On this day 96 years ago in the final weeks of World War I my Great Uncle Private James McMahon perished near the village of Beaurevoir in the Ainse. He was only 20 years old. The only image we have of James is a photo from a local paper of the time under the heading “Clara men at the Front”. James is in the bottom right hand corner with his regiment and company given as the 6th Leinsters. This may well be a mistake as the Leinsters were the local regiment based at Crinkle Barracks, Birr, Co. Offaly or as it was known in British ruled Ireland, “King’s County” after the husband of Mary Tudor, Phillip II of Spain. The County Town was originally Phillipstown, now days called Daingean.
He was my maternal Great Uncle and my mother’s family hailed from the Irish Midlands, Clara in Offaly and Kilbeggan in Co. Westmeath, just six miles away. Both towns relied on manufacturing Goodbody’s Jute Mill in Clara and Locke’s Distillery in Kilbeggan. Clara had been founded by Quakers in the 18th Century and Robert Goodbody’s Jute Mill imported Jute from India which was turned into sacks for agricultural and milling industries which the Goodbody’s had run in Mountmellick.
The Goodbodys’ industrial activities in Clara created considerable employment and resulted in it being one of the few towns to increase its population between the Famine and Irish independence. In 1860, the family provided lighting for the residents of Clara when they built the gas works, and, four years later, they started a major jute factory. By the early 1900s, this forward-looking family had organised a motor conference at Clara to encourage the improvement of roads and were among of the principal backers of Marconi when he was developing radio. The Quakers in Ireland, as elsewhere, were respected for their honesty and integrity and the Goodbodys along with other Irish Quaker families such as the Pims, Bewleys, Shackeltons, Bells and Jacobs devoted their energies to the abolition of slavery, prison reform and famine relief. Their efforts in the Irish Famine of 1847/50 gained them great respect in Ireland as members of the Society of Friends would not proselytise whereas Protestant Evangelists set up soup kitchens open only to those who would convert and attend their Bible classes. In Ireland to this day to describe somebody as a “Souper” is a term of abuse.
On August 4th, 1914 England declared war on Germany and so began the conflict which became known as the “First World War” or simply the “Great War”. Both expressions speak of the uniqueness of the scale of the conflict in history. On September 20th John Redmond, leader of the Home Rule Parliamentary Party made his infamous ‘recruitment speech’ extolling Irish people to fight in the British Army at Woodenbridge Co. Wicklow. This speech split the nationalistic para-military force known as the Irish Volunteers into two factions. One faction supported John Redmond and his call to fight to secure Home Rule (a degree of self government within the British Empire) and was named the “National Volunteers”, the other supported Eoin McNeill and retained the name the “Irish Volunteers”. Few could have prophesised how the two Ireland’s would diverge over the next four years.
John Redmond’s call to enlist was heeded by the majority of Irish men who fought for Home Rule and “the defence of small nations” such as Belgium and by extension Ireland, and in the course of the war it is estimated of the 700,000 British military deaths 50,000 were Irish. There are two unique features of the Irish death toll. Firstly, unlike in Britain, there was never conscription in Ireland so every Irish soldier was a volunteer. Secondly, there is no category of “Irish” in the British war records so the number is estimated from the deaths in Irish regiments but also Irish Volunteers, who enrolled in English, Welsh and Scottish regiments. It is notable that proportionately this death toll is as high if not higher than in Britain.
Those who supported Eoin McNeill and the Irish Volunteers formed the nucleus of the 1916 Easter Rising against British Rule, the first major blow by a subject nation against “The Empire on which the sun never sets” and the prelude to Irish Independence being achieved in 1922. This was not independence for all of Ireland as six out of nine counties of the province of Ulster retained the Union with Britain as “Northern Ireland”.
I first went to the battlefields of World War 1 seven years ago having researched my wife’s great uncle Edward Kenny who fell at The Somme and is commemorated on the Thiepval Monument to The Missing of the Somme. When I mentioned our forthcoming trip to the battlefield’s to my mother, much to my surprise, she told me she too had an uncle who perished in the war and by coincidence my great uncle hailed from Clara, Co. Offaly, the same county as my wife’s great uncle. Unlike my wife’s relative James McMahon had a grave in the Aisne, the Department beyond the Somme whose capital is Cambrai and where the front line had stopped when the hostilities ended with the Armistice at 11 in the morning on the 11th November 1918.
James McMahon was killed on the 8th October 1918 at a village called Beaurevoir, one of roundly 90 young Dublin Fusiliers who were killed from the 8th to 11th October and are buried with him in the cemetery. He was killed, aged 20, just over 4 weeks from the end of the war taking part in the so called “March to Victory” which lasted for 100 days until the Armistice. While not obvious today when viewing the sleepy countryside, in 1918 this was the last part of the fortified Hindenburg Line being attacked by tired and inexperienced British Troops resulting in disproportionate casualties amongst the attackers. There were over 254 separate actions by the British forces in this final phase of the war and at that stage there were not too many seasoned soldiers left so young recruits bore the brunt of the action. Heavy casualties ensued totalling over 80,000 deaths amongst British Forces alone. Indeed, in a telling indication of the attitude among the General Staff to casualties there were more allied deaths on the morning of 11th November 1918 alone than there were on D-Day 1944.
The Ainse is the French department beyond the Somme in Picardy and in the final throes of the war in 1918 it had seen the initially successful major German attacks in the summer of 1918 in the Third Battle of the Ainse. However by this stage American troops and equipment were joined in combat on the Allied size and Germany after four years of fighting was running out of men and material to continue the war. Following the successful breaching of the main Hindenburg Line on 29 September – 1 October (see St Quentin Canal), the exhausted and depleted 3rd and 5th Australian divisions which took part in that attack were relieved by the 2nd Australian Division under Major General Charles Rosenthal on the nights of 1 and 2 October. The next day this formation was set to the task of breaching the final network of defences called the Beaurevoir system, the Australian’s objective being Montbrehain and the British forces objective being Beaurevoir itself. Over the next week there was a pattern of attack and counter attack in the rolling countryside beyond the Beaurevoir Line as the Allies advanced and the Germans vainly counterattacked as the Beaurevoir Line had been the last defensive position before Germany. It is in one of these actions that James McMahon and about 90 of his comrades in arms lost their lives on 8th to 11th October. The “final assault” on Germany the so called “March to Victory” had in fact similar casualty figures to the Battle of the Somme two years earlier but it did not register in the public consciousness in the same way as the Allies were advancing and the euphoria of victory was a few short weeks away.
Beaurevoir British Cemetery was made by the 66th Division in October, 1918, when officers and men who fell in the early part of that month were buried; and after the Armistice the graves of 70 who died in 1917-18, and were buried in the Communal Cemetery German Extension, were brought in to Rows AA, BB, B, C and G. These include James McMahon who lies in a row of other Dublin Fusillers. Other graves in the cemetery are from the Staffordshire Regiment and The South African Rifles. The mix in the graveyard points to companies being reformed in these desperate final weeks of war to keep up Divisional strength and the momentum of the offensive. It is possible James McMahon may have (as the local paper suggests) have joined the 6th Battallion of the Leinsters and then been reassigned to the Dublin Fusiliers as casualties took their toll on Battalion strength, at this remove and given the records of the time we may never know.
The respected American author Joseph E Persico has calculated a shocking figure that the final day of WWI would produce nearly 11,000 casualties, more than those killed, wounded or missing on D-Day, when Allied forces landed en masse on the shores of occupied France almost 27 years later. What is worse is that hundreds of these soldiers would lose their lives thrown into action by generals who knew that the Armistice had already been signed. The recklessness of General Wright, of the 89th American Division, is a case in point. Seeing his troops were exhausted and dirty, and hearing there were bathing facilities available in the nearby town of Stenay, he decided to take the town so his men could refresh themselves. “That lunatic decision cost something like 300 casualties, many of them battle deaths, for an inconceivable reason,” says Mr Persico.
Like much of the battlefields Beaurevoir is an unprepossessing and sleepy French “village” which actually straggles over two kilometres and has a population of 3,500 well dispersed inhabitants. In this area it contains 4 military cemeteries, Prospect Hill, Beaurevoir Communal Cemetery, Beaurevoir Extension Cemetery, and Beaurevoir British Cemetery where James McMahon is buried. Before the Battles of the Ainse in World War 1 it’s main claim to fame was it’s Chateau was where the Maid of Orleans, Joan of Arc was imprisoned when first captured by the enemies of the French King. Only the Tower of the Chateau now remains.
Like all the Commonwealth cemeteries Beaurevoir British Cemetery is beautifully maintained and lies on the edge of the village with the standard layout of the Cross of Remembrance and a shelter for visitors which also holds the Book of Remembrance. James lies in a row of other Dublin Fusiliers aged from 18 to 21 with his name on the headstone given as “B. J. McMahon”. The respect shown by French people to those who fought and died to defend their country is reinforced by a stone inscription on the back wall of the cemetery:
“The land on which this cemetery stands is the free gift of the French People for the perpetual resting place of those of the Allied Armies who fell in the war of 1914-1918 and are honoured here.”
I wasn’t expecting to feel a great deal of connection with somebody who died so many years before I was born but being there amongst the graves of so many young Irish soldiers who all died on the 8th October 1918 was surprisingly moving. There is great respect shown to these cemeteries by the way they are maintained by the War Graves Commission and by the local French communities. I wrote in the book in French “Thank you for looking after him so well” and we laid a Poppy wreath entwined with a ribbon in the colours of the Irish tricolour on the grave with the inscription “Remembered with pride by his family in Ireland”. We had laid one the previous day at the Thiepval memorial with the same inscription in memory of Edward Kenny.
By 1922 the Irish Free State was independent and those who had “fought for England” were lambasted as traitors and their sacrifice was largely ignored by the new Irish nation which saw 500,000 people emigrate in the first 5 years of independence. These were a mixture of “loyalists” who did not identify with the “Free State” but also anti-treaty republicans who were on the losing side in the bitter Civil War which followed independence. In Ulster the unnatural partition was reinforced by a Unionist state which practiced a brutal sectarianism on the unwilling nationalists caught within its borders and where the economy of the border areas was destroyed by “Imperial Custom Posts” and cities such as Derry and Newry being cut off from their natural hinterland and declining. In “Ulster” the undoubted bravery and sacrifice of the Ulster regiments was celebrated as a blood sacrifice which proclaimed their loyalty to Britain and their right to union with the “mainland.” Thus the war and its commemoration afterwards served to reinforce and deepen the partition of Ireland and the divisions between the two Irish identities of Nationalism and Unionism.
Clara too is much changed from the industrial powerhouse and junction of three railways which James McMahon grew up in. The last Goodbody factory closed in 1984, it is no longer a railway junction and the mainline to Galway no longer runs through the town but only a branch line to Westport and Sligo and the River Brosna is no longer navigable for barges to the Shannon River and Ireland’s canal system. In truth young James McMahon lived in a world of few choices for ordinary working people and no doubt felt he was doing the right thing for Ireland and his family by enlisting to fight for the rights of small nations and Home Rule for Ireland which had been approved in 1914 but deferred to the end of hostilities, by which time all had changed.
As part of the process of reconciliation in Ireland the Irish Dead of the world wars are now commemorated at a service attended by the President and the Government and this issue which has divided in the past has helped make the distance between Belfast and Dublin shorter and contribute to the process of reconciliation on the island of Ireland. On Armistice Day I too will be proud to wear a poppy not in support of British Militarism or to legitimise the wanton waste of life in war. Rather I’ll wear it to remember the great sacrifice of James McMahon and his comrades who made a brave personal choice to fight for the greater freedom of humanity and paid the ultimate price for their beliefs. I will recall the words of the poet John McCrae;
“In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.”
Today, powered by its readers and contributors, from its cyber eyries in Ireland and the centres of the Irish Diaspora The Eagle casts its Cold Eye on Life and Death and much in between.