KNOWN ONLY TO GOD
This week the media in Ireland have highlighted the centenary of the beginning of World War 1 (WW1). This reflects a new awareness as traditionally the Irish who fought or died in WW1 got no remembrance here except from their families. We now realise that the events of the Easter Rising of 1916 in Ireland coloured the perception of those who were fighting in the Commonwealth Forces in WW1.
My own recollection as a child was of a number of eccentric old men in the neighbourhood (for which read shell-shocked survivors) who were known to have fought in WW1 with the British Army. Respect or admiration did not come into the picture.
As a young priest, working in Wales, I set out with a colleague, to drive to Rome, with a borrowed tent in the back of the car for the adventure. It was on this journey that I first saw the war graves of Europe. Acres of cemeteries, each with row upon row of white crosses, perhaps three feet tall, with name after name, ages of 18, 19 21, inscribed. It was an awesome experience. More was to come, the hundreds of Irish names on the crosses and also inscribed in the carved lists of Regiments within the cemetery enclosure. These were no “Irish living in England”, these were our own neighbours. We saw reconstructions which conveyed the atmosphere, reconstructions of the trenches. My fascination grew. The most touching headstones were those which bore the inscription “Known Only to God” – the resting place of a soldier beyond identification.
The sheer volume of cemeteries and of burials in Flanders fields I shall never forget. I have retained an abiding interest in the lives and deaths of those who fought in that dreadful war, especially those of our own Irish participants. The first Mallow man to die in WW1 was Joseph Murphy, son of Timothy and Mary Murphy, aged 21, born in Mallow but resident in Cobh when he enlisted at Spike Island in 1914. He was killed in action on 19th September 1914. He is buried in La Ferte-sous-Jouarre Memorial cemetery at Seine-et-Marne in France. Another Mallow man died in that month of September 1914, Sept 25th., Corporal William Moore, born in Mallow, but his parents John and Ann Moore moved to Cork and lived at 9 St. Finbarr’s Place. He is buried in the same cemetery as Joseph Murphy, in France.
I have met many with a similar interest, including Patrick Sheehan of Mallow, who has kindly loaned me his immense research. Recently an illustrated lecture was given in Mallow Library on the Cork involvement in WW1 by Gerry White of Collins Barracks, Cork. He has compiled a complete record of all in the city and county of Cork who died in WW1. It was the most balanced educational lecture I have heard on the subject. If the 2nd level schools wished to inform their senior cycle students on the Irish dimension of WW1, I believe an invitation to Gerry White to give a similar talk to the senior students of the three schools would be a project worth considering in this centenary year of the historic event which reshaped Europe.
“If ye break faith
With us who die
We shall not sleep”