November 11th, 2018


The first world war centenary

It seems strangely appropriate that I should be in Belgrade today. After all, the first world war started here; the first shots of the war were fired by an Austrian river monitor ship against the city’s defences. (Of course this was a consequence of the Sarajevo assassination a month before.)

But there is a family link also. My grandfather, who was born in 1880 and fought throughout the first world war in the 6th Royal Dublin Fusliers, part of the 10th (Irish) Division, fought in the Battle of Kosturino in December 1915, for which he was awarded the Order of the White Eagle, Fourth Class, by the King of Serbia. We still have it somewhere. His own government awarded him the DSO in January 1918. A few months before coming to the Macedonia front, he was wounded at Suvla Bay during the Gallipoli campaign. He stayed in Macedonia throughout 1916 (and was mentioned in dispatches both for Kosturino and for the capture of Yeniköy, now Provatas, in October). In 1917 he transferred to Palestine, and I have the text of a letter he wrote to an old friend in January 1918. I never met him; he dropped dead at Mass in Rostrevor in 1949, standing beside his 20-year-old son, my father.

My grandfather was one of nine brothers (and there were five sisters as well). Five of the nine had already died before 1914; the other three all served, George in the Royal Army Medical Corps, Thomas in the Royal Garrison Artillery and Maurice in the Royal Artillery. Maurice was gassed, but lived until the 1970s. George died less than a year after the war ended. We know very little of Thomas, who also died relatively young.

On my American side, my grandmother’s brother Lyman C. Hibbard was active in the American Ambulance Field Service in France in 1915 and 1916, and then joined the U.S. Field Artillery, fighting at Verdun, for which he was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French.

I don’t think there are any particular lessons to be drawn, except that we are fortunate to live in an age when the horros of total war are unlikely to be visited on Europe again.

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