The Irish in the Great War

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Cork: tale of a poignant letter

A CORKMAN MAN DIES ON THE SOMME

Contribution from 'Wig' of the Great War Forum

A pencil sketch of Private Christopher Coleman


September 1916 and the 16th Irish Division are engaged in the bloody advance across the Somme.  At the village of Guillemont, men of the 7th Leinster Regiment, part of the Irish 16th Division, manage to pass through the shattered village and secure and hold enemy trenches on the far side, but at terrible cost, losing some fifty percent of the soldiers engaged in the advance.

Despite such losses it was considered  one of the few 'victories' of the Somme campaign.

After their 'victorious' advance, non-combatant labour battalions are sent into the killing fields  to clear up the mess left by the fighting soldiers.  They clear away abandoned trenching tools, wire cutters, discarded equipment and bits and pieces of dead soldiers. It is gruesome and arduous work.  

Among their number is an Englishman, Private George Wiles of the Royal Engineers.  As he scurries across the blood soaked ground he comes upon a great crater and at the edge of it, 'as if resting after a long walk' is the body of a well built soldier from one of the Irish regiments, the 7th Leinsters.

The Englishman is struck by his noble posture, for the dead soldier was a big man, well over six foot.  Even by modern standards he would have been taller than average, by the standards of 1914-18 he was a giant.  

The Englishman goes to the body.  He has seen many such dead, he is accustomed to the dead, over familiar with the dead, but he is touched by the sight of this particular dead Irishman.  He takes his knife and cuts open the breast pockets of the fallen soldier.  From the bloody and muddy mess he takes a letter sent to the fallen man from Ireland, from his wife in Queenstown County Cork.  He buries the fallen soldier.  He takes from the ruins of a nearby church a piece of rubble from the destroyed structure. There are ancient crosses cut into the stone, five such crosses, and he marks the rough grave of the fallen Irishman with the broken stone of the church.

Later the same ground, cleared by the labour battalions, would again become a blood soaked battlefield, pounded by artillery and fought over by opposing armies.  The rough, stone marked temporary grave of the Irishman would be lost.  Forever lost and he thereafter would be only remembered by a name cut into the Somme memorial at Thiepval in Flanders.

In the lull of the battle, the Englishman, alone in his own trench, by candlelight, would write a powerful and moving letter to the grieving widow of the Irishman.  He poured his heart into the letter using all the paper he had.  Ten pages would he write, in fading pencil, telling her how he had found her dear husband and what he had done with his fallen body.

The dead Irishman was Christopher Coleman, Private Coleman of the 7th Leinster Regiment. He came from what was then Queenstown in County Cork.  Before the war he had had been the manager of the Commodore Hotel in Queenstown.  Maybe he had been there in May 1915 when the streets of Queenstown became an open morgue for the broken and innocent civilian bodies being brought ashore after the sinking by torpedo of the Lusitania, and perhaps, for we will never know, it is was that which inspired him to volunteer for the Leinsters and to leave his family  to fight in Flanders.  

He was such a handsome man was Private Coleman. His dear wife had, with considerable talent, drawn his pencil portrait from which, even after all this time, you can still sense his great size and presence.

The Englishman Wiles wrote of him that,     '..I came across this fellow in a shell hole (a very large one) & passed him as I passed others that lay about & something struck me to go back and see him, as he lay there as if resting from along walk. His statue marked me very much indeed he looked so smart & of a lovely build ...'   

'I hope dear madam you will forgive me of taking liberties with your dear husband's body.  But you can rest assured (I will give you my word of honour.) that he is buried & I buried him the best I could. Not so well as some but better than thousands.' 

It is by any measure a touching act of an ordinary English soldier for a fallen Irishman, and it must have brought enormous comfort to the grieving widow.  Indeed until she received the letter Mrs Coleman from Cobh had no idea what had become of her husband. She had been advised he was missing after the September battles.  

But then only silence.

Desperate for news she, had travelled to Dover in the hope that he would be amongst the thousands of wounded,  returning from the Somme into the network of military hospitals across the South of England. It was of no avail.  With increasing fear she advertised for news of him in the Daily Herald.  Again without response.  The Englishman's letter  confirmed her very worst fears but it must also have been a source of great relief and it is clear that she was so appreciative of the kind words of Private Wiles that she replied to him asking if he was in need of anything that she could send him to ease the discomfort of his life in the trenches.

After the war, or perhaps before it ended, the Coleman family left the Commodore Hotel and left Ireland altogether, emigrating to Canada, no doubt from a ship leaving from the quayside opposite their Cobh home.  The ten page pencil written letter is now held by the surviving Coleman family, in Canada.  No one has ever traced George Wiles.  

*The full text of Private George Wiles letter can be read at:

gwfwilesletter

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R. Dublin Fusiliers at Ginchy

Many thanks to Stephen Nulty for this contribution.

9th September 1916

The battalion was in the support trench which it had dug. On the morning of 9th September the disposition of the units of the 48th Brigade for the assault on GINCHY which had been ordered were as follows.

In front trench with orders to take the first objective and consolidate it - 7th Royal Irish Rifles, 1 section Trench Mortar Battery, 1st Royal Munster Fusiliers, 1 section Trench Mortar Battery.

In support trench with orders to take the second objective and consolidate. 9th Royal Dublin Fusiliers, 1 section Machine Gun Company. 1 section 156 Company, Royal Engineers, 8th Royal Dublin Fusiliers, 1 section Machine Gun Company, 1 section 156 Company Royal Engineers.

At zero hour (4.45pm) the line advanced under the artillery barrage on the first objective, each battalion assaulting with 4 companies in the front line, on a frontage of one platoon, platoons at 40 yards distance.

First Phase. Right Battalion (1st R.M.F.). At the onset very heavy Officer  casualties were suffered. The right company experienced considerable opposition owing to the inability of the 8th R.M.F. to advance. This company was therefore wheeled to the right and dug in. Owing to the shortage of officers the other companies lost direction and went on beyond their objective. Left Battalion (7th R.I.R.) closely followed by 7th R. Irish Fusiliers reached the first objective with slight resistance & with very few casualties.

Second Phase. Right Battalion (8th R.D.F.) advanced to the second objective at 5.25 p.m. and gained it without encountering very serious opposition. Left Battalion (9th R.D.F) advanced to the second objective at 5.25pm but suffered very heavy officer casualties in doing so. Captain W. J. MURPHY (commanding) being killed as the battalion reached GINCHY. The battalion, owing to the loss of officers, carried on beyond the second objective and had to be brought back, also owing to the fact that 55 Division had not come up. The left flank had consequently to be brought back slightly. The line gained was then consolidated.

The RDF attack on Ginchy 9th Sept. 1916 (certified by Imperial War Museum)

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