This a piece of life writing about my Great-Grandfather. William Walsh in March 2014. I was just beginning to research him properly, but knew he served with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers during the First World War. Family stories put him in Gallipoli, so I wrote about what it might have been like to enlist in the British Army as an Irishman the characters he might have met. RB
Mytilene, Lesbos, Thursday 6 August 1915
My Dearest, Darling, Mary Ann,
We have just received orders to be ready to move in the morning. Please find enclosed the diary I have kept since I sailed from England. I send it to you as we prepare to land at Gallipoli.
I am not afraid of what is to come; I accept the plan God has for me. I know no one at home thinks well of what I have done, but the things I have seen and done in the last two months, the exceptional people I have met, have awakened me. Please tell my parents, I hope that you can encourage them to forgive me and take pride in the man I have become.
May God’s love be with you always, your loving husband,
Devonport, Saturday 10 July 1915
We are on our way to the Dardanelles at last. We are aboard the HMT Alaunia, a trans-atlantic liner built by the Cunard line. She was only launched two years ago. Cunard must have been sore to lose a fine new ship like this to the Navy. She is a new 13,ooo tonne liner, she can hold 2,000 passengers (or about 5000 Irish!) so we have the 6th Dubs here with us too. Many of my boys have worked in the docks all their lives, they have never sailed on a vessel as fine as this. My boys are below decks, I have been down to see them, they are crowded together, but spirits are high. We have good food, plentiful saltwater baths and as many refrigerated oranges as we want. We take the men at the double around the decks every morning. The Captain, John Rostron, captained the Carpathia, the first ship to pick up survivors when the Titanic sank. He is a grand and impressive man, comfortable with command. He is a Royal Naval Reserve, which is how he came to be here.
‘D’ company is known as the ‘footballers’ or ‘toffs’, they are the sons of judges, barristers and professionals. Some of them turned down commissions to fight with their mates as ordinary soldiers. They are right at the bottom of the boat, there is little light or air down there. I think they made sure they got the worst quarters, they quite enjoy the hardship. They have strong principles. I was surprised, but I get on with them like a house on fire. I have had plenty of offers of employment when we get back. The chance to get to know these boys would never have come to me if I had stayed behind.
I have become great friends with a fellow Serjeant from D company. Sean Maher, a big fella, with eyes that smile at you, you can tell just by the look of him he likes his sport. He went to Trinity College but is the same age as me. We met in the NCO’s mess, we stroll along the decks together of an evening, leaning against the rails of the foredeck, talking. His parents are bitterly upset with him too. They begged him not to join up, to stay and go into the family business, they threatened to disinherit him, he knew they were afraid for him, but he chose to join up and fight with his friends. He says he had to do it and does not know if he can ever go back. I look up to him for that. I tell him about how we almost starved during the ‘lock-out’ and that I joined up to earn a regular wage. Sean says we both made a difficult choice. A lot of fellas here are big unionists from the docks, they say that us poor soldiers are ‘economic conscripts’ and had no choice but to be here. I don’t agree. I had a choice.
Gibraltar, Thursday 15 July 1915
We stopped at Gibraltar to take on coal, and then steamed through the Mediterranean, always keeping within sight of the North African coast. The air makes you feel grand. It is so light and dry, and always moving with a gentle wind in the cloudless sky. It feels so different from the soft rain and dark skies of Dublin. The sun seems to get bigger and hotter as we travel eastwards. Oh, and such beautiful sunsets as I have never seen. We even see porpoises glinting in the moonlight as they skip through the water next to us. The passing French and English battleships took turns watching over us.
We had some heavy weather around Crete. Black clouds had been gathering all day, the air heavy with electricity. As the sun set, the rain and the wind came. The ship was buffeted about like a toy boat on the lake at the Phoenix Park. Every surface you stood or leant on, soon gave way under the rolling of the ship. For our own safety, we were all ordered to remain in our cabins, but the boys below decks did not like this, they said they were feeling so sick they should rather take the fresh air above. Some thought the boat had been torpedoed and was sinking. I thought I heard shouts of ‘mutiny’ and there was some fighting amongst the men as they tried to rush the stairs to the upper deck. Some of my boys call themselves ‘Larkinites’, they are tough trade unionists from the docks who choose what orders they follow. I feared the worst. Warning shots were fired and the crowd gradually dispersed, leaving a man from B Company lying in a pool of blood and broken teeth. His head had been boxed off and had been badly trampled. He was a bloody mess. He was carried to the infirmary, he might wake up. I began to organise an inspection before the guilty men could wash the blood off their hands, but Sean took me aside. He thought it looked like mob justice. He suspected that the beating was a punishment for something that the victim had done previously, but the opportunity to serve such brutal justice had never arisen before. Sean assured me it was over, and no one, especially the victim, would thank me for interfering. Us NCOs were then ordered to put lifebelts on, stand at the top of the stairwells and watch the corridors. We were to give a single warning, before shooting dead any man who was out of his cabin for desertion. I was soaked, scared and my hands shook terribly; Sean lifted my arms and tied my life-vest around me. I kept dropping my revolver into the stairwell and being sick with the heaving of the ship, I couldn’t have fired it if I wanted to. I couldn’t even pray. Thankfully, their true purpose had been met and there was no more trouble from the boys.
Alexandria, Egypt, Tuesday 20 July 1915
As if it to mock us, the sea this morning was a smooth as glass. Sean told me some Greek Myths as we sailed through the Aegean Sea. About the Minotaur’s maze on Crete and Alexander the Great who this city is named for. By the time Alexander was thirty, he had the largest empire in the ancient world and had never been defeated in battle. The gently curved harbour stretches for about 10 miles, with ships of every size and shape at anchor here. It is a hive of activity.
Captain Rostron was fit to be tied. He told the officers that the unsatisfactory packing of our equipment and cargo made his ship list dangerously in the storm. He said most of our wagons had come loose and were smashing against the hull with each roll of the ship and a man almost killed in our disorder. He wasn’t moving into deep water until everything was unpacked from the hold and repacked correctly under the close supervision of his officers. A lot of my lads had worked in the docks loading or unloading cargo from the big American ships all their lives. They were very angry, they could not see a problem. They thought the Captain just wanted to give us Irish a hard time. I spoke to the chief mate. He told me the Captain was so angry, we were lucky he’d even given us the chance to repack. Since he witnessed the aftermath of the Titanic disaster, he will not compromise on the safety of his passengers or anyone else at sea. He had insisted the order to keep the lads below decks during the storm be given, so his crew could go about their duties unhindered. He volunteered for the transports, against the wishes of his employers. The boys liked the idea of being passengers, they understood and respected the principles of the Captain once they realised he wasn’t being an arse.
Alexandria, Egypt, Wednesday 21 July 1915
Our last day here, so we paraded through the city and along the whole of the harbour. The sun was flashing off our badges and boots. I don’t think the locals had ever seen such a thing. The Egyptians turned out for us, all cheering and waving, gangs of ragged children beaming and marching along with us. They will never forget the Irish. I was so very proud of my boys. It reminded me of when we marched through Dublin last May. When you fell in step with me as we marched along the Liffey singing:
“Left, right; left right; here’s the way we go,
Marching with fixed bayonets, the terror of every foe,
A credit to the nation, a thousand buccaneers,
A terror to creation, are the Dublin Fusiliers.”
We marched right up into the boat to a rousing chorus of “Tipperary”.
Moudros Bay, Lemnos, Saturday 24 July 1915
We arrived at Moudros Bay, a huge army base with a French field hospital. We began to unload the food and medical supplies we had brought from England. The boys had already started singing, when we had a chilling sight. A column of Red Cross tenders filled with wounded from the Dardanelles, steamed gently past. The boys watched them all go past and finished their work in silence. We knew that some of those boys were in the 1st RDF that had travelled over on this very ship only a few months ago.
I know many of the boys at the distillery don’t care for my choice, but I think of them all the time. They call us traitors fighting for the British when our own people are in the middle of their own struggle. It was a difficult decision for me to go against my friends and my parents. I thank God I have you. This journey has opened my eyes. I think there is something happening here that is bigger than a regular income, bigger than nations. Death and misery are truly amongst us now. This is a war for our very civilisation. The world is changing, whether we like it or not. We must look carefully at ourselves and have the courage to do what is right. I hope they’re not giving you a hard time.
Mytilene, Lesbos, Sunday 25 July
Another beautiful Greek island. A wide, sheltered, flat harbour with the usual cluster of white square dwellings with rolling hills behind. A ruined castle sits above the bay. You can see the air rippling with heat above the town. Sean tells me that St Paul the apostle came to this island one of his missionary visits. Me, following in the footsteps of one of the disciples! We’re awaiting further orders, we march around the island every day and have set up firing ranges on the beach although our ammunition is in short supply.
I must tell you about Father Willie Doyle, our chaplain. Sure, he is a grand fella, quiet with a friendly face, but he is away in the head. He is one of those Jesuits. I’ve seen him riding about the island on his bike he bought over from Dublin. He said mass in a ruined Greek church. It had no roof, Father Doyle said our prayers would go straight up to heaven. He finished his fiery sermon with the solemn promise that he will lead us into battle with the Holy Spirit as his shield. What a man! I watched him give that same sermon to a packed chapel every hour through the afternoon and into the evening, until it was too dark to carry on. I saw how he gave strength and hope to the boys. They love him, he is always with them. He took my confession, asked me to think about taking the pledge. I explained that I worked in the distillery; without a smile, he said I would have to find a new occupation too. We talked for a long time after as we walked back to the harbour, me pushing his bike. I asked him how he came to be here, wasn’t he needed at home, where it was safe? He thought for a moment, “I must give comfort to His brave boys on the battlefield. I have to be there for them, no matter where they may be. God will keep me safe”. I told him I wished I could be as brave as him, he replied: “You don’t need courage to do what you know to be right”.
Mytilene, Lesbos, Wednesday 5 August 1915
We presented Captain Rostron with a bottle of 12 year-old whiskey and said a fond farewell to the Alaunia. She will go back to Moudros and pick up sick and lightly wounded soldiers and take them back to England. It will probably be the only time we get to go on such a fine ship. We set our camp up and await our final instructions. The rest of our division is here too, our friends from the Munsters, Leinsters and Inniskillings. The boys are confined to their tents, but I don’t suppose that will keep them from mischief.
Mytilene, Lesbos, Thursday 6 August 1915
We are to go into action tomorrow. We will not be in the first wave, so the beaches will already be in our hands when we arrive. There is no sign of our artillery, I’m sure it will be there to meet us. The boys are ready. We have been ordered to write as openly as possible to our loved ones tonight. We are to say goodbye and to record instructions as to the disposal of any of our property. It is a precaution, the letters are only to be sent home if you are killed, but It is another unwelcome reminder of the terrible hiding the Dubs took just a few months ago at Helles Beach. Some of my lads can’t write, I offered to help them, but they reminded me that their loved ones can’t read either. Many picked up lumps of soap stone or quartz from our stop in Alexandria and have whittled them into all kinds of wonderful things for their sweethearts. There are harps, tigers and elephants from the regimental badge, mythical creatures, ashtrays and models of the Alaunia. Time is short, I realise I have been writing this diary with you in mind next to me, so I will send it to you instead of a letter. I’m hoping that it won’t get examined by the censor in amongst those strange shaped packages. Father Doyle is busy amongst us as always, blessing, praying, and hearing confessions. For the first time in my life, I can feel God’s love all around me. I thank Him for the world he has shown me and the amazing people I have met on this journey. Sean, Captain Rostron and Father Doyle have all shown me that true courage is doing what you know to be right at all costs. I thought joining the British army was something shameful, now I realise it is the bravest thing I have ever done.
With all of my love,
Some members of William’s family thought these were original transcripts from his diary! I could not find any evidence William had been at Gallipoli, his medal record has him entering France in 1915. Although the events in the story are fictional, I spent a lot of time researching the setting, language and characters in them. I took one liberty; Father Willie Doyle was a chaplain with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, but distinguished himself on the Western Front where he was killed in 1917. As my research continued, I learned that William was 17, unmarried and serving in Northern France in 1915. I wrote a much longer story using this information, and tried to link them both together.
Richard Brown MBE