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Friday 8 December 2023 Dublin: 9°C
The Great War

8 Irish characters who were changed forever by World War I

The daughter of a Kerry clergyman, three Irish air aces and a Corkman who won the Victoria Cross – some of the hidden heroes of WWI.

THE EFFECT OF the Irish who served at World War I is no longer disputed – over 200,000 of them fought in the war. Between 30,000 and 50,000 died in that act (depending on whether you count just those in the British forces, or those serving in other armies).

Historian Turtle Bunbury has researched the tales of some of those whose lives took an “entirely unexpected turn” because of their experiences in the war:

1. On Sky Patrol with Erskine Childers

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Erskine Childers is best known as the spy novelist who steered Asgard into Howth on 26 July 1914 with a cargo of 900 German rifles for the Irish Volunteers.

When Britain declared war on Germany nine days later, Childers put his thoughts of Ireland on hold and enlisted in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. He spent the next two years working as an aerial observer over the North Sea, Gallipoli and Palestine.

His last wartime job was as an advisor to the RAF on a projected air-raid on Berlin. The attack was delayed by 24 hours because of bad weather, which was fortunate for Berlin because during those 24 hours, the German government surrendered and World War One stuttered to a close.

Childers opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1922 and was executed later that year by the Irish Free State government.

2. Sergeant Major Flora Sandes

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Flora Sandes was the daughter of a clergyman from Kerry and a Cork-born mother. Her childhood wish was to wake up as a boy and she spent those formative years mastering the arts of fishing, shooting and, later on, smoking, drinking and driving an open-top car at breakneck speeds down country roads.

When the Great War began, she joined St John’s Ambulance and was posted to Serbia, an ally of Britain. Finding their hospitals sorely under-equipped, she went on a fund-raising expedition to England and Ireland and returned to Serbia laden with 120 tons of anaesthetics, gauze and other medical supplies.

Having narrowly survived a typhoid epidemic, she enlisted as a Sergeant Major in the Serbian Army’s Iron Regiment. Badly wounded during a charge, she was awarded Serbia’s highest military medal. She remained in the Serbian Army until 1922, married a White Russian and later worked as a chaperone to a troupe of pretty young Folies Bergère cabaret singers.

3. Mick O’Leary, VC

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Michael O’Leary was working as a mounted policeman in Canada when the war erupted. He returned to Europe and joined the Irish Guards. One day on the Western Front in 1915, Lance-Corporal O’Leary conducted a single-handed mission into enemy lines, killing eight Germans and taking two more prisoner, as well as capturing two machine gun posts.

He was awarded the Victoria Cross but his father, an Irish-speaking sheep farmer from Macroom, County Cork, was still not impressed.

“I often laid out twenty men myself with a stick coming from Macroom Fair, and it is a bad trial of Mick that he could kill only eight, and he having a rifle and bayonet.”

Mick O’Leary later fetched up as a doorman at Harrods in London.

4. Tom Barry

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The iconic Republcian guerrilla fighter who led a highly effective flying column in West Cork during the War of Independence learned much of his military expertise while serving with the Royal Field Artillery on the Western Front and in Mesopotamia (Iraq).

“I went to the war for no other reason than that I wanted to see what war was like, to get a gun, to see new countries and to feel a grown man,” he wrote.

In Mesopotamia, Barry was part of a massive Allied campaign to relieve a force of 8,500 British soldiers besieged in the town of Kut by Ottoman Turks. The relief mission failed and the soldiers in Kut became Turkish prisoners on the same day Padraig Pearse surrendered the GPO in Dublin.

When Barry subsequently learned what went on during the Easter Rising, he began to rapidly lose his faith in the British system.

5. The Irish Air Aces

Sean Carney / Wikimedia Sean Carney / Wikimedia / Wikimedia

Precise figures for which pilots won more aerial victories in the sky are often a matter of considerable dispute but it is generally agreed that the top three World War One air aces from Britain and Ireland were Edward ‘Mick’ Mannock with at least 61 kills, James McCudden (pictured above) with 57 and George ‘McIrish’ McElroy with 47.

All three were destined to die in the war. A rather lesser known fact is that all three had strong Irish connections. Mannock was born in Ireland to a mother from Cork. McCudden’s father was born in County Carlow. McElroy, who was born and raised in Dublin, was the son of a Roscommon schoolteacher and his Westmeath-born wife.

6. Sackville Carden & Jack de Robeck

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The first major attempt to win the Gallipoli campaign was conducted by a Royal Navy fleet commanded by Vice-Admiral Sackville Carden (pictured above). He grew up between Cavan, and also Tipperary where his family had been living at the foot of the Devil’s Bit Mountain since the 17th century.

Carden was instructed to invade the Dardanelles Strait with a fleet that was dangerously below par. His nerve failed shortly before the attack was due to commence and he was relieved of his command. The operation was subsequently led by his deputy Jack de Robeck from Punchestown, County Kildare.

One third of de Robeck’s fleet were either sunk or seriously damaged, with 700 men dead, before the action was called off.

7. The Eagle of Trieste

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Gottfried Freiherr von Banfield, the most successful Austro-Hungarian naval pilot of the war, descended from the Banfields, a Quaker merchant family from Clonmel, County Tipperary.

His grandfather Thomas Collins Banfield ‪was born in Bandon, County Cork, and served as an accountant with the British army. In 1853, Thomas was married in Vienna to Josephine von Frech, an Austrian aristocrat. Their son Richard – Gottfried’s father – became an Austrian citizen and was commissioned as a gunnery officer with the Austro-Hungarian Navy.

Born in Montenegro in 1890, Gottfried racked up nine confirmed air kills (and eleven unconfirmed) over the Adriatic between 1915 and 1918.

8. Liam O’Flaherty

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O’Flaherty was one of Ireland’s most prolific writers during the 1930s and 1940s and is often regarded as the finest novelist of his generation.

Born on the Aran island of Inis Mór, County Galway, he was 19 when he joined the Irish Guards under the pseudonym ‘Bill Ganly’ in 1915. At the Western Front, he was thrown into the devastating monotony of trench life until September 1917 when he was comatosed and badly injured by an artillery shell at Langemarck.

He later co-founded the Irish Communist Party and wrote a screenplay for the Oscar-winning film, ‘The Informer’. It seems likely that the shell shock he suffered in 1917 caused the mental illness that plagued him in later life.

The Glorious Madness: Tales of the Irish and the Great War by Turtle Bunbury is published by Gill & MacMillan Books.

The 33 men and a boy who kept 10,000-strong English army at bay in Cork>

Pictorial record shows the Irish hard at work 100 years ago>

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