Brendan O Sullivan

A Kerry Soldier Of World War One

by Brendan O'Sullivan

At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the year 1918,  the First World War finally came to an end.
Thousands of Irishmen died in this war and among them was my uncle, Patrick O'Sullivan from  Ballyleddar, Beaufort, Co Kerry.
My father, his brother, was only a child when Patrick went to Dublin to find work. The war started and within months Patrick had joined up. The war would be of short duration, he would be  paid and he would see some of the world.

He saw England, he saw Flanders and he died on July 2 1916. The dreaded telegram arrived in that remote part of Kerry. My aunt, who was then aged 11, decades later told me how she saw the postman down in the valley giving the telegram to her father. She described her horror at knowing what it almost certainly contained and how the news had to be hidden from her mother as another child had just been born.

My grandparents grieved but life went on. When my father came to Dublin in the 1930s and another war broke out, my grandmother needlessly worried that he too would be overtaken by foolishness and go away to that war.

In  the 1980s a new generation began to take an interest in their uncle Patrick. Letters were exchanged with the Commonwealth Graves Commission and his grave was located. In August 1990 I travelled  to the town of Ypres in Belgium to visit  Essex Farm Cemetery. Neat well-kept rows of graves just like 1200 other cemeteries in that part of Europe. Plot 11,row F, grave 2. The headstone read

2ND JULY 1916 AGE 19

It was deeply moving to be the first member of my family to pay respects to my father's brother and to see the home place Ballyleddar Beaufort inscribed on that gravestone so far from the foothills of Carrauntoohill where he was brought up..

Eventually I returned to Ypres, in time for the ceremony which takes place at 8.00  at the New Menin Gate. The dead of World War 1 are commemorated-every day of the year. The crowd gathers, the buglers arrive, the Last Post is played. The Memorial at the New Menin Gate contains the names of almost 55000 men whose bodies were never recovered. At least my uncle had a grave.

The years passed, other relatives visited Belguim but for me, there was a sense of unfinished business about my uncle's life and death so last summer I travelled to London to examine British military records in the National Archives at Kew. There were Patrick O'Sullivans from other parts of Ireland but none from Kerry. The records of the Irish Guards remained with the Irish Guards.

I returned to Ireland and after some correspondence an envelope arrived containing the military record of my uncle. It starts with his enlistment form - almost all filled in by the enlisting officer Capt Irwin. I see for the only time my uncle's signature - Pat O'Sullivan - handwriting uncannily like my father's. The date 29 January 1915.He joins for the DOW- duration of the war. Page 2 of this form contains his subsequent career - 199 days serving at home, 322 days in the British Expeditionary Force - a total of 1 year 156 days. One blemish on his record - missed parade on  July 21 1915.

Another form called "casualty active service" is next. It shows that he left England for France from Southampton in August 1915.He was wounded in October - a head wound  which required hospital treatment. He rejoined his battalion in November and the last entry is" killed in action 2-7 -16."
Then there is correspondence from Irish Guards headquarters to my grandparents after my uncle's death. A letter informing them of his burial place - Essex Farm Cemetery. Another forwarding his personal effects -and what were they? An accompanying note lists them - 1 Hymn Book,  1 Crucifix.
Finally, there is a receipt signed by my grandfather in April 1922 acknowledging receipt of a British War Medal.

So that was all my grandparents had left as mementoes of their son -- 1 Hymn Book, 1 Crucifix,1 War Medal.

They thought he had died at the Battle of the Somme but Kipling's "The Irish Guards in the Great War" revealed how he probably died. His battalion was stationed near Ypres, well north of the Somme. A decision was taken to attack the German line at 10.00 P.M. on Sunday July 2. 30 men and 2 officers took part. They reached the German line but were eventually repelled by gunfire from the second German line. They retreated and most casualties occurred as the men climbed the parapet back into their own trench. So in this engagement, lasting 20 minutes, my uncle Patrick died and he was buried nearby in Essex Farm Cemetery.

My grand parents did not have these facts about his death and because of the coincidence of date they thought he had been killed at the Somme. They seem to have been informed about his burial place but strangely this information had to be rediscovered in the 1980s. They were never likely to visit Belguim and many decades were to pass before Irishmen who died wearing a British uniform could be honoured.
But the tide has turned in recent years and in Sept 2009 the President of Ireland unveiled a memorial in Killarney commemorating all those men from the region including Patrick O'Sullivan who fought and died in the British army in World War One.

Every November, on the anniversary of the ending of that most obscene war, supposedly the Great War, supposedly the war to end all wars, the millions who died are honored.  

In his poem, "On Passing the New Menin Gate", written some years after the war the Engish anti-war poet Siegfried Sassoon, himself a war veteran , wonders

Who will remember, passing through this gate
The unheroic dead who fed the guns?

He thinks people will not remember them. But he was wrong. We remember those who died in all wars. In our family we remember Guardsman Patrick O'Sullivan, Ballyleddar, Beaufort, Co Kerry --killed in action  -- July 2 1916 -- aged 19.

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