02 August 2008

Family history and changing the direction of the Poor Mouth (a little)

I’ve been looking back at some of my earlier posts and to be honest I think some of my earlier posts were far, far better than I produce these days. It’s not that I am ashamed of the Poor Mouth as it stands and I don’t plan to devote as much time to party political matters as I used to – suffice it to say that I am a Labour Party member and I have no intention of shifting political allegiance, even if Brown dismays me. But I digress. I intend to devote more time to some of my favourite subjects, most of which concern the footnotes of history. To kick things off this post (which anthologises a number of posts from 2006 and 2007) concerns tracking down my grandfather’s involvement in WWI

In 2006 I knew very little about the history of either side of my family, a fact not helped by the early death of all of my grandparents (Only my maternal grandmother was alive when I was born and she died before I was old enough to take an interest in such matters) and my parent’s own rather fragmentary knowledge.

What I did know about my family beyond my parent’s generation is this:

- A maternal great uncle was a fairly successful middle distance athlete at the turn of the 20th Century. He was all Ireland 880 yards champion. Some of his medals still exist and I hope will be placed in the Millstreet museum in the not too distant future

- A maternal cousin fought in the IRA during the original “Troubles” (1919-21) and then in the ensuing Civil War. Less than 20 years later he was in England working on radar development!


- My paternal grandfather served in the Second Battalion of the Royal Munster Fusiliers (2nd Munsters) and was apparently taken prisoner at the battle of Mons in 1914. That he survived that terrible conflict is probably down to his spending over four years in Germany as a “guest” of the Kaiser! The only photograph I have ever seen of him was taken in a POW camp in Limburgnot far from the Dutch border

Grandfather was in the BEF

All in all this was not an awful lot to show for two fairly sizeable families. Virtually every document or personal item that would help me trace my family history has vanished over time. In May 2006 I searched the WWI service medal database at the UK National Archives website and I was delighted to find a medal record for a private in the Munster Fusiliers bearing the exact same name as my grandfather who arrived in France on 13 August 1914.
This piece of information placed him in the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) at the start of WWI. It is a matter of record that on 23 August 1914 the BEF engaged the German First Army around Mons but the 2nd Munsters were held in reserve and did not participate in that battle. In addition the 2nd Munsters did not participate in the battle of Le Cateau on 26 August.

The Munster fusiliers cap badge

The 2nd Munsters’ contribution to the Mons Campaign took place on 27 August at Etreux. At the time the BEF was in retreat and in extreme danger of being surrounded and destroyed by advancing German forces. Three companies of the 2nd Munsters under Major Charrier along with a troop of the 15th Hussars, and two guns of the 118th Battery, R.F.A., held off a full German Corps for a day taking appalling casualties in the process. This action allowed General Haig’s I Corps to put twelve miles between itself and the front almost certainly ensuring its survival as a fighting force.

The Action is a tiny footnote in a conflict that took millions of lives but it is a textbook example of the function of a rear guard force. The medal record placed my grandfather in the BEF but I could not prove that he fought or was taken prisoner there. However it was a “definite maybe”.

Grandfather was at Etreux

James O’ Sullivan has an excellent site about the Munsters (see below). His father served in the first battalion, which saw action at Gallipoli before transferring to the Western Front in 1916.In 2007 James for provided me with a clipping from the Times dated 23 March 1915, which lists members of the 2nd battalion that had been taken prisoner. One of them is my grandfather. He also confirmed that there is no record of any members of the battalion taken prisoner between the Etreux rearguard action of 27 August 1914 and the publication of the list.

The conclusion is that my grandfather was one of a just a few hundred soldiers that held up a whole German corps for a crucial twelve hours and thus helped ensure the survival of the British Expeditionary Force in its retreat from Mons to the Marne.

Grandfather avoided numerous chances to get his head blown off

All in all I am bloody lucky to have been born in the first place! Had he not been taken prisoner at Etreux he would have had plenty of chance to spill blood between then and 11 November 1918:

  • In May 1915 at the Rue du Bois battle where the 2nd Munster's suffered many losses to friendly artillery fire. Before engaging in battle, absolution was administered to the battalion by their Chaplain Francis Gleeson and is subject of the famous (well famous to me) painting by Fortunate Matania. 22 officers and 520 men went in to battle, 3 officers and 200 men returned.

  • In September 1915 during Loos sector battles.
  • In June 1916 during raids on German lines at Lievin
  • In July 1916 in the attack on the village of Contalmaison.
  • In September to December 1916 in the defence of Martinpuich and the Somme offensive.
  • July 1917 in the Nieuport defence.
  • In November 1917 at Passchendale
  • In March 1918 in action at Epehy, Tincourt, Doingt, Chuignolles and Mericourt sectors.
  • In October at Le Catelet, Foret de Mormal and River Selle sectors.

The second Munsters were wiped out several times over during WWI. A POW camp in Limburg in Germany was probably the safest place for him!

This list was taken from James O'Sullivan’s site

Further reading

There are two excellent websites concerning the history of the Royal Munster fusiliers:

James O Sullivan’s Royal Munster Fusiliers website;

Tadhg Moloney’s Royal Munster Fusilier Association website;

Both carry the account of the Etreux action from The 2nd Munsters in France by Lt Col H S Jervis;

Wikipedia entry on the Battle of Mons


CherryPie said...

Tracking down family history is a fascinating pastime isn't it? There is one branch of my family that teases my greatly...

It seems we have something else in common!

jmb said...

Good luck with your search Jams, it is so much easier nowadays with all the online information.

YTSL said...

Great entry. Definitely would appreciate your sharing more like this, jams! :)

CalumCarr said...

You've reminded me that i shoul be getting back to my genealogy searches.

Oh dear, another job not done.

Conrgatulations on your searches.

jams o donnell said...

Thanks everyone. Genealogy searches can be harder in Ireland but it would be worth it!

Nunyaa said...

I will have this printed out to read and share file for use in studies I know the boys will use at a later date.
I have tried to track back on family but come across snags where I would have to pay huge fees here to continue to access information.

jams o donnell said...

Be my guest. I hope your boys find uit useful.

Anonymous said...

I found you by doing a Bing search for Francis Gleeson, the Canon doing the blessing in the painting. He was my husbands great uncle. The American Gleason family are also very familiar with the painting! By the way, my husband's father landed on the beaches of Normany on D-Day. There were 7 boys in the Benedict Gleason family (Benedict was the brother of Francis). One died young and the other 6 were all involved in WW2...all heroes to me.

jams o donnell said...

Wow Anonymous, thanks for the information.

THe Benedict Gleason family were truly heroes