Brothers in arms: the lives & deaths of Arnold & Donald Fletcher
By Michael Lee
It is one of the city’s most imposing and impressive buildings. What are now known as Government Buildings on Dublin’s Merrion Street were built prior to Irish independence with a view to providing accommodation for new government offices to house, amongst other vital functions, the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction that had been created by an 1899 Act of the British Parliament. The mission of the newly-created Department was a straightforward one – to promote economic and technical development – and its very establishment brought to Ireland an English family whose fortunes would, ultimately, become bound up in the heroism and horror of Ireland’s involvement in the First World War. Originally from Derby in England, the Fletcher family moved to Dublin in 1900 on the appointment of George Fletcher to the role of chief instructor of Technical Instruction in the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction, which was headed by Sir Horace Plunkett, the founder of the Irish co-operative movement.
Who were the Fletcher family?
George Fletcher was a working class boy who had left school at 14, becoming a telegraphist in the Midland Railway Company. Impatient to attain a good education, he attended night classes at the Derby Technical School where he qualified in Electrical Engineering. He also took various courses in sciences and arts. A top student, George also took time out to write poetry and paint watercolours. George and his wife Henrietta, known in the family as Etty, lived in a small terraced redbrick house near Derby station and in the beginning married life was hard. While George was interested in education to better himself, Henrietta was more interested in social advancement. She was two years older than George and had been born into a shop-keeping family. Henrietta’s family looked down on George and his job with the railways. They believed that Henrietta – small, dark and attractive but with a tough manner – had married beneath herself. George, for his part, was tall, fair, personable, and so impressed the staff at the Derby Technical School that he was invited join as an instructor. By 1891 he had become principal science instructor with a salary of £200 per annum.
The Fletchers by then had three children – Connie, Arnold and Kenneth – and were most certainly climbing the social ladder and entering the middle class, to the great relief, no doubt, of Henrietta’s family. When they moved into a bigger house nearer to Derby City they hired a nurse, although a maid remained beyond their financial reach. In 1894, George was appointed Inspector for Science Teaching in the West Country and the family moved to Plymouth, where in 1897 their fourth child Donald was born. Soon after, George again attained promotion, becoming Science Inspector for the Midlands area. The family were now living in a large house in Moseley, Birmingham, where another child, Gilbert was born. Another promotion and further move followed soon after.
The Fletchers in Ireland
This time it took them to Ireland, the Fletchers settling into a large house (Dawson Court) on Cross Avenue in the south Dublin suburb of Blackrock. They arrived in Ireland on the offer to George of a job in the new Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction. In 1904, George was appointed Assistant Secretary of that Department and the family moved into a larger house, No. 53 Pembroke Road, Dublin. Around this time another son, Linton, was born.
For the Fletchers, these were productive years. George’s department was heavily involved in the teaching and training of Irish arts and crafts and it was through these endeavours he struck up a personal and professional friendship with Lady Aberdeen, the wife of the Lord Lieutenant and an energetic champion of both social reform and Irish industry. And it wasn’t just George: his eldest daughter Constance was also involved with Aberdeen’s various campaigns, travelling the country giving lectures on health education and the scourge of tuberculosis.
Two of Constance’s brothers had other interests. Although there was an age difference of over seven years between Arnold and his younger brother Donald they were good pals. They often went exploring together on their bicycles to the Wicklow hills, with Arnold acquiring a curiosity about rock samples along the way. Arnold attended St Andrew's School in Dublin in 1901, transferring the following year Worcester Royal Grammar School, which he attended until 1905. Donald was educated at Dublin’s High School and then St Andrew's. The boys were bright and performed well at school and both progressed to attending Trinity College, Dublin. Here, Arnold’s interest in rocks became his passion for study. Awarded £50 by the Royal Society to enable him to complete research on radioactive materials at the Royal College of Science in Dublin, he was, on concluding his final exams, appointed assistant to John Joly, Professor of Geology in Trinity College. Arnold’s paper 'The Radioactivity of the Leinster Granite' was published in the Philosophical Magazine in 1911. Later that year in the same magazine, he published 'The Radioactivity of some Igaeous Rocks from Antarctic Regions'. Interestingly, the rock samples analysed by Arnold – they had been lent by Joly – had been collected by Lieutenant Ernest Shackleton during his epic Antartic expedition of 1907-09. Arnold had a reputation for taking minute care in research and went to great lengths to obtain reliable results. His paper on the radium content of Secondary Rocks, published in the Philosophical Magazine in February 1912, was hailed as the best work done on the subject and would long remain so. Arnold seemed destined for a brilliant career as a geologist and scientist. He moved to Cork as Inspector of Schools and Technical Board in the Dept of Agriculture. Meanwhile, Donald, after High School entered Trinity College in April 1914 as an under-graduate, where he joined the Officer Training Corps.
Brothers at War
When the Great War broke out in 1914, the Fletcher family were keen to 'do their bit'. Constance, who was now married to James Heppell Marr, a mine manager, joined the Red Cross where her father George was organising first aid classes. Heppell Marr volunteered for the army and was given a commission in the Royal Irish Fusiliers. For their part, Arnold and Donald Fletcher joined the army in 1915 and both were gazetted 2nd Lieutenants in the 4th Battalion Leinster Regiment. They headed for Passage West in Co. Cork, where the 4th Battalion was engaged in the training of recruits. On the 21 May 1915, the Battalion sailed from Queenstown for Plymouth for more training. The Battalion returned to Ireland, arriving at Gough Barracks, the Curragh, on 29 September.
Due in part to the prevailing political situation in Ireland, recruiting was difficult, so in November, Lt Arnold Lockhart Fletcher was ordered to take the band and pipes on a recruiting tour. They visited Tipperary, Waterford and King’s and Queen’s Counties, the Regimental history stating that they were ‘received with enthusiasm and met a certain measure of success’. The 4th Battalion was being used to train and fill up the other Leinster Battalions at this time.
In early April 1916, the whole Battalion was transferred to the New Barracks in Limerick. Second Lieutenant Arnold Lockhart Fletcher was again dispatched with the Regimental band on a recruitment drive to Waterford. During the 1916 Rising, the 4th Leinsters were ordered to secure the jail, the post office and the railway bridge across the river Shannon in Galway.
2nd Lieutenant Donald Lockhart Fletcher had been attached to the 6th Battalion Leinster Regiment and had embarked for Salonika, Greece on 7 June 1916, arriving there 10 days later.
Around the same time as Donald was heading for Salonika, Arnold was sent to the Machine Gun Training School at Grantham for training. Here he would learn all about the destructive power of this new form of mass killing. It is likely that Arnold was sent to the Machine Gun Corps (MGC), because he was an expert in maths and science. He was with the 193rd Machine Gun Company, which landed in France on the 13 December 1916 and was attached to the 56th (1st London) Division on the 24 December 1916.
By the spring of 1917, Arras was the central battleground of the Western Front for the British. Hindenburg and Ludendorff were appointed Commanders to the German forces. A new German strategy was also decided upon. Verdun, although a terrible tragedy for the French had also been very costly for the Germans, so there could be no more offensives which would consume thousands more men. The decision was made to go on the defensive in the west, even at the cost of giving up hard won territory. This would be a consolidation to a shorter but much stronger position to a line east of Arras, the 'Siegfried Stellung', also known as the 'Hindenburg Line'. This area had been prepared with formidable defences including reinforced concrete blockhouses and much barbed wire, as far back as October 1916. Between February and April 1917 the Germans pulled back to this position. A policy of destruction or 'scorched earth' was carried out as they pulled back. The plan was now to let the U-Boats take up the fight, by attacking all merchant shipping, both allied and neutral. It was hoped to starve Britain into submission. However, this decision would later have dire consequences for Germany, as the sinking of neutral merchant vessels, would precipitate America’s entry into the war in April 1917. A bold and slightly arrogant French offensive was prepared for the spring by General Nivelle, the new French Commander-in-Chief. This was based on the idea that French Generals could succeed where British ones had failed. With the plan approved by the new British Prime Minister Lloyd George, the offensive was to be delivered on the Chemin-des-Dames, between Reims and Vailly-sur-Aisne on 16 April 1917.
The plan would end in failure, the only success made by the British and the Canadians, who on Easter Monday, 9 April, the opening day of the Battle of Arras, gained considerable territory. Aided by artillery, the British attacked from Arras and the Canadians at Vimy Ridge. However, the initial gains weren’t exploited and within days the British were back in their trenches. The 56th Division, of VII Corps was part of General Allenby’s Third Army. It focused on the Scarpe River valley, east of Arras and captured the town of Neuville Vitasse. The troops included in this attack were the 14th Battalion London Scottish of the 168th Brigade, deploying left from the Sunken Road and passing through the Rampart. The 193rd MGC, Lieutenants Wilson and A.L. Fletcher reconnoitred the terrain they would have to advance over. Many German prisoners were brought in. Wilson and Fletcher noted much hesitation by the London Scottish in deciding on their direction. The 193rd MGC moved up in immediate support. Meanwhile the 12th London (Rangers) of 168th Brigade were having a difficult time of it. Unable to get through the heavy wire entanglements, the Battalion was held up at Pine Lane trench, running north from Neuville Vitasse. Casualties were heavy until a tank was able to crush enough wire to let the men through.
On 18 April, Lt A.L. Fletcher, O.C. No. 1 Section and his Machine Gun Corps were ordered to a new position in case of an enemy attack on Wancourt. This would enable the MGC to fire down the valley on their left flank. Their orders were to hold the position until it was established that the Germans were advancing through Wancourt. No. 1 Section was now in position and Lt Arnold L. Fletcher, while making his way back was injured by an exploding shell. Suffering major leg wounds, he was admitted to No.2 British Red Cross Hospital near Rouen the next day. On receiving word of Arnold’s injuries back in Dublin, his father George hurried out to France to be with his eldest son.
In Salonika meanwhile, 2nd Lt Donald Lockhart Fletcher was fighting off more than one enemy over the last months. Along with many others he was suffering from various sicknesses. He was first admitted to hospital on 26 June 1916, where he stayed for nearly a month. Within a week of his discharge he was back in hospital. Donald would have various visits to hospital during this time, suffering from gastroenteritis, malaria and even a snake bite. The 1st and 6th Leinsters had been brought together into the 10th (Irish) Division, when the 1st Leinsters joined the 29th Brigade. They were situated in the Struma Valley. Salonika was becoming another disaster for the British, a large offensive had been a failure. General Serrail was clamouring for a vastly increased force, while Sir William Robertson wanted to withdraw completely. As most minds in Britain and France were focused on the Western Front, Salonika was quickly becoming a forgotten graveyard. At this time the Struma was fairly quiet and the troops were mainly used for repair work. The weather in early 1917 was appalling with heavy rain, gales and snow. On the 13 January 1917, 'A' 'C' and 'D' Companies of the 6th Leinsters took over the line of trenches at Yenikoi, where Battalion HQ was situated. The sector was relatively quiet with just a few skirmishes and some visits by enemy aircraft. The biggest enemy at this time was the weather, which caused much flooding. In early February the 6th Leinsters moved to the reserve line at Mekes, then to Orljack. Training and repair of defences were the main occupations. By 16 March the Battalion was at HQ situated at Dolap Ciftl. Part of the Leinsters' line at Barakli Dzuma was subjected to a heavy bombardment on 17 March, which caused two platoons to leave the town. A strong enemy patrol tried to enter the village, but was driven back. Towards evening two platoons of 'D' Coy set up a Lewis machine gun and dug new trenches in front of Barakli Village. All through April, the sector was fairly quiet and only a few casualties were sustained. On 17 April, the 6th Leinsters moved to Elisan, where they were refitted and more training commenced. On the 28 April, 2nd Lt Donald Lockhart Fletcher was giving a class for bombers when a hand grenade that he was demonstrating blew up prematurely. 20 years old, he was killed instantly.
As this tragedy was unfolding in Salonika, in Rouen, France, George Fletcher was beside his now dying eldest son Arnold. On 30 April 1917, Lt Arnold Lockhart Fletcher succumbed to his wounds and passed away. He was 28 years old. George did not know his other son 2nd Lt Donald Lockhart Fletcher had died two days earlier. He would return home to both bring and receive tragic news. Numbed with grief, the boys' mother 'Etty' didn’t speak for two years.
Another brother, Captain George Kenneth Fletcher, became a Chaplain in the Army. He survived the war. But what of their sister, Constance? Well, she became famous in later life as the Society flower arranger and designer and cookery book author, Constance Spry. She died in 1960, but her books are still in print.