ALTHOUGH fighting started on 28 July 1914, Germany’s declaration of war on Russia on 1 August is noted as the official beginning of World War I. Britain’s declaration on Germany saw Canada follow suit, while US President Woodrow Wilson affirmed his country’s neutrality.
On 8 August, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) commanded by Sir John French landed in France and saw its first action at the battle of Mons in Belgium on 23 August. This is what was known as the old British Army. And although outnumbered two-to-one, they fought bravely, inflicting heavy casualties on the Germans. However, the unexpected retreat of the French Fifth Army left them exposed on their right flank with no other option but to withdraw.
The British suffered 1,638 casualties, while the Germans lost 5,000 men. This battle signifies the beginning of what is known as the western front, where hostilities would continue throughout the entire four years of the war.
The retreating British and French set up defensive positions using 40,000 men at Le Cateau, where the Germans arrived on 26 August. The ensuing battle was won by the Germans, who themselves had close to 5,000 casualties. The opposition forces had 7,812, of which 700 were fatal. They also had 2,600 captured and were again in retreat, this time towards Paris.
But the tide was about to turn. As the Germans were just 15 kilometres from Paris, a counter-attack along the River Marne was launched by six French field armies, comprising 39 divisions along with six divisions of the BEF, totalling just over one-million troops. They faced a German force of just under 1.5 million. The battle was fought between 5-12 September and the coalition army had its first major success, driving the Germans into retreat for the first time. They were helped in no small part by the arrival of more than 6,000 troops from Paris, who were ferried to the front by taxis in one of the strangest modes of troop transport in any war.
The German retreat halted at the River Aisne. It was 100 feet wide and up to 15 feet deep on low-lying ground, which made an excellent defensive location. This was made even better, as the Germans dug deep trenches for further protection. When the pursuing Allies arrived, they, too, had no option but to dig in. With little or no tools, they had to scour neighbouring farms and villages to locate picks and spades. At first, shallow trenches were dug, but later these were extended to seven feet deep. This was the beginning of almost four years of trench warfare.
Sylvester James Cummins was a carpenter, like his father before him. He was born in 1896 in the small market town of Bagenalstown (Irish name, Muinebheag, meaning small thicket) in County Carlow.
Sylvester enlisted in the 9th battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in September 1914. While the vast majority of WWI army records were destroyed during the London blitz in 1940, miraculously, Sylvester’s, though charred around the edges, was one of those which survived. They contain information about his discharge papers, disability pension, disciplinary actions and signed receipts for his war medals.
His attestation papers are a reminder of an Ireland that no longer exists. A handwritten “Yes” is located beside the question “Are you British?”. On signing the Oath of Allegiance, Sylvester substituted the letter ‘I’ for ‘Y’, which indicates that he did not sign at all. I have dealt with the various reasons why so many Irishmen put on this uniform. Sylvester’s father was dead and his army pay was sent to his mother and young sister.
Under the command of Tipperary man, Major General William Hickey, the 9th battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers of the 48th Brigade 16th (Irish) division of the BEF was mobilised for war on 18 December 1915 and landed in La Havre, France the next day. They would spend the following three years on the western front, the majority of the time in the trenches, where exploding shells threw up earth along with shrapnel falling on them like rain. And then there were the charges across no man’s land and the poison gas, which forever scarred those who survived. Their only hope was prayer.
Sylvester took part in three major operations. He was in the trenches at the battle of Hulluch, which began in the middle of the Easter Rising back home, and the Germans were quick to place placards in front of their trenches to ensure the Irish were aware of that fact.
The Germans launched a gas attack on 27 April, killing 570 of the 1,980 allied casualties, with many of the wounded later dying from respiratory disease. This was followed by an artillery bombardment and an attempted infantry attack, which was repulsed. A further German gas attack on 29 April backfired. And though the breeze seemed to blow towards the British, the gas cloud drifted backwards, inflicting heavy casualties on the fleeing Germans. This was a turning point in the battle, which resulted in a British victory.
During the battle of the Somme in September 1916, Sylvester and the fusiliers were involved in two battles, taking the village of Guillemont on the 6th, and then, in heavy fighting, the strongly fortified and strategic village of Ginchy with its six-road junction. In this battle, 66 of Sylvester’s battalion were killed, including former MP Tom Kettle, one of the politicians mentioned last week, who supported Redmond’s call for volunteers.
Along with the 36th, they were involved in the capture of Wytschaete, known to the British as ‘Whitesheet,’ which was in the centre, and the focal point in the battle of Messines in Flanders, which took place from 7-14 June 1917. Both the 16th Irish and 36th Ulster marched together down the Kemmel Road as they made their way to their point of attack.
The quiet on the western front was broken at 3.10am on the morning of 7 June. Nineteen huge mines containing 450 tonnes of explosives were detonated under the German lines. David Lloyd George heard the explosion loud and clear as he sat in his study at 10 Downing Street, London. The blasts caused 10,000 Germans to be reported as missing. New Zealand soldiers then took Messines, while the 16th Irish and 36th Ulster capturing Wytschaete. It was here that Major William Redmond was wounded while leading his unit, the 6th Royal Irish. And it was here, too, that John Meeke, a strong Loyalist and stretcher bearer with the 11th Enniskillen, saw the major fall. Were this battlefield in Ireland, there would be little friendship between them, but this was different.
Meeke, using battlefield debris and shell holes as cover, and under heavy machine-gun fire as well as the shells falling around him, made his way to Major Redmond’s side. While bandaging the major, Meeke himself was hit in the side. He was ordered back to British lines by the major – an order he refused to obey. He had finished bandaging the major when he was hit again. And once more, Redmond ordered him to go. As James O’Connell of the 16th advanced with his unit, he saw the stricken men and said a silent prayer for each one.
Redmond and Meeke were eventually removed from the combat zone by a patrol of the 36th that was escorting German prisoners back to the British lines. Despite the efforts of field surgeons, the 56-year-old major was too weak and succumbed to his injuries a few hours later. He is buried in the grounds of a convent just outside Locre cemetery, along with most of the men from his brigade. John Meek survived the war and was awarded the Military Medal. However, he died, as many did from the effects of war injuries and gas, in 1923 at the age of 28.
Sylvester Cummins was one of the thousands anonymously involved in this apology for hell, where allied casualties and losses numbered 24,562. The German list is put at 25,000 dead, 10,000 missing and 7,200 taken prisoner.
The third battle of Ypres was fought between British, Australian, New Zealand and Canadian forces – all of which included Irish personnel – and the German Empire.
Sylvester was involved in the battle of Langermarck from 16-18 August 1917. The allies made good ground on the first day but were pushed packed on the second, with no conclusive outcome.
At Passchendaele, a vital village near Ypres, troops from many Commonwealth countries with France and Belgium faced the German Empire in the bloodiest battle of the campaign, with more than 250,000 casualties on either side. It resulted in an allied victory. This more or less ends Sylvester Cummins’s involvement in WWI. Wounded in September 1917, he was transferred to the Labour Corp and declared as unfit for frontline service. He was now doing salvage work but was still within range of enemy fire, where he saw out the war. When he and thousands of others returned to Ireland, they were snubbed by their fellow countrymen.
As noted historian Dr Elaine Byrne writes: “This was not an Ireland for a southern Catholic who served in the British Army, and many, including her great-grandfather, would emigrate to England. So, too, did Seán McLaughlin, the 22-year-old leader who saved so many lives in the evacuation of the GPO in 1916. I really believe it is time we recognised those who bought us our freedom, whether it was on Flanders’ fields or in the GPO. Sylvester Cummins is one of those who felt he was doing the right thing but ended up an exile. So, too, did Seán McLaughlin, both for different reasons, from an indifferent population.”
Dr Byrne is Sylvester Cummins’s great-granddaughter. She is an author, journalist, lecturer and consultant. Her book, Political Corruption in Ireland 1922-2010: A Crooked Harp, is a bestseller. Dr Byrne kindly gave me permission to reproduce any parts of her article that appeared in The Guardian newspaper, and for that I extend to her my sincere thanks. And I have added pieces concerning the battles in which her great-grandfather fought in the Great War
Final part next week.