Exactly one hundred years ago today, Sunday, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of November, 1918, in a railway carriage in the Compiegne Forest France, Allied delegate Marshal Ferdinand Foch and German delegate, Secretary of State, Mathias Erzberger signed the Armistice which was to end World War One.
It was a war that was one of the deadliest conflicts in the history of the human race and supposedly a “War To End All Wars”.
It claimed the lives of almost 15 million people, six million civilians and nine million military personnel. The total number of both civilian and military casualties injured or died is estimated at 37 million.
On that same day as this World War was ending after four years of slaughter, a young Donegal man, Joseph McHugh, Derrylaconnell Doochary, as a soldier in the United States army, was killed in battle.
Of the 8,000 Donegal men and women who participated in the war, an estimated almost 1,200 lost their lives. At the 141 days Battle of the Somme over one million died, among these 3,500 Irish. I would guess some of these young Irish soldiers could have ‘cared less’ on the problems of Austria, Serbia or the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, one of the many causes of World War One.
Over the years many myths have grown up surrounding the almost 300,000 Irish who fought in World War One, which fall into several categories. These myths became more prominent after the Easter Rising and also at the foundation of our State. Some incorrectly said “their ancestors served with the Irish Guards in WW1, not the British Army”.
The Irish Army was non existent during 1914-18. Of course it could be construed that the 15,000 Irish Volunteers of 1916 were an Irish Army, of whom only 1400 fought against the British Army in the ‘Easter Rising’.
Another myth was that their ancestors were conscripted throughout those years against their will and forced to fight. Conscription was never introduced in Ireland even though the British government tried and failed. Or every Irishman who joined was an ‘economic mercenary’, hungry, destitute and desperate for employment. Thousands did see the British army as a way of escaping poverty, others as a great adventure.
Also forgotten were the 32,000 members of the Home Rule Irish National Volunteers who enlisted. Dubliners and Irish Catholic nationalists, their major goal, to further the cause of Irish self government.
Yes, Republicans and Unionists were completely opposed and irreconcilable pre 1914. But on the 7th August 1914 the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Irish National Volunteers both took part in a joint march through Omagh, with both groups called up for active service. Later in the war the Unionist 36th (Ulster) division and the predominantly Nationalist 16th (Irish) Division, fought side by side, many died, others won great victories.
At Messines Ridge on 7th June, 1917 it was written “that no writer of fiction would ever dare to create the bravery of a figure like that of (Manorcunningham’s) Capt Henry Gallaugher DSO 11th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, killed in this battle”.
Henry Gallaugher was recommended posthumously for the Victoria Cross, but this never came to fruition. Only one Donegal man was honoured with a Victoria Cross, James Duffy.