I apologise for not writing sooner but the preparation for this trip took over my life but it is now over and here is my report on the sadness and the happiness of five moving days in Belgium and France for 48 lucky people. We of the Connaught Rangers Association try to have a trip of remembrance every year, next year Gallipoli, but this experience was extra special.
CONNAUGHT RANGERS TRIP TO YPRES AUGUST 7TH TO 12TH 2014
We were awake early on 7th August and set off for Dublin at 2.30am our objective was Terminal 2 for 4.30am to meet our party, 44 people from all over Ireland, Cork, Kerry, Carlow, Dublin, Belfast, Sligo, Mayo, Roscommon, Leitrim and Westmeath, with four more to meet in Belgium who had made their own way from England. A large party with a big responsibility to rein in the stragglers, but by 12.30 we were well ensconced in our hotel in Ypres. The Ariane Hotel everybody agreed was as good a hotel as was to be found; the staff, the food, the rooms were superb and the calm ambiance relaxed our bodies as stories were told and people got to know each other. The Belgian beer had many qualities but the one I noticed above any was its ability to gel strangers into long lost friends. Always on a trip such as this you will get characters but the whole 48 of us seemed to be larger than life.
We spent the evening in splendid conversation and most sensible people were in bed at a reasonable hour for the long hard day to come. However Committee men and pipers stayed to the end ensuring the regimental motto “Non Separabit” was strictly adhered to.
Up at 8.00am for a magnificent breakfast, either English/Irish or continental was catered for, some of us motored through all three not knowing if further rations would reach us during our sally into the trenches of South Ypres. Our first objective, Hill 62 at Sanctuary Wood was reached in good time, three and a half miles south of the town and it became obvious the advantage the German Army had at 1st Ypres in 1914. From here the German artillery could pepper the town with high explosive and at the same time keep control over the advancing English infantry with a view over two miles of ground.
The Connaught Rangers 2nd Battalion were in the thick of this battle in early November 1914, just across the Menin Road at Polygon Wood. After losing so many men on the retreat from Mons and at Soupir on the Aisne, as the French and the British Expeditionary Force drove the Germans back, they eventually brought themselves back to strength at Poperinghe with Special Reservists from the 3rd and 4th Battalions stationed in Cork. They were immediately thrown into action at St Julian and a week later sent down to Polygon Wood. These unfortunate unexperienced troops were blown to hell over the next few weeks when German artillery proved how good they were. So much so that the poor 2nd Battalion could fight no more and its survivors were incorporated into the 1st Battalion who were suffering a similar fate elsewhere, on 5th December.
Onto Essex Farm famed for John MacRae’s writing of the poem “In Flanders Field” and the subsequent growth of the poppy as the symbol of the war dead. Lots of Irish Guards graves here from 1915 and only a short distance from Mauser Ridge where the reformed 1st/2nd Battalion again met their fate in April 1915 during 2nd Ypres. They lost hundreds that day in a gas attack, their bodies never recovered as the gas and the oncoming Germans forbade it. The names of most of these men are on the Menin Gate.
Vancouver Corner was our next stop commemorating the brave Canadian Army who had just come into the war in this sector North West of Ypres town. They drove the Germans back suffering 2000 dead in their Division of 18,000 men from gas, bullet and shell.
Our last stop of the day was at Tyne Cot Cemetery the biggest military cemetery in the world, where 28,000 names are etched into the back wall of the cemetery and where 12,000 men are buried, unfortunately that badly hurt, the burial parties could hardly recognise the bodies. “A soldier of the British Army” or “A soldier of the Australian Army” or “A soldier of the Middlesex/ Leicester/Yorkshire Regiment” being the grim reminder on most graves. The deaths in this cemetery are from 1917 and 1918 and mainly from 3rd Ypres or the Battle of Paschendaele as it has become known. It is here on the back wall that John Robert Higgins aged 34, grandfather of the Higgins family on the trip is remembered. His leg blown off by a shell and he obviously bled to death with no chance of survival or recovery His wife and children repatriated themselves back to Belfast some months later after a daughter, a young child, was killed in an accident with a lorry in London where they were living.
Only one Connaught Ranger in this Cemetery out of the thousands of names, Lance Corporal CH Pretty 9056 6th Battalion, a stretcher bearer/ bandsman, one of the unsung heroes of this war is buried. We found his grave and stood a while as we remembered him and the three Rangers commemorated on the back wall, all 6th Battalion men from October 1917.
We were back at the Hotel for an early dinner, this night was our big night, the Connaught Rangers Association was leading the Ceremony of Remembrance at the Menin Gate. A ceremony which has been performed every night since the Menin Gate was built in 1926, except for the years of German occupation in WW2. We marched behind our pipers from the Main Square down the cobbled streets of Ypres. The pipers played the regimental marching tunes of the Connaught Rangers, St Patricks Day and Brian Boru as, although I say it myself, we cut quite a dash with the crowds of tourists and the local population, as we marched at military pace into the arms of thousands of people gathered at the monument to 60,000 dead whose bodies were never recovered but who fought at Ypres in 1914-1916. The Last Post Association managed the event smoothly with the firemen on their bugles playing the Last Post, our pipers replying with the lament “Oft in the Stilly Night” whilst the four kids of our party were signaled to lay the wreath to the Connaught Rangers. It was all over quickly it seems and we marched off to our pipers playing a slow “Raglan Road” and to the applause of thousands as Gary Egan paraded our colours. A night to remember for us all and I hope the onlookers got a lot from it as well. It was all done so respectfully, so measured, so tastefully and it echoed my thoughts from over twenty years ago when I saw the ceremony first and I said to myself then how nice it would be to take part in that Ceremony, little thinking that 20 years later I would be there and my dream fulfilled. Day 2 finished with a celebratory gush of the renowned Belgian Beer.
Day 3 was an early start to a long day in Northern France, a day following the exploits of the 1st and 6th Battalions in 1914 and 1916. Our first stop was Cabaret Rouge Cemetery where 23 Connaught Rangers are buried of the 1st Battalion, all killed either side of their disastrous trip up to Ypres for the beating they took on Mauser Ridge at 2nd Ypres in April 1915. This northern Loos sector never had a big battle but the daily attrition rate took care of thousands of men. In amongst the 23 dead are two Sligo men, 20 year old Lt. Benjamin George McDowel and Pte P Conlon, one of five brothers who joined the Connaught Rangers and died in this war. There are 7650 graves in this cemetery and our pipers played a lament and our colours were lowered as we remembered every one of those lads.
Our next stop brought us to Vimy Ridge where we explored another element of the fighting in the war, tunnelling. Where men fought men in dark tunnels many yards under the ground both sides trying to outwit the other in this grim game of subterranean chess. The Canadians took the ridge in April 1917 and it is generally considered to be the place where, just as the Australian and New Zealand nations came of age at Anzac in Gallipoli, the Canadians came of age here at Vimy in 1917. The four Canadian Divisions fought side by side overcoming the Germans who held key strategic positions on the ridge. The Canadians lost two thousand men and had 5000 wounded in the two days of battle. Every year the students of Canada come out here and also to Beaumont Hamel on the Somme and guide tourists through these horrible encounters. We had an enthusiastic and knowledgeable young French Canadian girl to show us around. The two days of fighting followed 18 months of preparation as mainly Welsh miners dug the miles of tunnels through the chalk of the ridge.
From there we went into the thick of the Battle of Loos in late September 1915 where first day advances led to wholesale slaughter as Generals French and Haig squabbled over who commanded what and although Haig eventually won that little spat, thousands of men died as mistake after mistake took place as the two men huffed and puffed. Our first stop was just outside Loos en Gohelle, south east of Mazingarbe at Dud Corner Cemetery where two men belonging to our party are commemorated. Pte John White 6250 of 6th Battalion is buried here and Brendan and Eleanor White of Dublin two of our party paid their respects and Eddie Lenihan of the 2nd Battalion Irish Guards is remembered on the stone panels of the Loos Memorial which surrounds the cemetery. Eddie was a Waterford man who came to Manchester in the 1890s, married at the turn of the century and left his wife and four children and went to war with the Guards and was blown to hell by a large German shell three days into his baptism of fire, his body parts scattered over this part of Northern France. Rudyard Kipling’s son, John, Eddie’s platoon commander is on the panel next door. Poor Jack died on his first day of war, the 26th September 1915.
On to Le Touret Memorial near Bethune where 13400 regular soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force are remembered who died in the first year of the conflict, there are 63 Connaught Rangers with no known grave and three who were lucky enough to be found in one piece, a really lovely memorial and cemetery where 900 graves are situated. On a few miles to the Royal Irish Rifles Cemetery at Laventie situated on a lonely country road outside the village. Here 12 Connaught Rangers are buried and one in particular Pte Patrick Feeney 5547 1st Battalion is buried, a veteran of the 2nd South African War 1899 to 1903, he is the grandfather of one of our party, Michael Feeny of Castlebar, who in his eulogy after the pipers lament, Michael explained how Patrick Feeney was the inspiration that made him drive forward that magnificent memorial in Castlebar, The Mayo Peace Park, dedicated to the dead of all wars and the forlorn hope that there will be no more. After his oration Michael sang the song Willy McBride, his voice hoarse with emotion and not a dry eye at the grave, one of the truly moving moments on this memorable trip.
Day four beckoned and our last day of action spoilt a little by some extremely unpleasant weather we took in Messine Ridge, the scene of a great victory for the British in the lead up to 3rd Ypres in 1917 where 29 large mines were excavated under the ridge and blew the German line to smithereens. Only 26 of these mines erupted but enough to create havoc in the German front line, another went off a few years back, luckily killing nobody. However there are two mines extant and unfortunately now the authorities do not know their location. A constant reminder to locals and their cattle that although the war was one hundred years ago, death could be round the corner still.
In the pouring rain our pipers played another lament at the Irish Cross in Wyschaete dedicated to the Irish 16th Division of which the 6th Battalion Connaught Rangers were part. Intrepids were soaked, the wise stayed on the bus. On to Kemmel Chateau Cemetery where 38 Connaught Rangers are buried, all 6th Battalion men from late 1916 through to 1917. Two graves of interest to me at this lovely cemetery were those of a Dublin lad, Sgt Augustine John Hackett 2486 Connaught Rangers, killed in a trench raid at the age of 20 on my birthday 19th February 1917, 29 years before I first saw the light. Augustine’s family had contacted me only three days before we flew out of Dublin knowing absolutely nothing about his war. As soon as we returned I sent them photographs of his grave and the promise over the next few weeks to send them his story. They are over the moon with the prospect and with Oliver’s help we will piece together his short life. He must have been quite a lad to be Serjeant at 20 years of age. The other man at this cemetery who I had a special interest in was Lt. Joseph Patrick Dignan of Roscommon, who had attended the same school as myself, St Bede’s College in Manchester. I wrote a long article a couple of years ago about him and his three brothers who all enlisted, one of whom also died at Ronsoy on the Somme on 21st March 1918 whilst serving with the South Irish Horse. Joseph Patrick was in a cadre of 9 Connaught Rangers officers who landed in France in July 1916 and after six weeks trench training were attached to the Enniskillings who had taken a terrible pasting in the early days of the Somme in July, within a few weeks they were all dead at Guillemont and Ginchy, Joseph Patrick lasting the longest of the nine before being killed on a night patrol with the 8th Enniskillings on 16th October 1916.
Soaking wet we entered the town of Poperinghe after an interesting and educational stop at Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery where there is a museum to medical care and the graves of 10784 soldiers from 30 different countries proving how true was the title World War given to this terrible four years of death. The museum explained the progress medical science made at this place known as Remy Sidings where there was a collection of Casualty Clearing Stations catering for the wounded of four years of war. On one wall was a timeline chart showing the dead of Ypres reaching a massive climax in the late, wet summer of 1917.
On our way into town we paid a visit to Poperinghe Old Military Cemetery, there are seven Connaught Rangers all having died from their wounds sustained in their action at Polygon Wood in early November 1914. Wounded, they were brought to Poperinghe, to the Casualty Clearing Stations in the town which were moved to the countryside outside of the town when the Germans managed to find their range and peppered the place with artillery fire. Although we remembered all seven two had pride of place. Sgt M J Murphy 7404 2nd Battalion of Drogheda whose family had contacted me in the few days before we travelled and Pte J T Holian 4283 2nd Battalion of Roscommon Town, both of course regular soldiers. In our party we had two Holians, mother, Margaret and son, John, from Kiltevan outside the town of Roscommon and decendants of Pte Holihan and has it turned out there graves were almost side by side. The pipers played, the colours lowered one last time and John gave a word of thanks to the Committee of the Association for bringing the two of them there, phone calls to Ireland humming with gratitude, sadness and emotion and finally a group photograph at the foot of the monumental cross in the little cemetery tightly surrounded by the houses of Poperinghians.
Poperinghe is a lovely little town deserving more than the few hours we spent there. Eight miles west of Ypres, it was a place of rest and relaxation for all the troops wearied by their exploits at the front round the salient. Edmund Blunden, the poet, in his memoir of his war years, Undertones of War, described Poperinghe as the next thing to heaven. It is also the centre of the hop industry in Belgium which we learnt to our cost that evening in the town.
After a long night of retrospection we awoke late to Day 5. No hard graft today just gentle ambulation through the pretty streets of sun kissed Ypres, a coffee here and there and for me a magnificent lunch in a brand new restaurant a few hundred yards from the hotel called Souvenir. Then a last count up, everybody reported for duty and off we went to Brussels, a last word of thanks from our driver, Marc, and into the airport. We were back in Boyle at midnight, tired, hungry and thirsty. We slept long and awoke next day reminiscing over the jokes and laughs and mainly the sadness of a memorable five days in little Belgium.