My grandfather was born in 1880, the seventh of nine sons, four of whom lived long enough to serve in the first world war, and all four survived it (though one of them by less than a year). Last summer I found a letter he'd written an old friend, presumably his former regimental chaplain, from the Holy Land in January 1918, when he would have been 37, the same age that I am now. (I never met him; he dropped dead at Mass one day in 1949, his 20-year-old son standing beside him.)
It's the sort of letter you would expect of an Irish Catholic who was also a British lieutenant-colonel, who had survived Gallipoli and (much earlier) the Boer War, and who went on to run a rubber plantation in Malaya before retiring to impoverished gentility in Northern Ireland. I don't agree with a number of the sentiments expressed; but I think it's appropriate at this time of year to post it here.
Most of the personal references mean nothing to me; I haven't been able to identify the monastery "where Christ is supposed to have appeared to the three disciples"; the "9th August" obviously means Gallipoli; the "convention" refers to the Irish Convention, chaired by Horace Plunkett, in a well-meaning but doomed (and now largely forgotten) attempt to get a constitutional settlement in Ireland before Sinn Fein's rise became unstoppable; and "Miss May Grehan" I think is the sister of the wife of his brother George, whose death in 1919 I noted at the top of this entry. In a sense, posting it here is a memo to myself to find out more about him, if I can.
13 January 1918
This is to wish you all of the best for 1918 and also to ask why the divil we never hear from you? The boys do be going strong and as you probably have read we have had three successful stunts so we are all wagging our tails hard.
Has been hard work on little food and less drink; absolutely no whiskey! Stuffer is perforce a teetotaler and aging rapidly.
John Luke, sitting beside me much wishes he was where he last saw you. I gather you fed him nobly with drink in proportion!
Well, here we are in the Holy Land and as Pat Murphy said "It's no wonder Abraham was always wandering; sure he would be looking for a better spot."
I got as far as Jerusalem just for a look at it. As a city most disappointing, incredibly dirty and smelly with a loathsome population. The interest of course is in the association with Biblical and Christian incidents. I saw the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Via Dolorosa, Garden of Gethsemane Mount of Olives etc etc. Had only time for a glimpse at each, and also one or two of the Moslem places. The Mosque of Omar built on the site of Solomon's temple is far and away the finest thing in Jerusalem or out of it. The whole of this country is full of interest also. We bivouaced under the hill where Christ is supposed to have appeared to the three disciples after his resurrection. There is a Latin Monastery there ran by Franciscans. - French and Italian.
Got some bread and oranges out of them when they learnt we were all R.Cs. The Turk had left them pretty bare. The O.C. Monks breakfasted with me next day and was very interesting. They are evidently very industrious people, have transformed the top of a bare and bleak mountain into quite a charming spot. Trees planted, gardens flourishing with vines, oranges, pepper trees, etc. to say nothing of flowers and vegetables. Chapel is very fine and the Monastery and Hospice are very large; all buildings cut stone. We were using Hospice as a hospital. By the way it was here our padre first failed us. Being a holy man I sent him out foraging to the Monastery, as we were short of food, and expected him to return with all sorts of luxuries. However all he got out of the Monks was permission to pray in their Chapel! Not much use to hungry men! I think you or the Canon would not have come away empty handed.
The padre is one of your recruits Fr O'Carroll by name a good lad, but a bit young for the "brutal soldiery". Next day I took in the job of foraging myself.
Another day we had a small scrap in the same place where Joshua hunted the 4 kings (I think). As far as I remember a terrific hail storm put the wind up them. We were assisted by a fog and sneaked up to the Turk and put the wind up him.
As regards fighting generally we have had a walk over as compared with the Gallipoli days. My company on 9th August lost more in 3 hours than the battalion has lost in all this campaign. Thank God for it. Our last stunt, when we counter attacked during Turks attempt to recapture Jerusalem, was I think our best effort. Anyhow the old Division was let loose as a whole and we fairly wiped everybody else's eye. Our share of the pick up
was morekilled, wounded, prisoners, guns, M.Gs. etc. was more than three times as large as all the other divisions put together.
It was hard work though. Xmas day was the divil raining like hell and New Years Day if possible worse. All the time we were on bully & biscuit and not enough of either. Indeed to look back now over the country we put the Turk out of it is astonishing an army was ever able to cross it. We went up 4 mountains all nearly 3000 feet high to say nothing of dozens of lower eminences. Men of course were marvelous, so happy and cheery under most adverse conditions and mad keen to get at the Turk. The other day a patrol came back grousing, saying the officer in charge was no good as he couldn't find them any Turks to kill! With me still or rejoined lately are John Luke and Shadforth (both have done awfully well) also old Dovey, Loveband and of course the Stuffer. Wodehouse also here sticking it out well in spite of rheumatism.
Lots of the "old hands" here also "getting their own back".
Col Cox writes he met you in Ireland so he will have given you all recent news. -
We have had no mail for weeks. In this country and under present weather conditions it takes a lot of doing to keep us fed and supplied with lead as a gift to the Turk. -
What is going on in Ireland? Is the convention going to put things right or are the Germans going to fool the Irishman into another rebellion? Meantime we are sighing for fresh blood to help us carry on. Only yesterday I had 2 men hit for the 4th time and another hit for the sixth! They will still carry on whilst thousands of able bodied men at home waste time doing nothing but talk rot.
Nothing else matters, except to beat the Hun. When that is done there will be no particular harm in people returning to their petty parish politics. -
Well! Well! God save Ireland anyway!
Have you done any racing lately? And if so I hope you gave Miss May Grehan VAD. better tips than you ever gave me! Give her my kindest regards. Also to The Canon when next you see him, and the two of you can drink to the health of yours v sincerely
W. H. Whyte