scared. Deciding I wasn’t, he continued. “Sometimes no one comes back, they find everyone’s dead with their throats slit, sometimes they don’t find anyone at all”. I took a long look at him, his eyes darting around. He was concerned for me, but now he was gripped by fear. He hadn’t meant to panic me. I put my hand on his shoulder and tried to speak as calmly as I could.
“Now James, I’ll be fine, and anyway”, I gave my best smile, “I can’t take any more digging, I’ve got to do something I can’t just stand by and watch the lads being mown down or blown to bits.” I squeezed his shoulder, hoping that the confidence I pretended to feel would pass to him. He glared at me.
“I hope you’re right you mad eejit, because I’m coming with you.”
The twelve of us moved up to the farm at dusk. We kept low and crawled along in silence. We were just fifty yards from the German lines. My senses were painfully keen that night, I could hear voices raised in singing and smell their dinner.
“It’s the Prussians, those bastards love to sing.” whispered Potter. There was no network of trenches, just isolated pits dug out of shell holes in a ring around the ruined farm buildings. The largest pit was what appeared to be a four-foot-deep moat at what used to be the main entrance of the farm. Although it had been drained and a step cut in to the floor, it still had murky liquid at its bottom. It still looked like the safest place to be, and I was glad when Corporal MacCormack told me to stay there with Potter.
As darkness enveloped us, our small group was totally alone, with the entire German army in front of us and our boys behind, all of them ready to kill us for nothing.
That night was the longest night of my life. I sensed movement out to our right, but straining for a long moment, I heard and saw nothing. I cannot describe the unease I felt. I squinted toward the German line.
“What do you see?” whispered Potter.
“Nothing, I can just feel that something isn’t right.”
“Go on, trust your instinct” he whispered. I fumbled in the bag, pushed a cardboard cartridge into the breech of the pistol and snapped it shut. I pointed it almost straight up, screwed my eyes shut and pulled the trigger. I felt the pistol kick as it discharged its flare high into the night sky.
“Put it in the water.” Potter hissed. I looked at him blankly. He pushed my hand under the muddy water as I struggled against him.
“You’re in shock.” he whispered. “It’s a burn.” I remember being impressed with Potter’s calmness, something I had never known before, as small arms fire erupted on all sides. MacCormack appeared from the darkness, pulled my arm out of the icy water and took a cursory look at my injury in the dying light of the flickering flare.
“You’ve got all your fingers, skin was not broken but it’s a bad burn.” He shouted over the gunfire. He was panting, but I sensed his relief. “I can’t give you morphine, we might need you again tonight. Drink this.” he held his canteen up to my lips. I drank deeply, almost choking as I swallowed the burning liquid. It was Rum. Rum was the answer to everything in the army, then look forward to it, it made men obedient, it made men do what the Army wanted. Alcohol had put many in Mountjoy prison. I didn’t care for it. My throat burned, but it was the only relief from the cold and the pain I had. As James bound my arm tenderly with a field dressing, the light from my flare died as the pieces finally reached the earth, the firing died down and we were alone again. I spent the rest of the night clutching my burning arm to my chest and scanning the ground ahead for the slightest movement.
It was confirmed the next morning that a German raiding party had been making its way towards our position and the light from my flare had disrupted it, the ensuing firefight killing six. I was sent straight to the Battalion dressing station to get my hand looked at.
The skin along my right hand and arm was raw, but I tried not to show any discomfort as a lovely Irish nurse applied a strong-smelling salve. If I felt anything like a big man, I was soon put back in my place. I was discharged by an elderly Doctor with a clipboard who took great interest in my cap badge. Too slowly and deliberately, the Doctor explained that, when fired, the heat generated from the explosive charge can liquefy the magnesium in the cartridge and this can leak. He finished curtly, “Next time, don’t hold the pistol straight up, wear protective gloves and lower it directly after firing.” The Doctor slowly shook his head, “And don’t fill your pockets with explosives.” He looked down at his clipboard. “Now get back to your,” he paused, “Regiment.”
I arrived back with a cheer from my mates, but it was short-lived. There were rumours of action and they were preparing for an inspection. We had been issued with cloth masks and there were white buckets covered with thick card had been set back into hastily gouged alcoves in the trench wall in every section. It surprised me how glad I was to smarten up my uniform for the inspection visit by Lieutenant Colonel Loveband. As I polished my boots and buttons back to a shine, I wondered if he would remember me. As it was, he spent most of his time with the officers up in the ruined farm. He then left the line as suddenly as he arrived, taking the officers with him.
A lone German plane wheeled over the farm high in the sky like a bird of prey, adding to the heightened atmosphere. A few weeks ago, the Germans had released chlorine gas in this sector. The colonial French troops had fled, leaving a five-mile hole in the line. Luckily, the Germans weren’t prepared enough to exploit it.
When he returned from his briefing, Lieutenant Judd was full of urgency and new orders. He was looking from man to man and his eyes fell on me.
“Walsh, you will be joining this machine gun crew.” You will be under the command of Corporal MacCormack here, you do whatever he tells you to keep that gun firing”. “However,” he added, “at the first sign of gas, you’re to put on this Vermorel tank and make sure that none settles around the team or their gun.” I looked at the tank; it was a very heavy brass tank, with leather straps and had a lengthy hose and nozzle. It held 4 gallons when full. I looked at my rifle, “No, you won’t be able to use your hold a rifle while you’re using it.” The Lieutenant said, pre-empting my question. I tucked my tightly bound right arm behind my back. He looked around and raised his voice, addressing everyone. “There will be no retreat for us.” The men cheered.
Corporal MacCormack patted the barrel of his machine gun affectionately.
“This is the Vickers heavy machine gun. it can fire six hundred rounds per minute and is water-cooled. To deploy, it has a six-man crew. I fire the gun, the others carry the gun, tripod, parts or ammo and when the gun is sited, they became spotters, changing the barrel maintaining the gun or feeding it with ammunition.”
“We have been training together since before we came to France.” MacCormack explained proudly. I asked why the gun was angled slightly up in the air. “Well now, isn’t that a clever little question?” MacCormack explained, “Most folks think we just fire dead ahead. Its simple physics, the bullets are heavy and begin to fall after a couple of hundred yards”. He looked out over the wire in front of trench. “We use complicated mathematics to drop the bullets into a target, causing much more damage.” He held up his notebook, the pages covered with numbers.
“I thought fighting was about men, not science and mathematics.” He looked up at the aeroplane and sighed.
“Sure, it used to be back when I was your age fighting in Africa, but today its engineering, chemistry, physics, biology all working to keep us alive and kill our enemies”.
Through the rest of the day, MacCormack explained to me how his gun as part of the network along the front line, enfilading each other. He proudly explained how he’d they’d used trigonometry to calculate the best positions for the guns. He added gravely, “But we don’t have enough of these, if one of our machine guns is put out of action, then the whole forward line is vulnerable.”
When I had been thoroughly drilled in a feeding the gun with ammunition, changing a barrel and even firing it as best I could with my bandaged hand, MacCormack put his hands on my shoulders.
“They’re expecting another gas attack, the chemical in the buckets dissolves the gas.” He held up a square cotton pad about the size of a fist, with straps dangling from each corner. “You keep it moist by dipping it in here and tie it around your head like this, so it covers your nose and mouth.” His rough touches reminded me of my grandfather buttoning my collar as a child. “Some of the men don’t like these pads and probably won’t use them.” He lowered his voice. I could feel his warm breath on my face. “But you are part of my crew now, so I won’t have any of that nonsense.” “If you’re taken by it, you’ll get short of breath and want to sit or lie down, Don’t. Stay on the fire step or in the bay with us. The gas sinks, it’s heavier than air. Wait until it has passed and then do what you can in the trench.”
“Yes Sir!” I blurted out, trying my best to reflect the calmness in his instructions. He paused, his gaze stopping at my bandaged hand. Remembering my failure, he lowered his voice again, “But you always keep your eyes on me, if I need you to give ammunition or help change the barrel, by God you’d better be ready.” He pulled me close, his cold eyes boring into mine and whispered “If you let me down Walsh, I’ll kill you myself.” I knew he meant it.
We stood on the parapet at dawn the next day, as we did at every dawn and every sunset. The light breeze carrying our freezing breath behind us. The rum was being poured out, men stepped into the trench to enjoy it before carrying on the exhausting routine of life in a trench. Potter piped up.
“Would you look at that now, they think it’s Christmas!” A red flare had burst over the German lines. It was soon joined by more. There was a low rumble. Silence fell again, and I saw panic as we looked at each other for answers. I looked at MacCormack, he was staring straight out at the farm ahead of him. Watching. Our smiles dropped. Something was coming Everyone became alert.
We could see it in the half light of the dawn, a bank of mist, slightly denser than the surrounding air and with a greenish tint, stretching for a mile either side of us, moving slowly with the breeze. We watched in preternatural silence as it reached the edge of the farm, curling around the edges of the ruined buildings, weeping like thick tears through the empty windows. Then it enveloped the farm, erasing it from view.
It was still early; the men had not yet returned from holding the farm the night before.
“Come on get out then.” MacCormack hissed under his breath. At last, gunfire broke out from the farm and quickly petered out. Then he turned to his team “Get your masks on!” MacCormack ordered. He looked at me “Come on Walsh” he barked, “Stop your pissing around and get your bloody tank on!” I put down my rifle. Showing great presence of mind once again, Potter lifted the canister and held it against my back as I buckled straps. I felt its weight and heard the familiar metallic slosh as I climbed up onto the fire-step. I steadied myself against the parapet. The bank of barbed wire in front of our trench disappeared as the fog rolled toward us.
That smell, I’ll never forget it. Pineapple and pepper. I pulled the damp pad over my nose and mouth. As the gas burst upon us, the gunfire started. I was knocked against the trench wall. I screwed my eyes shut, I felt my heart beating hard. Our machine guns began firing in short bursts, there was screaming, like I had never heard before, the screaming of the lost, the hopeless. I felt something clawing at my leg. I looked down. It was a vision of hell. Men were at the bottom of the trench, screaming, writhing. The gas filled the trench like a brackish pond, drowning them. Occasionally, a face or a limb would break the surface, quickly to be lost again. After a few minutes, the main bank of the gas had passed over us and just patches of what had sunk into our section of the trench remained. I jumped down into the trench and began spraying.
It took most of the morning, but we had held off the German attack and most of our wire was mostly intact, although some gaps had appeared. The machine gun was surrounded by empty bullet casings and hissed and ticked as it cooled. Exhausted, I slipped out of the straps and dropped the empty copper tank to the floor. It had several heavy dents, it must have deflected a few bullets.
“Let’s start clearing up lads.” ordered MacCormack. “And someone put the bloody kettle on!” We started to check the bodies, some, barely alive were carried away on stretchers. I pushed my way along the trench, calling for James, then I saw him, curled up motionless on the duckboards at the bottom of the trench. A look of shear panic on twisted onto his face. I closed his eyes with my fingers and said a prayer for him.
As I finished my whispered prayer, shells dropped around our trench with chilling accuracy. These weren’t the heavy shells that we were used to. There was a new smell, pungent, like rotten hay. Thick and sweet as it caught the back of my throat.
“Cover your eyes men, it’s more gas.” someone shouted. In front of us I could see large numbers of enemy pass the farm as they ran towards us. Corporal MacCormack’s machine gun started firing, but it was the only one I could hear. All along our line I could see men from our division climbing out of the trench and running away. Deserters.
“Here they come.” Someone in the machine gun crew shouted as Lieutenant Judd stepped forward.
“Stand your ground.” he ordered, “Let’s show them how the Royal Dublin Fusiliers fight.” he stood up on the fire-step, handed me his revolver, shouldered a rifle and began to fire. Choosing his target, firing and reloading in what looked like a single motion. I raised the revolver in my left hand and stood next him, emptying it clumsily in the enemy’s direction. I could see German soldiers advancing through and around the ruined farm and dropping when we fired on them. As they returned fire, the bullets zipped around us like a murderous rain.
Having found their range, there was the familiar whistle of very large incoming shells as our section of trench took a direct hit. The trench around this seemed to dissolve in a sea of concussion and the rain of Earth. I was knocked off my feet. As the smoke cleared, Lieutenant Judd fell to his knees into the bottom of trench, groaning. Blood trickled from his ear. The machine gun was gone, it and the bodies of the crew twisted and buried together in the dark earth.
MacCormack scrambled over through the smoke and felt Lieutenant Judd’s neck for a pulse.
“He’s alive but badly wounded, he needs taking to the dressing station”. He glanced along the trench. “You’re no good to us with that hand, get him out of here.”
I sensed this was the end. “Our wire is cut up, they’ll be in our trench soon, the machine gun and most of your crew are gone, let’s all go.” I pleaded. MacCormack shook his head and raised his club threateningly.
“That’s an order. Go on with you, and bring reinforcements back, the Dublins will hold this ground until you do.” As MacCormack helped to put him across my shoulder, Lieutenant Judd managed to groan weakly.
The communication trenches were clogged with dead, wounded, and still filled with pools of gas, so we had to go on the top. Lieutenant Judd was badly concussed, and I think he was hit by a bullet as we ran. He was barely conscious and trying to say something.
“Don’t try to speak Sir, save your energy.” I told him.
After crossing a canal, we reached our Battalion headquarters, a dugout in the rear. I did not expect the fighting to have reached this far, but it had. Lieutenant-Colonel Loveband was sitting up against the entrance to the dugout, his stick still clutched in his hand. He had been shot through the neck. I lowered the Lieutenant gently to the ground. His breathing was shallow, and his pulse was weak, but he was still alive. I went to the old man. His collar had been loosened, the neat entry wound in his neck bubbled. His eyes flickered open. His tears were thick, and his face twisted with pain and grief.
“I tried to stop those cowards fleeing,” he gestured to the bodies lying nearby. “I tried to get reinforcements up to my poor boys,” he said faintly, almost pleading. “My poor boys, they’re all gone, my poor boys.” He sank back with a final gasp.
My attempts to work out exactly what had happened here were interrupted as the wounded Lieutenant raised his arm and was trying to speak again. When he waved away my canteen, I moved my head next to his mouth.
“Frederick.” he gasped before a fit of coughing took him.
A Major of the Royal Dublins who I did not recognise emerged from the dugout. He surveyed the scene for a long moment.
“You must take a message to brigade HQ.” I looked at Lieutenant Judd. “Fred will be alright here. I’ve got a few men down there as well, bring back stretcher bearers.” He checked his revolver. “I’m going forwards now to do what I can.”
“What is the message Sir?” I asked. The Major looked around, patting down his tunic pockets distractedly.
“Tell them, we are almost done. Reinforce now or all is lost.” I saluted smartly and ran like I had never run before, on the track the mile or so to Vlamertinghe Chateau, through the continuous shambling column of blinded, staggering men. By the time I reached the tents packed into the grounds of the Chateau, my eyes streamed, and my breath came in short stabs. I had to stop a few times, so I could cough and painfully clear my chest.
I delivered my message to the first staff officer I saw at the Chateau a word at a time, through hacking coughs and gulps of air. I led a party of stretcher bearers back to the battalion dugout. We picked up a now unconscious Lieutenant Judd and several others who down in the dugout and carried them back. The sounds of gunfire and shells still coming from the front-line. Once we had delivered the wounded, I collapsed with exhaustion.
A couple of days later, I was up before a medical officer to assess whether I was fit for duty. This time I was pleased it was an Irish Doctor. I tried to smarten myself up as best I could, but he looked tired and unshaven, his collar unbuttoned. He looked up briefly from his paperwork as I entered.
“You saved a few lives, without you those men in that dugout wouldn’t have survived.”
“Sir, I wanted to go back…” The medical officer raised his hand and shook his head.
“There was no question of you going back, you took a lot of chlorine gas.” He paused, “If you hadn’t run with that message, cleared your lungs, things would have been much worse for you.” “Unfortunately, such acts must be witnessed by an Officer to be recommended for a medal and…” He sighed and looked me up and down for the first time. “By God, how old are you?”
“Nineteen Sir.” I answered slowly, my voice rising slightly in the tone of a question. “What became of the others?” I asked quickly. He looked down at his papers and began to explain that when the tear-gas arrived, some of the troops on both flanks fell back without orders, leaving the Dublins to hold the line. I remembered the terrible scene outside the dugout. “They fought on for as long as they could.” He shook his head and shifted uncomfortably in his seat, I didn’t think he had slept at all. “There were only twenty-one survivors from your entire battalion of over six hundred. There were some wounded or taken prisoner of course.” I hoped MacCormack had been taken prisoner, but very much doubted it. “I did everything I could here.” He sighed heavily. “I’m sorry to tell you your officer died of his wounds during the night.”
“His name was Frederick.” I said, anger touching my words.
“Of course, I’m sorry. He looked past me. “You Dublins have had a tough time. This Battalion is being taken out of the line, the first was wiped out in one day at Gallipoli.” He looked down and began scribbling. “You’ll have a few weeks leave.” He looked up at me. “There will be great sorrow and anger in Dublin, I hope you can bring some comfort.” I thought of James Potter’s Parents, who I would need to talk to as soon I got back.
“I’m recommending that you are transferred to the 6th and 7th Royal Dublin Fusiliers for the coming months. They are newly raised battalions and are training in England now, preparing to go overseas. They need experienced men like you to teach them.” The doctor put down his pen and caught my eye before I could speak. “You can help them William.”
William Walsh was born to Patrick and Anne (formerly Cashin) in Dublin in June 1897. Anne died of Septicaemia in Dublin in 1904. He enlisted in the British Army in May or June 1914 just before his 17th birthday. Family members say he was at Gallipoli and then the Middle East. However, his medal card and entries on the roll show him entering France with the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers (The Old Toughs) in January 1915 and no other theatre. The Battalion sustained heavy losses at St Julien in April and was all but wiped out in May 1915 at the Second Battle of Ypres. The Battalion was not in action again until the Battle of the Somme 1916. They returned to fight over the same ground again at Passchendaele in 1917 and suffered heavy losses during the German Spring Offensive in March 1918. The remainder 2nd RDF was amalgamated with the 1st RDF and reformed as a training cadre in April 1918. William had survived those terrifying battles and joined the Machine Gun Corps.
In March 1920, William was posted to General HQ, Rhine Army as part of the occupation forces based at Cologne or Bonn.
After leaving the Army, William worked for W A Gilbys in Dublin as a porter and van driver. He married Mary on 30 March 1922 and perhaps affected by the conflict in Dublin the previous Summer and assassination of Michael Collins, enlisted in the Irish Free State Army in March 1923. Shortly after the end if the Irish civil war, William transferred to the Military Police and served until November 1923 when, he requested permission to be discharged as he had the promise of employment back at Gilbys.
William served in the RAF during the Second World War and died in St Kevin’s Hospital, Dublin in 1953. He is buried with his Father and Wife at Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin.
There are a few more stories for me to write. William Walsh lived through extraordinary times, and stood for what he believed in. I wish I could talk to him about it.
Richard Brown, November 2018.