Fr Kevin Hegarty
In a week dominated by controversy over the cabinet re-shuffle and the continuing crisis in the Catholic Church on the clerical and religious sexual abuse of children, there was one major good news story. As part of her state visit to Turkey, President McAleese attended a commemoration in Gallipoli of Irish soldiers who had died there in 1915 during a battle of the First World War.
Throughout her presidency Mrs McAleese has made a point of honouring Irish soldiers who had taken part in that war. Her visit to Gallipoli was part of that pattern.
For several decades those soldiers were the forgotten people of our recent history. While they were fighting on mainland Europe, the course of Irish history changed.
The Easter Rising was followed by the War of Independence and the eventual establishment of the Irish Free State. When momentous events were being decided in Ireland, those who fought for Britain in the World War were generally regarded as having made the wrong choice. In the new state the survivors of that war kept their heads down. As Mrs McAleese said at Gallipoli, they returned to “considerable ambivalence, even hostility about their role and their sacrifice.”
Yet many of the Irish men who fought in that war believed they were doing so for a noble cause - to oppose German occupation of small European states like Belgium. The Meath poet, Francis Ledwidge, himself an Irish nationalist and a close friend of Thomas MacDonagh, one of the leaders of the Easter Rising, spoke for many of them when he wrote: “I joined the British Army because she stood between Ireland and an enemy common to our civilisation and I would not have her say that she defended us while we did nothing.”
Every war is a tragedy, a denial of what is best in our humanity. People die horribly, others carry their physical and psychological wounds for life, bitter memories are left to foster and often become toxic.
The First World War was a tragedy of epic proportions. Casualties were huge, over 500,000 at Gallipoli alone. The peace agreement after the war contained within it the seeds of another one. Germany was so heavily penalised that its economy collapsed in the 1930s, leading to the rise of Hitler. And we know where that led...
The high number of casualties between 1914 and 1918 was due, in the main, to fatuous strategic decisions by incompetent generals.
The poet, Siegried Sassoon, memorably satirised them in ‘Base Details’:
“If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,
I’d live with scarlet Majors at the Base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death.
You’d see me with my puffy petulant face,
Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel,
Reading the Roll of Honour. “Poor young chap,”
I’d say--”I used to know his father well; Yes, we’ve lost heavily in this last scrap.”
And when the war is done and youth stone dead, I’d toddle safely home and die--in bed.”
The battle of Gallipoli was a major blunder, typical of that conflagration. Orchestrated by Winston Churchill, its purpose was to reduce pressure on the Western Front where the war was stalemated and to join with the Russian allies seizing the strategic sea route to Constantinople through the Dardanelles Strait.
Naturally, the Turks did not take this invasion of their country lightly. They fought furiously to repel the invaders as they tried to land on the beaches around Suvla Bay.
Among the British troops there was a Ballina man, Quartermaster Sergeant Nealon. In a letter to a friend he has left us an eyewitness account. He was almost blinded by a Turkish hand grenade:
“We were fighting for two wells at the time as the water was badly needed by our men. The Turks were entrenched on the slope of a hill behind the wells and I need not tell you how bravely our lads dislodged them. Our men advanced as if on parade, under a heavy machine gun and rifle fire, over a space of 200 yards.
“The Turks came out with fixed bayonets, but with an Irish cry we got into the beggars. It was awful work for a time but it was not long until the Turkish line staggered before our impetuous rush and in a few minutes we were in possession of their trenches and wells. We have been complimented by the general staff on the great charge which has made a glorious name for us in the army. We christened one of the wells St Patrick’s and the other The Devil’s Own Punchbowl.”
It was one of very few successes. By the winter of 1915 the Gallipoli operation was deemed a failure and the British forces withdrew. It is now consigned to what William Wordsworth once called “old unhappy things and battles long ago”.