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Dublin: 9 °C Wednesday 12 December, 2018
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'2 more weeks and he'd be back with other survivors with scarred lungs, stumped limbs or a shattered sanity'

Remembering our war dead means reminding ourselves who and what made them war dead and to despise their modern-day equivalents, writes Tom Farrell.

Tom Farrell Freelance journalist and writer based in Dublin

EIGHT POSTCARDS ARE all I have of my great-grandfather, Private James Murphy, who was killed a month before the November 1918 Armistice in the Fifth Battle of Ypres.

They are delicate sepia coloured rectangles of cardboard dating from July 1916 to around September 1917.

One has Christmas trees, another the legend ‘a kiss from France’, while others show flags and birds on a branch. They are addressed to my great-grandmother Bridget, his daughter Josephine and Jim, my grandfather who died when I was 14 years old.

FROM HUSBAND TO WIFE Letter from my great-grandfather to my great-grandmother

I regret that I have no photograph and also that I didn’t ask much about Private James Murphy, Private 1st Royal Dublin Fusiliers, while my grandfather was still alive. But I suspect that’s a common regret among descendants of the roughly 36,000 Irishmen who were dead by the time silence fell over the trenches and dugouts.

Vilified

At the time, our prevailing historical narrative vilified the 210,000 soldiers who enlisted. Many saw them as naive dupes of Empire, if not outright traitors.

Government politicians kept away from memorial services. The Irish National War Memorial Gardens in Islandbridge were a graffiti-festooned ruin. Part of the area was even used as a dump by Dublin Corporation.

A welcome change in attitudes has been prevalent since the 1990s. A far more nuanced and compassionate attitude towards so many of our grandfathers and great-grandfathers has been made possible by new books and documentaries while a ‘Peace Park’ even exists near Messines Ridges, where southern and Ulster troops fought alongside each other in mid 1917.

Thanks to the Flanders Field Museum website, it is now possible to access the war records of almost any Irish soldier, listed as killed or missing in the war.

But perhaps predictably, old gripes die hard.

There has recently been a good deal of indignation about politicians and sports people wearing or not wearing poppies and whether commemorating the Great War is tantamount to sanitising the odious imperial chauvinism that fuelled it.

But it’s possible we are missing the bigger picture: the ‘war to end all wars’ reminds us how, then and now, history can very quickly change everything we take for granted.

Flanders

On 29 September this year, I took a hike from the town of Ieper in Flanders, Belgium, to the surrounding countryside. It was the centenary of the death of James Murphy but the wasteland where he and millions of others died never seemed so far away.

Under bright autumnal sunshine, the countryside was a gentle roll of tillage and corn fields. Signs on roads pointed to this or that cemetery, maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. It was nearly impossible to imagine it was the same place most of us have seen in flickering silent footage: flooded craters and mud, bare tree stumps and coils of barbed wire.

My research has revealed that Private Murphy left Ireland just before Christmas 1915, fought on The Somme and was a lucky survivor of the 1918 Spring Offensive that devastated the 1st and 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers.

It was day two into the Fifth Ypres battle when he died, as Allied troops advanced from a town called Zonnebeke towards Ieper. Rain had begun falling the day before, turning the ground into a quagmire. British and Belgian troops dropped parachuted rations from airplanes.

I soon reached the Hooge Crater Cemetery where he is buried and paid my private respects. And I imagined if he had lived a few more weeks. He would have been among the millions of survivors, many of them returning home with scarred lungs, stumped limbs or a shattered sanity.

Postcard 1 Belgium Postcard from Belgium

A Tram-Car Worker

When the 1911 Census was placed online a few years ago, I looked up James Murphy. In 1911 he was working as a tram-car worker in Dublin and already had a young family. Although it is pure conjecture, a historian of the Royal Dublin Fusilers suggested to me a few years ago that by the outbreak of war, James Murphy may have been facing poverty.

Already poorly paid, the Dublin bosses came down especially hard on striking tram-car workers after the 1913 Lockout. Conscription did not exist and perhaps, after being blacklisted, the Army provided him with a steady wage.

But what is certain, is that if he had survived, he would have returned to Dublin to find the world of pre-August 1914 gone forever.

The Great War was an unqualified calamity. After 1918, the ‘winning’ nations got economic slump and open class warfare. The losers got civil war and revolution.

Consider The Somme, where 20,000 men were killed on the first day of fighting or the three months of Passchendale in 1917, that killed 400,000 men for a few miles of mud around Ypres. But then the ‘over by Christmas’ boast of 1914 must have seemed like a sick joke.

The politicians and generals were forging ahead with the three things that would make the 20th century so brutal: deadly technology, unrealistic objectives and utter indifference to human suffering.

The war saw the first true chemical weapons deployed. The first modern genocide –unleashed by the Turks on the Armenians – was a by-product of the conflict.
James Murphy died at age 37. I doubt if a working class tram-car worker like my great-grandfather would have imagined the world of his young adulthood being gone forever within a few years.

But if the world of a century ago seems distant or alien, it is important to remember this: national jingoism, whose impact left the world in ruins by 1918 and would lay the groundwork for an even worse war within a generation, has not gone away. On the contrary, a new breed of leader, with simple and threatening ‘my country right or wrong’ outlook is on the rise.

Remembering our war dead in 2018 is not just about respect. We need to remind ourselves who and what made them war dead, and to despise their modern-day equivalents. 

Tom Farrell is a freelance journalist and writer based in Dublin who writers for several Irish and UK newspapers and magazines. 

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About the author:

Tom Farrell  / Freelance journalist and writer based in Dublin

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