Ireland's Experience: Episode 2 - The Front
World War One began dramatically, with The Germans sweeping through Belgium and France as they drove towards Paris. But for the most part, the conflict was characterised by its lack of movement. There was a stalemate - both sides dug in, producing a long matching line of trenches along the Western Front. Each side attempted to wear the other down in a brutal war of attrition.
World War One was fought on many battlefronts in various different theatres of war. The life of a soldier took many forms, and their experiences varied widely from front to front.
This episode explored the stories of men from all over Ireland who survived and died on the front lines. What it was like to come face to face with the horror and savagery of war. And, the physical and psychological injuries these men suffered.
Myles Dungan was joined by Dr. Heather Jones, Associate Professor of the Department of International History at the London School of Economics. And joining us from studios in Britain, we have Keith Jeffrey, Professor of British History at Queen’s University Belfast and Richard Grayson, Professor of Twentieth Century History at Goldsmith’s University of London.
The eager thousands who enlisted in 1914 would have had romantic ideas about what war was like. These notions would have been quickly dispelled when they were faced with the mud, blood and general drudgery of life in the trenches. So what was the experience of trench warfare was actually like for these young men.
The Second Royal Dublin Fusiliers
The Fusiliers arrived in France in August 1914. The landscape was dotted with red poppies – a flower which would commemorate many of their lives in decades to come. Louise Denvir went to France this summer to trace the steps of this battalion. Many of these men were killed in action at Le Cateau on 27 August 1914 and for the first time this summer, their names were read aloud on the field where they fell. We carried two reports from France and a reading of some of these names on the programme.
The trench is perhaps the most recognisable aspect of War World One. Orla Rapple visited Wexford man, Brian Keny who has taken his passion and interest in World War One a step further, by recreating a trench in his back garden.
Brian Kenny is author of “News from the Front - Gorey and the Great War”.
In the dark, dank, trenches, where even lighting a cigarette could attract the attention of an enemy sniper, soldiers came up with an inventive way of providing some much-needed illumination – glow worms, as we heard from Steven Benedict.
Throughout history, diseases have flourished in chaotic wartime conditions. Several illnesses have become particularly linked with the trenches of World War One as Lorcan Clancy told us.
Chaplains in World War 1
Frontline chaplains risked their lives to administer to the spiritual needs of soldiers. But their role extended beyond this, as we heard on the programme.
Fr. Willie Doyle, chaplain to the 16th Irish Division who was killed at the front has no known grave but is commemorated on the Tyne Cot Memorial.
Medics at the Front
New weapons introduced in WW1 (such as poison gas) posed huge challenges to medical staff at the front. Also, the introduction of helmets in 1915 meant that many people who would have previously been killed by shell fire, now survived.
POWs During WW1
At least eight million soldiers fell into enemy hands from 1914 to 1918. Heather Jones talked about recent research that gives us new insights into conditions for POWs.
Soldiers from Cork
Volunteers from the Blackpool suburb of Cork were among those who fought at the front. Regan Hutchins caught up with relatives who have gathered their stories. You’ll find more in Mark Cronin’s book, Blackpool to the Front.
Unionists and Nationalists Fight Side by Side
In Richard Grayson's book “Belfast Boys”, he writes about the Unionists and Nationalists from West Belfast who fought and died together in the war. As he told us, their differences were often left behind once they were both faced with the horror of warfare at the front.
Discipline in the army was strict and the men were under no illusion as to what would happen if they didn’t follow orders – they would be shot. Our panel talked about how a soldier would end up beig court-martialled and executed. We also heard that all of these men have now been pardoned.
Robert Quigg from County Antrim was one of thousands of members of the Ulster Volunteer Force who enlisted for active service in the British Army at the outbreak of war. He's among the 37 soldiers from the island of Ireland who won a Victoria Cross during World War One - that's the highest military decoration for valour awarded to members of the Commonwealth forces. He won the medal for his actions at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, when his commanding officer was reported missing. Robert Quigg's grandson, Darren told us his story.
Robert Quigg VC
The History Show would like to acknowledge the support of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Reconciliation Fund.