For Remembrance Day – A Tribute to my Grand Uncle

Nov 11, 2013 by

My first cousin James O’Kelly wrote this and carried out all the research. I am only transcribing it for the record. However it is a fascinating account of the first World War describing the times and possible reasons Irish people enlisted. 

Patrick Joseph (P.J) O’Kelly of Caher, Feakle, County Clare was born Patrick Joseph Kelly on 29th July 1889, one of 11 children of Patrick and Margaret (sometimes called Mary) Kelly. The family are listed in the 1901 census as living in the townland of Caher Power in the (quite large) parish of Feakle which came under the “District Electoral Division” of Derrynagittagh.

The census lists Patrick Kelly as a 41 year old “Shopkeeper-Farmer” and Margaret as his 43 year old wife. The literacy skills of all family members are also recorded. Both parents are listed as being able to read and write and even the then four year old Charlie is recorded as “being able to read”.

The census lists PJ and his siblings as follows;

Michael (16) Read-Write
John (15) Read-Write
James (14) Read-Write (my grandfather)
Mary (13) Read-Write
Patrick (11) Read-Write
Ellen (8) Read-Write
Thomas (7) Read-Write
Martin (6) Read-Write
Charles (4) Read
Margaret (2) Cannot Read

Chris (Christina) is not listed in this census which can only mean she hadn’t yet been born.

P.J subsequently changed his name to O’Kelly – as did his brother James ( my grandfather) who joined the Land Commission and moved to Castlebar where he met and married Margaret (my grandmother) McGowan.

At some stage P.J moved to Athlone where he became an apprentice at a firm of solicitors owned, we think, by a Maurice O’Connell whose daughter Mary (sometimes known as Mabel) he married on 30th December 1914 in St. Peter’s Church, Athlone. His records do not give her full date of birth, simply stating that she was born in 1887. The witnesses who signed the register were Maurice and Nora O’Connell of “The Willows”, Athlone. (The local librarian informs us that this house still exists on the “Connaught” side of the river.)

It seems curious that no member of his family signed the register which may or may not indicate some froideur between the two families or it might even mean that his family were not informed of the marriage. At this remove it obviously isn’t possible to draw any firm conclusions.

P.J joined up three months earlier on 21st September 1914 and the family legend is that Mary was the driving force behind P.J’s enlistment but there is no way of confirming this as it may well have been her father who pushed it, as the firm would no doubt have been doing business with “Protestant” firms but it remains a matter of speculation.

However the fact that the two events occurred so close to each other, tend to support his enrolment was linked to, or as a condition, of the marriage. Like many people during the Gaelic Revival, P.J changed his name to what was regarded as the more authentically Irish form incorporating the “O” which Elizabethan edict insisted Gaelic families stop using, at the close of the 16th Century. The Revival reflected the strong national desire, at the time, to reassert an Irish identity and push for independence. The fact that he changed his name, in this way, tends again to support the notion that his enlistment was to please his intended wife and/or her family but the two need not have been entirely incompatible either, given that John Redmond had – to the great dismay of Ulster Unionists – extracted a promise of Home Rule for Ireland (shelved for the duration of the war) if Irishmen fought for the Crown.

Incidentally, at this time his brother Charlie was working in Loughrea and some of P.J’s correspondence was to an address in Loughrea town square but his permanent address, on the enrolment form, is given as “Excise Street”, Athlone which is not far from the O’Connell home.

P.J joined the “Royal Horse Artillery and Royal Field Artillery” and the enlistment form has an entry which is crossed out before this was entered. The original entry appears to read ” regular infantry” but this is not conclusive and in any case the form may simply have been one which was abandoned from another enrolment. However, since he was already an apprentice solicitor, he must have been quite highly qualified for the time (he includes a certificate from a P. Ross, the principle from the “Skerry’s College”, 10 Harcourt Street, Dublin) and could ride a horse, it may be that he was advised – or discovered – that he could become a commissioned officer if he applied to such a regiment. This may also explain why he did not join either of the two “Irish” divisions, the 10th and 16th, as neither had Irish officers.

His enlistment form is “For a candidate who is neither a university graduate nor a cadet or “ex-cadet” and the category of his commission is described as a “Temporary Lieutenant for the duration of the war”.

P.J and Mary’s son Gerard Charles O’Kelly was born on 7th December 1915 and he appears to have been sent to the war zone shortly afterwards, on 1st January 1916, before Gerard was a month old. At some point, he was attached to D battalion of the 58th brigade of the 11th (Northern) Division* which had just returned from Gallipoli. He does not appear to have been deployed at the Somme until 1st March 1916 but remained with the division until he was killed in action on 26th September 1916. During that time the division was involved in the following battles and actions;

14th September 1916 – Capture of the Wonder Work
15th September 1916 – Battle of Fleurs-Courcelette
26th to 28th Spetember 1916 – Battle of Thiepval Ridge

The senior officers of every regiment recorded the significant events of the day in a regimental diary and these entries give an insight into the appalling ferocity of the war. In the course of one night – which is described as “otherwise quiet” – a stray shell scored a direct hit on an arms dump behind the regiment’s lines, resulting in a series of massive detonations.

(When the relevant entries from the diary have been typed up, we will circulate them.)

Although the conditions under which the officers lived were substantially better than those of the enlisted men, this incident brings home something of the unimaginable psychological strain under which the soldiers passed their days and nights.

Sniper attacks were frequent, as were reconnaissance flights and patrols by both sides. Shelling, at any time, was an unpredictable but common occurrence.

Another entry reminds officers of the need to constantly remind the men driving the horse-drawn carriage-loads of ordinance to the front, to keep noise to a minimum. Sound carried at night and if the horses’ hooves were heard, the Germans’ Gunners might get wind of the fact that shells were being delivered and target the area with potentially devastating results.

P.J was killed on 26th September – the first day of the battle of Thiepval Ridge – and his records show that he died intestate. Gerard would have been 11 months old at the time and he would only have seen his son as a newborn infant before departing.

His personal effects are recorded as;

an identity disc
a watch
a rosary
2 grenades
2 charms
a prayer book
3 notebooks
a note case
an officer’s advance book
photos and postcards

He is buried in the military cemetery outside of the modern-day village of Ovilliers-La-Boiselles (Grave’Memorial ref VII.A.10)

(“Ovilliers and “La Boiselles” were two separate villages destroyed during the battle.)

Today Ovilliers-La-Boiselles, is 22 miles north east of Amiens, 5km northeast off the D929 road to Bapaume, the cemetery itself being 500metres west of the present day village on the D20 road to Aveley.

P.J’s grave is recorded on one document as being “about 150 yards southwest of La Boiselle Communal Cemetery.  A letter from the War Office says the grave is “marked with a durable wooden cross with an inscription bearing full particulars”. The place of burial is also given as “X13. of 2.1 map 57 of S.E 4.”

The initial site of the cemetery – documented on the Commonwealth war graves website – is described in 1916 as being “behind the dressing station” but it would obviously have grown rapidly, as the battle went on and after the war ended it was hugely expanded with the addition of an enormous number of  unmarked graves. About two thirds of the graves are unmarked. 

After his death Mary/Mabel applied for the war gratuity and pension and some of her correspondence with the war office gives her address as Caher, Feakle, County Clare.which could indicate that she had gone to live there or, more likely, was visiting at the time.

The gratuity paid to her upon the death of her husband was stg. £140 plus a pension of stg. £100 per annum. A gratuity of stg. £46.13 plus stg. £24 per annum was paid to her on behalf of Gerard for the loss of his father.
She remarried and lost the pension but after the death of her husband, she applied for it to be restored on 16th December 1936.

 In memory of
Patrick Joseph O’Kelly
29th July 1889 – 26th September 1916
Ar dheis go raibh a anam

Background note: The Summer of 1914

As the late summer of 1914 turned into Autumn, John Redmond made two major speeches – one in August, the other in September – urging Irishmen to fight for Britain, pointing out that Nationalists could not afford to allow Ulster Unionists to reap the benefit of being the only Irish to support the war effort.
These speeches were deemed as critical turning-points. It should be remembered that at this point, no one in military or political circles envisaged a prolonged or bloody conflict, even though by this stage of the war, the “Glorious Retreat” from La Mons – the first major engagement of the British Expeditionary Force – had already taken place a month earlier on 22ndand 23rd August and had been widely reported. It’s worth noting however that the public would have been cocooned from the true nature of this brutal engagement by the sanistised-style of war reporting prevalent at the time.
During the retreat, the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Munster Fusiliers, in a classic rearguard action, held nine German battalions while suffering appalling casualties until being cut off and finally overwhelmed on the on the 27th of August at Etreux with only 240 men surviving. (The Connaught Rangers were also involved in the retreat but in much smaller numbers.) Incredibly they secured the unmolested withdrawal of no less than four divisions, a then largely unrecognised fact that is now seen as having enormously influenced the eventual outcome of the war. Newspaper accounts of the battle and retreat resulted in a rapid rise in army recruitment in Britain but the achievement was so great that by April 1915, conventional explanations were considered insufficient to explain it, in the public mind.
Rumours began to circulate which offered another explanation for the Munsters’ achievement. These claimed that a “miracle” had occurred or, that the intervention of the “Angels of Mons” had aided the troops. The final irony of the extraordinary achievement at La Mons, was that the southern Irish troops who achieved this great feat were usually described as British.

*The 11th (Northern) Division
The division was a volunteer division which came into existence on the 21stAugust 1914. Initially it was without equipment or arms of any kind. The recruits were judged to be ready by late spring 1915, and it was ordered to reinforce the beleaguered garrison at Gallipoli.
It landed at Suvla Bay on 7th August 1915 and withdrew on 21stDecember 1915. In July 1916 it landed at Marseilles and spent the remainder of the war on the Western Front. It was involved in the Battle of Fleurs-Courcelette (sixth phase of the Battle of the Somme 1916).
On 28th June 1919, the Division ceased to exist, having lost more than 32,100 casualties during the war.

*There was an “Arthurian” legend newly invented by a Welsh journalist and author named Arthur Machen. Machen published a short story entitled The Bowman in the bestselling London newspaper, The Evening News, on September 29th , 1914. It was inspired by accounts that he had read of the fighting at Mons and an idea he had soon after the battle. Machen was a journalist on the paper and although he was a well-known author of supernatural stories there was no indication that it was fiction when it was originally published in the paper. It was written from first-hand experience and described a soldier calling on Saint George, to summon phantom bowmen from the battle of Agincourt, to destroy a German host. The unintended result was that Machen had a number of requests to provide evidence for for his source for the story quite soon after publication, from the readers who thought it was true. He responded by saying it was completely imaginary, as he had no desire to create a hoax. However the story was reprinted a number of times over the next six months and by May 1915 was being cited in pulpits across Britain, as evidence of Divine intervention in the war.

Machen was appalled by this development and attempted to refute it by publishing a book with a lengthy preface stating that the rumours were false and originated in his story. It became a bestseller and inspired popular songs and artists’ impressions. Further attempts by Machen – who regarded as one of his poorest pieces of work – to set the record straight in many quarters as “treason”.

In the spring of 1915 there was another surge in supernatural rumours and the stories published then often attributed their sources to “anonymous British officers”. One April 24th 1915, an account was published in the British Spiritualist magazine telling of visions of a supernatural force that miraculously intervened to help the British at the decisive moment of the battle. This resulted in another flurry of similar accounts and the latest study of the Mons story suggests these may have been part of a covert attempt by military intelligence to spread morale-boosting propaganda and disinformation.
It was a time of Allied problems due to the sinking of the Lusitania, Zeppelin attacks and a failure to achieve a breakthrough on the Western Front. From this point of view, the timing would make military sense.

The only real evidence of visions from actual names serving soldiers, provided during the debate, stated that they saw visions of phantom cavalrymen, not angels or bowmen, and this occurred during the retreat than at the Battle itself. Furthermore these visions did not intervene to attack or deter German forces, a crucial element in Machen’s story and in the later tales of Angels. Since during the retreat many troops were exhausted and had not slept properly for days, such visions were obviously hallucinations.

While it is not entirely impossible that the original newspaper account played some part in P.J’s decision to enlist – given that Athlone was a garrison town – it seems rather unlikely. But it is an interesting illustration of the heightened atmosphere of the day and the factors that would have played a part in the decisions made by many others. There was mounting hysteria in the press and enlistment in Ireland would have been driven as much by stories of German atrocities and calls to defend neutral Belgium, as by the enormously emotional issue of Home Rule.

If anyone can add to, or clarify, any of the above, please feel free to do so. Any information as to the final destination of P.J’s son Gerard would be most welcome.

My grandfather James had the photo of P.J proudly displayed in his house. When my grandparents died my uncle inherited the house, however, since he died the photo has sadly vanished which explains the horrible quality of a photocopy of the original. 

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