Serjeant John Joseph Tait enlisted in Royal Dublin Fusiliers at Naas and first served in France with the 2nd Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers from 23 August 1914 as Lance Serjeant. The 2nd Battalion landed at Boulogne as part of 10th Brigade in 4th Division.
On the 24th August, the British Expeditonary Force (BEF), began to retreat from the Belgian City of Mons. It was during this retreat that the 2nd Dublin Fusiliers, as part of the 4th Infantry Division, were brought over from England and placed around the town of Le Cateau. Their objective was to provide a rear guard force that would cover the retreating BEF.
On April 25th, 1915, the 2nd battalion force marched 50 kilometres to fill a gap in the British lines to try and retake the village of St Julien from the Germans. They got within 100 yards of the German lines before being “mown down, like corn, by machine guns in enfilade. They remained lying dead in rows where they had fallen”, as the British official history put it.The battalion suffered 500 casualties, though John came through unscathed. It was possibly here, where John may have received his recommendation for the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM). For all ranks below commissioned officers, it was the second highest award for gallantry in action after the Victoria Cross..
Worse was to follow a month later at a place called Mouse Trap Farm which exists to this day. Mouse Trap Farm was a place of dread for the British soldiers, who nicknamed it Shell Trap Farm.
The assault on Mouse Trap Farm was to be the Germans’ last attempt to take Ypres from the British. On the morning of May 24th, 1915, they drenched the Allied lines with chlorine gas along a 12 kilometre front.
Three Irish battalions held the line around Mouse Trap Farm. To the right was the 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers, in the centre was the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers and to the left was the 2nd Royal Irish Regiment.
The RDF bore the brunt of the German assault on the trenches surrounding Mouse Trap Farm. Their trenches were within 35 metres of the German lines. They could hear the hissing of the gas being released. Within seconds the Germans were on top of them.
The Dublins quickly lost their commanding officer, Lieut Col Arthur Loveband, from Naas, Co Kildare, who was shot through the heart. The situation for the RDF grew ever more desperate. One officer sent out the message “For God’s sake send some help, we are nearly done”. No help was forthcoming. The only surviving officer, Capt Leahy, recalled that the men “died fighting at their post”.
At the end of the day all that was left was one officer and 21 other ranks out of a total complement of 658 officers and men. Rarely in that terrible war had a single battalion suffered such a wipeout.
The Royal Irish Regiment, drawn mostly from the southeast and the Royal Irish Fusiliers from Armagh, Cavan and Monaghan, also suffered grievous losses in what was the bleakest of bleak days for Irish regiments. The whole of Ireland was affected by the tragedy, which also claimed the life of Pte John Condon from Waterford city who was with the Royal Irish Regiment. At 14, he was the youngest Allied soldier to die in the war.
John died wretchedly of gas poisoning two days later. His will confirms that he died at No 8 Casualty Clearing Station on 26 May 1915 having made out his will in hospital and that all his effects should go to his wife on the event of his death. Serjeant Tait is buried in the Bailleul Communal Cemetery Extension, Nord, France.
It is this particular horror of gas that is captured in Wilfred Owen’s poem Dulce et Decorum Est, arguably the most widely read description of the horrors of war in the English language.
William was born in Dublin to Patrick & Sarah Lindsay in July 1886, at 16 Summer Place, Mountjoy Square in Dublin.
In the summer of 1904 , William decided to join the army and attested for the East Lancashire Regiment at Dublin. According to his medical records he was 5ft 3inches tall & weighed 115lbs.
He joined the 1st battalion spending the years 1905 – 1908 based at the Curragh in Co. Kildare. He served till 1913, when he was discharged to the army reserves, marrying Marie O’Toole in August 1913.
When the Great War broke out in August 1914, William was recalled from the reserves, was mobilized and posted to the 2nd battalion, East Lancashire Regiment. They landed in Le Havre, France on the 6th November as part of the 24th Brigade in the 8th Division.
At this time William got his first frontline experience in the muddy trenches of France & Flanders.
At the Battle of Aubers Ridge on the 9th of May 1915, William was wounded badly in the shoulder, caused by a bursting shell which exploded only a few yards from where he was entrenched, killing many of his comrades.
The following describes the 2nd East Lancs on the morning of May 9th.
As the men left the trench at 5.40 am the following morning the front ranks of the attacking companies were swept by machine gun fire and all suffered heavy casualties before reaching their own advance trench.
Forced to ground, they were told to attack again at 1pm after a barrage from their artillery, but the barrage fell upon the East Lancashire men instead.
A young officer, in this, his first action, reported:-
“Suddenly there broke over us a hail of shrapnel. It seemed to come from everywhere except the enemy, and men were being hit right and left. I realised that our artillery were bombarding the enemy trenches, after which we would assault if there were any of us left. From all around came the cries of wounded men mingled with the splitting crash of shrapnel, and every few minutes one’s ears were numbed by bursts of Jack Johnsons behind the forward trench.”
The attack was a failure, with 10 officers killed & 9 wounded, 63 other ranks killed, 325 wounded with 42 missing. The vast majority being within yards of their own front-line trench.
William was evacuated to Britain with his wounds, spending the next four months recovering at Stobhill military hospital in Glasgow.
Fully recovered, William transferred to the 9th Service Battalion. His unit was moved at the end of October to Salonika, as a part of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, arriving on the 5th November 1915.
Compared to other theatres of war, stalemate characterised this arduous campaign in mountainous Balkan terrain, with offensive operations largely confined to raids and patrolling. In December 1915 the 9th East Lancashires were in action at Kosturino and, on 13th-14th September 1916, the same battalion saw more serious fighting at Macukovo.
For the best part of two years the battalion took their turn in trenches overlooked by the immensely strong fortified heights of Pip Ridge and Grand Couronne. These were their objectives when the second battle of Doiran was launched in September 1918.
On the 19th, the East Lancashires made a heroic solitary assault, enfiladed by machine guns on both flanks. Their sacrifice was not entirely in vain, for three days later the enemy abandoned their positions and on 29th September Bulgaria was the first of all the Central Powers to unconditionally surrender.
For William his war was over, he had survived. He returned to England serving on for a further year, before being discharged in January 1920. He returned to Dublin, where he remained for the rest of his life, dying of heart failure on the 28th February 1951, aged 65. He was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin.
Peter, an old soldier with 15 years service in the army, was living in Wishaw, Scotland, when he enlisted into the 12th Battalion, Highland Light Infantry in the spring of 1915. He landed with his battalion, in Boulogne on the 2nd of October 1915 as part of the 46th Brigade in 15th (Scottish) Division.
Peter was killed in action whilst attached to a working party of the Royal Engineers, on the 1st September 1916.
Working parties were regularly sent out to mend shell damage to the trenches and their defences. These soldiers carry coils of barbed wire and corkscrew pickets (metal stakes) for repairing the belts of wire that protected the trenches. This was done to prevent the enemy from getting close to front-line positions.
Peter’s body was found and he is remembered with honour at Vermelles British Cemetery.
Patrick Dalton a Pre War regular soldier, departed with the 1st Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers, from Portsmouth, were it was stationed at the outbreak of World War 1. It was assigned to the 9th Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division and remained with it throughout the war. It landed at Le Havre on 31st August 1914 and remained on the Western Front until the Armistice with Germany.
The 1st Battalion was soon in action at Mons in which battle, the 3rd and 5th Divisions bore the brunt of the fighting, and thereafter saw action in all the major engagements of 1914 – Marne, Aisne, La Bassee, Armentieres and Ypres. The battalion remained on the Western Front, in the same brigade and division, for the rest of the war. In all it suffered 1742 dead.
Patrick was killed on the 3rd July 1915,with two others wounded, whilst in bivouac, near the trenches at St Eloi. Circumstances of his death are unknown, most probably a stray shell, whilst his battalion was ‘at rest’.
He left behind a young wife, Elizabeth, who was living at 26 Haras Cottages, Harold’s Cross, in Dublin.
WE ASKED LIFE OF THEE
AND THOU HAS GIVEN HIM LIFE
The fourth in my collection of autographs to Irish born holders of the Victoria Cross (VC). James Magennis from Belfast in WW2.
James was a Belfast-born recipient of the Victoria Cross, the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces. He was the only native of Northern Ireland to receive the Victoria Cross for Second World War service. Magennis was part of several operations involving X-Craft midget submarines in attacks on Axis ships. In July 1945 Magennis was serving on HMS XE3 during Operation Struggle. During an attack on the Japanese cruiser Takao in Singapore, Magennis showed extraordinary valour and bravery by leaving the submarine for a second time in order to free some explosive charges that had got caught. His commanding officer Lieutenant Ian Fraser was also awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions on 31 July 1945 during the Operation.
In July 1945 Acting Leading Seaman Magennis was serving as the diver on the midget submarine HMS XE3 under the command of Lieutenant Ian Fraser. They were tasked with sinking the 10,000 ton Japanese cruiser Takao, the first of the Takao Class. She was berthed in the Straits of Johor, Singapore acting as an Anti-aircraft battery. The codename for the operation was Operation Struggle.
On 30 July 1945 the XE3 was towed to the area by the submarine Stygian. She slipped her tow at 23:00 for the forty-mile journey through hazardous wrecks, minefields and listening posts to reach the Takao. After arriving at the Takao at 13:00 on 31 July 1945. Magennis slipped out of the wet-and-dry chamber and he attached limpet mines to the Japanese cruiser Takao under particularly difficult circumstances. He had to chip away at barnacles on the bottom of the cruiser for 30 minutes before being able to attach the limpets. During this time his breathing apparatus was leaking and he returned to the submarine after completion of his task very exhausted. On withdrawing, Lieutenant Ian Fraser found that one of the limpet carriers which was being jettisoned would not release itself. Magennis immediately volunteered to free it commenting: “I’ll be all right as soon as I’ve got my wind, Sir”. This he did, after seven minutes of nerve-racking work with a heavy spanner. On completion Magennis returned to XE3 for the second time, allowing the four man midget submarine to make its escape out to open sea to meet the waiting Stygian.
Magennis was the only Victoria Cross winner of the Second World War to hail from Northern Ireland. As a result, Magennis obtained something of a “celebrity status” in his home city. The citizens of Belfast raised more than £3,000 as part of a “Shilling Fund.” The City Fathers of Belfast refused to give Magennis the freedom of the City though. Sources differ as to the reasoning behind this; some claim it was due to religious divisions, others claim it was due to the City Fathers not “…believing that such an honour could not be bestowed on a working-class Catholic from the inner-city slums.” In 1946 Magennis married Edna Skidmore, with whom he had four sons. The money from the Shilling Fund was spent quickly by Magennis and his wife; she remarked: “We are simple people… forced into the limelight. We lived beyond our means because it seemed the right thing to do.” In 1949 he left the Navy and returned to Belfast, where, at some point, he sold his Victoria Cross . In 1955 he moved to Yorkshire, where he worked as an electrician. For the last years of his life, he suffered from chronic ill health, before dying on 11 February 1986 of lung cancer hours before his heroism was honoured by the Royal Navy Philatelic Office with a first-day cover.
Magennis has had several memorials erected in his honour. When Magennis first won the VC, he was treated rather shabbily by the Unionist-dominated Belfast City Council because he was from a working class Roman Catholic family. Although the public collected £3,600 in appreciation of his heroism, the council refused to give him the freedom of the city. The only official recognition was a small photograph tucked away in the robing room of the council chamber. The first memorial was only erected in 1999 after a long campaign by his biographer George Fleming and Major S.H. Pollock CD (Canada). The memorial, a bronze and stone statue, was officially unveiled in Belfast on 8 October 1999. The ceremony was conducted in the grounds of Belfast City Hall in the presence of Magennis’s son Paul, by the Lord Mayor of Belfast, Bob Stoker. Magennis’s former commanding officer, Ian Fraser, was reported as saying: “Jim gave me bother from time to time. He liked his tot of rum, but he was a lovely man and a fine diver. I have never met a braver man. It was a privilege to know him and it’s wonderful to see Belfast honour him at last.” A wall mural commemorating James Magennis on the 60th anniversary of VJ day was unveiled on 16 September 2005 by Peter Robinson, the Democratic Unionist Party Member of Parliament representing East Belfast, including Tullycarnet.
In 1986, there was some publicity in the newspapers that his VC would be up at auction. This attracted the interest of Michael Ashcroft, Baron Ashcroft who bought the VC for £29,000 (plus fees) amidst strong competition from dealers and private collectors. This was the first Victoria Cross bought by Lord Ashcroft, who, as of 2006, owned 142 medals.
Cornelius (Con) Scarry was born on the 19th Sept. 1878 in Buttevant, Mallow, Co. Cork, Ireland. He married on 25th Feb. 1900 to Margaret Collins, born in Greenock, Scotland and was living in 15 Thomas Street Dublin, by the time of the 1911 census, with Margaret and their 5 children. He was a carter by profession.
Con enlisted in early 1915 into the Royal Munster Fusiliers. Following a period of training he departed with the 8th Battalion.
Sailing from Southampton the 8th RMF landed in France with the 16th (Irish) Division under its new commander Major-General William Hickie on 19. December 1915 with 33 officers and 948 other ranks, going straight to the deeply frozen trenches on the Loos salient, the front line of the earlier lost Battle of Loos, alongside the 15th (Scottish) Division.
Casualties occurred throughout January. During February it was stationed at Béthune for training, returning to the lines, rotating with the 9th RMF through April. In May its casualties were replenished by 12 officers and 200 men from the disbanded 9th Battalion. During June and July it took part on several raids along the Loos sector with its brigade, suffering significant losses, often the battalion’s best soldiers. Con was wounded during this period of service in the front line.
Following his recuperation from his wounds, Con transferred to the 1st Battalion.
Up to the middle of March 1917, rotating routine trench duties continued with light casualties (2 officers and 20 men killed). The battalion rehearsed special training during April and May for the assault on the strategic Messines Ridge.
It was during this time that Con was invalided, suffering from Trench Fever. This infectious disease was characterized by sudden onset with fever; headache; sore muscles, bones, and joints; and outbreaks of skin lesions on the chest and back. It was transmitted from one person to another by lice. First recognized in 1915, trench fever was a major medical problem during World War I.
Trench Fever attacked all armies and until the final year of the war baffled doctors and researchers. Chief symptoms of the disease were headaches, skin rashes, inflamed eyes and leg pains.
Despite such wide-ranging symptoms (which resembled typhoid and influenza) the condition was not itself particularly serious, with patients recovering after some five or six days although prolonged hospitalisation amounting to several weeks was common.
Con finished out his war with the Labour Corps, being demobbed and returning to Dublin in May 1919, finding work as a hotel porter. He lived in Kilmainham for the rest of his life, dying aged 80 in December 1958.