The Oxford English Dictionary describes the word synchronicity as the simultaneous occurrence of events which appear significantly related but have no discernable causal connection.
Well I think a whole load of synchronicity has entered the life of the Connaught Rangers Association with the centenary year of the start of the mass destruction of humanity that people called the Great War and which was downgraded to World War 1 when it was realised mankind has the ability to create Great Wars on a whim and chose to have another 20 years after the First but this time including the civilian population of the world and the way it is looking the politicians seem to be sparring for a third. These clever men never could learn a lesson.
Our story starts in the early years of the last century when two Athlone men enlisted in the Connaught Rangers and another man from Liverpool strutted the London stage. They might not have known each other but they certainly would in the years to come.
Michael Curley enlisted in 1901 at Ballinasloe aged 16, 7261 Connaught Rangers and served a relatively easy seven years in the colours rising to the rank of sergeant, serving in England, Malta, and Ireland and went into the Reserve for five years in 1909 to fulfil the terms of his engagement. He found employment in Athlone at a textile mill and was married in 1907 and had a daughter and helped found the Midlands Volunteer Force in late 1913 which became the forerunner of the Irish Volunteers which was founded a year later in response to Carson’s loyalist activities in Ulster. He had re-enlisted with the Army Reserve in 1913.
John Doyle, although born in Athlone was living in Tullamore, King’s County, now Offaly and in 1908 enlisted in 4th Battalion Connaught Rangers Special Reserve No 2864, more as a hobby and two weeks camp every year and the few shillings a week it gave him on top of his wages than as a serious thought of being a soldier. He never left Ireland in this period and was content with life in Tullamore where he married and had two children.
The third man in this trinity was Frank Harrison Saker, born in 1880, the son of a Liverpool comedian, Edward Sloman Saker and an actress from the Dublin stage, Emily Mary Kate O’Beirne. The father with entrepreneurial spirit managed the Alexandria Theatre in Liverpool at some stage but died reasonably young in 1883. The mother moved down to London bringing her son, Frank and his two brothers and sister with her and in the 1890s became a successful actress on Drury Lane. When young Frank grew to maturity he followed his mother into the thespian profession and proved equally successful and in 1904 he was commissioned into the Special Reserve of Officers and attached to 4th Battalion Connaught Rangers aged 23. In 1906 he was promoted Lieutenant and in 1908 married Ethel Frances Wright in Newcastle.
On mobilisation on 5th August 1914 these three men were called up. Michael Curley went to Aldershot and was incorporated into 2nd Battalion and the two Special Reservists Doyle and Saker went to Boyle in Roscommon and then down to Fort Camden in Crosshaven, Cork on 8th August where Saker was promoted to Captain on 9th September 1914 and left Cork for France on 24th September.
Michael Curley was in the thick of it from the start having landed in France at Boulogne on August 13th with the 2nd Battalion, in reserve at the Battle of Mons and part of the rearguard during the retreat from Mons and there on that grave day on August 26th at Le Grand Fayt where the 2nd Battalion lost 300 men, mainly as prisoners of war and at Soupir on the Aisne where they lost another 250 men when the Germans in great strength took on the remnants of the 2nd Battalion in early September and learnt to their cost that when an Irishman is on his knees, he is even stronger than when stood up. They lost a further 80 men at Vermeuil on 19th and then were pulled out of the fighting having lost over 66% of their strength and were posted up to Poperinghe for rest and recuperation and to take on drafts that were being sent from the 3rd and 4th Battalions in Cork. Frank Saker arrived early October and was put in charge of C Company and John Doyle arrived on 19th October in a draft of 191 men from the 4th Battalion.
As you can imagine C Company of about 200 men were mainly inexperienced lads from Ireland stiffened with a few experienced men like Curly and led by a Captain who had never been in action. Two days later on 21st October they were thrown into the battle known as 1st Ypres at St Julien, a village a few miles north east of Ypres near Langemark and over the next three days lost a further 71 men. They were recalled to Ypres on 24th October and sent out along the Menin Road, south west of Ypres, near to Polygon Wood at a place called Molensaarelshoek and over the next week lost another 135 men in one of the most intense set pieces of 1st Ypres with the German artillery proving their superiority. It was here on 30th October things become a little blurred with a flurry of uncorroborated witness evidence but over the years a clearer story has emerged.
Frank Saker’s inexperience had already come to the fore and that with a not very agreeable personality gave the men in his company no confidence, it appears that he was very much disliked, especially by his NCOs whom every good officer depends on. It seems that Saker either misconstrued or disobeyed his orders and whether it was inexperience or gung ho/madcap heroics is hard to work out but he led his company past his allocated objective and overshot into the German lines against the advice of his NCOs and found himself in an untenable position, virtually surrounded by the enemy. Sgt Curley was pleading with him to withdraw whilst they still had a chance but Saker refused. It is now alleged that Curley sorted things out the best he could under the circumstances and threw a grenade into the hut where Saker was sheltering and led the men back to where they should have been. C Company lost 10 men in this action plus many POWs but over 100 men were saved by Curley’s presence of mind. He later served with the 1st Battalion in France and Mesopotamia However this deed troubled him throughout his war, slightly unhinging his thoughts. He was eventually badly wounded not many yards away from this incident at 3rd Ypres at the Battle of Paschendaele in September 1917 when attached to the 6th Battalion. He was carried from the battle and eventually landed up at a Casualty Clearing Station at Brandhoek , near Poperinghe where he died from his wounds and was buried at Brandhoek Cemetery.
Fast forward the story now to 2011 and from here the synchronicities start to pile up. Four of us from the Association went to see a play written by an Athlone man, Neil Richardson, entitled From The Shannon To The Somme in which Neil marvellously wrote of the deeds of Michael Curley, set to the background of a rapidly changing Ireland during the war years. A fantastic production in the Little Theatre in Athlone, the acting and direction were superb and the story so emotional and so well written. I wrote a short critique on it in our 2012 New Ranger Magazine.
In early 2013 Roscommon County Council asked us to produce something for the 2013 Irish government tourist initiative “The Gathering”. Bravely we offered to do a reprise of the play. The writer and director fully enthused and with a new cast from the Dublin stage, we produced the play over two nights in May 2013. It went down very well and on our forthcoming trip to Ypres in 2014 we vowed to visit Michael Curley’s grave at Brandhoek Cemetery near Poperinghe and pay our repects.
By now we the Trip Committee were working hard, organising this trip, a party of 50 people takes some organising, when in mid July with just three weeks to go before our departure, I received a call from King House that a man wanted to see me and see if we can trace his great grandfather. Nothing unusual in that, we help 10 or 20 people a week in this exercise and we are glad to help. This man, Marc Dellanzo, had been searching for years in tracing the whereabouts of his relative and in a last ditch effort had brought his family, I think there was eight of them, over from Scone in Perthshire in Scotland to visit King House, the home of the Connaught Rangers Association, not even knowing that this was the jumping off point for his ancestor when the war started.
I immediately found his man and told him the basics of the 2nd battalion’s activities in the first few months of the war and told him that on consulting our archivist, Oliver Fallon, I would be able to tell him more. I liked this man’s intensity and his willingness to go this extra mile and his obvious joy in ending his search and contacted Oliver later that day. He did not have much but what he had opened up the last of our synchronicities. Corporal John Doyle 2864 Connaught Rangers who we had last heard of in a draft coming over from Crosshaven in Cork to join the 2nd Battalion in time for 1st Ypres was Marc’s great grandfather and he was one of the men killed in that ill fated advance by Saker on 30th October 1914 and furthermore in that same group of casualties was another John Doyle 4736 of 2nd Battalion Connaught Rangers from 25 Clarence Place, Great Brunswick Street in Dublin. The bodies of the two Doyles and Saker were never recovered and they are commemorated on the Menin Gate, where we will be leading the Last Post ceremony on August 8th 2014. To look at the great stone walls of the Menin Gate, at the inscribed names of the 197 Connaught Rangers who died defending the town of Ypres and whose bodies were never found, the drama, idiocy and killing of 30th October 1914 would never be known without the inquisitiveness of a man from Scone.
As a footnote to this story I will just repeat the line Marc Dellanzo put into our comments book at King House, “Finally found out about my great grandfather RIP 30.10.14” almost 100 years later.
Let us also remember those 10 men who died needlessly that day:-
Pte B Coyle 4101 2nd Battalion Connaught Rangers from Manor Hamilton, Leitrim, Special Reserve.
Corp John Doyle 2864 2nd Battalion Connaught Rangers from Athlone/Tullamore, Special Reserve.
Pte J Doyle 4736 2nd Battalion Connaught Rangers from Dublin, Special Reserve
L/Sgt Michael Keane 7261 2nd Battalion from Boyle, Co Roscommon, Regular Army.
Pte J McDermott 4366 2nd Battalion Connaught Rangers, Special Reserve.
Pte T Mills 4392 2nd Battalion Connaught Rangers, Special Reserve.
Corp P Murray 8408 2nd Battalion Connaught Rangers from Clara in Kings County/Offaly, Regular Army.
Pte M Owens 3028 2nd Battalion Connaught Rangers, Special Reserve.
Pte C C Purcell 10560 2nd Battalion Connaught Rangers from Kildare, Regular Army.
Captain Frank Harrison Saker 2nd Battalion Connaught Rangers from Liverpool/London, Special Reserve.
And also Pte M Conroy 4557 2nd Battalion Connaught Rangers from Boyle, Special Reserve who was wounded that day and taken Prisoner of War and died from his wounds in German custody on December 14th 1914
Requiescat in Pace