The following is a transcript I put together of an informal interview I did with my Granddad a few years ago about the experiences his father had in the first world war which are not recorded or have been lost. Due to the recording software and background sounds it was hard to transcribe parts, so some of this might seem a bit jumbled but I think as a whole its perfectly understandable and its good to get this all on record. We go through not only his fathers experiences in the war, but after the war and some family history in the Irish rebellion.
Me: Yep good now
Brian: Ok well uh, Dad never talked much about the war, uh but one time he really went into it when I was between 11 and 12 and had pneumonia, and I was very, had been very ill.and because I was at an age my elder brothers, Ted was in the army, John was in the airforce the japs were coming down, they were in New Guinea, and I was hoping to God I’d turn 18 and join up like them, and fight the Japs because they were going to take over the country because of the terrible things they were doing, to people in Malaya, China and all the rest of it.
Brian: I wanted to join up and get into it, and um, dad probably saw I thought it was like a game of cowboys and indians or something, I don’t know but he said uh, he spent 2 days sitting beside my bed telling me the stories, the yarns of what happened to him when he was in the first world war.in northern France and in Belgium. He was in such battles as uh I think it was uh, Ypres he was at that big battle there, Porzieres, Passchendaele, (unfortunately cannot make out what he says, something fort maybe, or hard fought). They were all close to one another, there was another battle there, the name is something like Passchendaele, I think it’s near Ypres he was in that, and I could see after a while what he was telling me, so I would have no illusions about what war was, and he was telling me that the first, he was in the small artillery like 18 pounders, and uh each gun took 3 horsemen to pull it along, and he told me about the first five minutes he was in the first battle, and they were going along and they had a position to move to and they were heading there, and dad was on the outside, his friend was in the middle and their other friend was on the other side, and they were talking away, probably about the position and where to get to this position, suddenly dad heard “WVOOM”, like a “SWOOSH” like that, he looked around to say something like “what was that” to his friend and all that was left of his friend was the legs up to the waist, a shell had just cut him in half.
Me: Is this the one right next to him or the one on the other side?
Brian: The one next to him, and that was the first five minutes he was in battle.
Me: Do you remember where it was?
Brian: He told me but I couldn’t remember now, yknow, it would have been either northern France or Belgium, I think was later on, I’m not too sure. Ypres is in Belgium I know that, and he was there and Passchendaele I think or Pozieres are nearby, he was in those battles. I’ve often seen them in documentaries and heard them talked about by war historians yknow, thousands and thousands of lives were lost at them yknow. And uh, he talked about one battle, maybe it was northern France, the Americans came in the last 6 months of the war, now they were all keen to get into it, and he said they made a move against the Germans, and there were two hills, and he said the Germans fell back, and the Americans followed them, it was a trap. They were rookies, naive, when they got in between the hills, they fell back a bit further, there were thousands and thousands of Germans behind each hill, and they just poured out and they cut the Americans off. And for something like an hour and a half or whatever it was, artillery and machine guns, everything rained down on them. And the Australians, that was Dads crowd, they had to go try pull them out, and they did, because more than half, most of them were killed, casualties, they said it was just hell on earth. They’d fallen for a trap and the Germans had massacred them yknow. And he talked about different battles, I can’t remember the names of them now except the ones I’ve just named.
Me: Yeah that’s all right
Brian: And he just said that war was hell, it was a nightmare, and he said every day he wouldn’t know if in the next 5 minutes he would be alive, or blown up. Like one night he was sleeping on the ground, and a shell burst and it blew him 30 feet away. If he had been any closer to the, err further away from where he was he would have been blown to bits. He was just at that position, and the blast blew him away. He said lots of things like he got shrapnel a couple of times, he got gassed twice, uhh he got the bubonic plague after the war, he said the rats were as big as cats. Living on the corpses, yknow and they brought the bubonic plague, and he got it and uh there were so many, it killed millions, it killed as many as were killed in the war, or more worldwide. There were so many, schools were being turned into hospitals, and the red cross let my mother know in Dublin that Dad was ill with it, and she came across, she never left Ireland before. She spent a week looking for him, finally found him and sat by his bed until he could walk, and then they were leaving to go back to Dublin and as they were leaving the nurse said “Well Mooney I thought you’d be going up feet first, you’re lucky and you’re lucky you got this one *pointing to my mother* to look after ya.” Mum took him back and nursed him to health, and they had to wait something between 18 months and 2 years for a boat, there were so many soldiers to return to come back to Australia.
Brian: But the war, he talked about different experiences but one of the ones that sticks in my mind is he said that quite upset him, sometimes they took prisoners and he realized talking to them, they were just their counterparts yknow, they were just ordinary fellas, and this used to upset him when he saw what was happening to people, both his own and them. He said that, he’ll always remember, he gave me as a souvenir, he got this belt off this German soldier, and it had on the bottom “Gott Mit Uns” which means “God With Us”, he realized that they were being told the same things they were being told. That God was on our side, and the Germans were told the same thing, and he said, he got this belt he gave him something, some tobacco or something for it, and it was a swap. He said one Christmas Eve, the battles had been really terrible, a lot of casualties and the shelling he said was tremendous, you were deaf from the blast of shells and he said, on one side, the German sat up in his trench, he just didn’t give a shite if he got killed or not, and when he sat there the Australians said well, “Jesus don’t shoot him” and then a couple of them stood up, and a couple of more Germans stood up, and they start to call out to one another, and they were talking to each other, it was Christmas Eve, and to make a long story short between them (some spoke english) they agreed they wouldn’t fight on Christmas Day, they swapped cigarettes and everything, and I’ll always remember he said that was a strange experience with these fellas knowing that the next day they’d be firing at one another and all the rest of it. And the next day, uh he said when the war ended, they were pulling their, oh before that one of the things that upset him was that, I think they were in Belgium, it was Northern France and they rushed up to Belgium or vice versa, they were in Belgium and Germans broke through in Northern France and in big numbers. They thought the war was over, and Dad’s crowd they were all rushed down in London buses, to this point and given riot horses instead of their 18 pounders, and told to wait for them. And they were lined down the grass there in the fields and they saw these columns walking along, the Germans they were all singing. They were in lines of 4, marching, they thought the war was over they thought they’d won. And then suddenly Dad said they were getting closer and closer, and Dad said he dreaded this, suddenly they were given the order to fire and they opened fire on them yknow? And the battle ensued, the Germans were pulled up yknow? Things like that I could tell the way he was talking it upset him.
Brian: And uh, he said the day when the war was getting to an end and they’d been out, I can’t remember the time, I’d say they were in there in the front, say a month, they might be pulled out for a week for a rest and another group that had been having a rest would come up for that week or whatever you know, this would keep going on. And they’d been out for a spell, and he said the French were so hospitable to them yknow? He said they were absolutely marvelous, and they went up to uh, they were pulling the guns into position, then they suddenly heard that Austria had succeeded, and they thought Jesus it must be the end. And sure enough a few days later, they got word it was gonna come to an end. That an armistice is being cooked up, and then they got the word that all firing was to cease at 11 o clock, the following day. So they said the last day there was still a few shells, now and again coming over back and forth, he said everyone, the dug outs were packed! No-one wanted to get killed on the last day yknoiw? And 11 o clock came, whistles blew and everything, and both sides start to stand up and come out of the trenches. And swap cigarettes, And he said then the Germans were ought to retreat, to Germany, and they did, as they went along the road there were trees there taken 50 to 100 years to grow, and they chopped them all down, to hinder the allied advance behind them. Yknow, you saw all these beautiful trees yknow, but that’d be nothing to the carnage in human life that had been going on yknow? He said to me, after the two days, of telling me all these stories, lots of them, things that happened, his best mates being killed or blown up, and he said “what do you think of war now?” The message had got through to me, it was no bloody picnic yknow, but yeah and he had diaries where he’d written down a lot. He’d also had photographs that he’d taken at the front and also some he got off, uh, every division had a government photographer with them yknow, and he got some of that fellas photos, and he took quite a few himself, and some of which, I still have and still gave to your Dad to Ciaran, Ciaran put it on the website.
Brian: And I’m glad that they’re still preserved
Me: Yeah definitely. What about that story with the soldiers chained to the guns?
Brain: Oh yeah, that was another one, they had to take this position and the Germans machine gunners were very good, they had good machine guns, but there was a line of them, and the Australians just couldn’t get through to them, the fire was just too intense. So they picked out among the Australians all the crackshots to go around to the right and from a certain position, and they shot all the machine gunners from the left side, most of them were shot in the left temple. And Dad went to have a look at them, and he said they were all chained to their machine guns, they weren’t allowed to retreat. He said there were some pretty terrible things in it yknow.
Me: So, the Germans did retreat?
Brian: Yeah they went all the way back to Germany
Me: But they chopped the trees behind them?
Brian: Yeah yeah, they did they were trying to halt the advance so no allies or Australians trucks could come up, they had to have been a long time doing it yknow, it was to halt the advance, and maybe they thought the allies were going to push into Germany but an armistice had been signed, so.
Me: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Me: Anything else you’d like to add or?
Brian: Well. I’m trying to think because sometimes I’m walking around and other stories come to mind yknow, and if I think of any I’ll let you know. He said that the gassing was terrible, I think some photographs, Ciaran your Dad has got one with a gas mask, yknow they were issued with gas masks, but later the Germans used mustard gas, which would peel the skin off you yknow, it was pretty terrible stuff, it was all terrible but at least the gas mask would protect you against ordinary gas but the mustard gas it peeled the skin off you.
Me: So how did the war start exactly?
Brian: Now the funny thing with the first world war, well I shouldn’t say funny, some arch duke was assassinated, down in one of those Balkan countries which later became Yugoslavia, and because of alliances I think Austria dominated that region there, and Austria was aligned with Germany, and one thing led to another, and suddenly there was war between France and Germany and Britain was backing up France, and it’d be worth reading up all about it yknow. It was insane really because about 50 million people lost their lives yknow in 4 years
Me: And there’s no definite sort of answer?
Brian: Nah. The other thing about the first World War, I think you can say it wasn’t quite as vicious, to ordinary people, as it was compared to say Hitler, Hitler was just the Devil itself, he murdered people besides the conflict in the armies yknow. He’s a ruthless bastard.
Me: So what was the propaganda like in World War 1 then?
Me: So what was the propaganda like in World War 1?
Brian” Dad did tell me, he said in some ways it was a gentlemens war between Australians, British, French and Germans, they respected the prisoners once they were prisoners, yknow. No atrocities like that, there seemed to be very much mutual respect, uh.
Me: guess if there was mutual respect, why were they going to war in the first place? What was the pull? Why would an ordinary person join up in the army?
Brian” Well this was the thing, now in Australia, it’s a part of the British Empire, and they were always frightened of the uh invasion from the north.
Brian: They thought China might come down, but they had the countries mixed up, China didn’t come down it was the Japs that came down later, but uh thats what they thought, they thought they needed England’s help if they ever got invaded, as it turns out it was the Americans that came
Brian: Dad was on a train, you know there was a lot of trouble in Ireland, which also we had a lot of family in yknow
Brian: Like Dads Grandfather fought in one of the rebellions, yknow. And survived, lucky to. But uh one time, when he was courting my mother, they used to go up to Howth, and uh this is when he’d be on leave. They were getting the tram back one summers day back into Dublin and this fella got up and gave mum a seat! And he started to say “What uniform is that? Why are you fellas from Australia fighting in this war for?” Dad explained how they were frightened in Australia of invasion from the north, and he understood that. And he said “Aw yeah” and they talked on the way and Dad thought he was a very intelligent sort of a guy and, he’s quite impressed with him. About a fortnight after he saw these posters up Wanted: Dead or Alive, ten thousand pounds Michael Collins, it was the fellow that had given Mum a seat! *chuckles*
Me: Haha wow!
Brian: And to add to that story even more, Mums second eldest brother, eldest brother, Dick Connelley was in the Dublin Fusiliers and he was sent, see a lot of the Irish fought hard in the first World War, was sent to Gallipoli, Suvla bay, he was there a fortnight, and he got shrapnel in the head, sent back to Dublin, they put a tin plate in his head, he’s only back there and the easter rebellion came on, he was called out he couldn’t do much because he had this tin plate in his head but inside the building were his first cousins that he’d grown up with. They were all yelling out “Hey Dick, you got the wrong uniform on! Come in here, you’re on the wrong side!” And that’s what it was like then. And uh, as it turned out, Mums younger brother, he was so pissed off with the treatment by the british and that, in the end he joined that fella that had given Mum a seat, Michael Collins and became his head intelligence officer, and by the time I got (can’t make out) he was the head of Irish Intelligence in the Irish police force! *chuckles* But uh Michael Collins of course, was an early casualty in the civil war, which was a terrible thing.
Me: So this Rebellion happened around the same time as the first world war?
Brian: It did, yeah well see, it’s a long complicated story but the Irish wanted either independence or home rule, and the brits would put a crowd up in the north, from Britain (can’t understand what is said next, phone audio be damned!). And they were, same as Britain, down on the native Catholics because the whole of the real Irish population were Catholic. And anyway they wouldn’t grant home rule or independence they kept them stalling, and a lot nationalists, some said no don’t rise, because they thought the ones in the north were being armed by the Germans, the brits were allowing the Germans to arm them, whereas if German arms came to Dublin, they shot anyone picking the arms up yknow, it was all one-sided. So the Irish had had enough, a lot of them the nationalists, they rose and decided to take Dublin, there was only what about, two or three thousand of them and they were up against, when the British Army came in they were up against 25,000 troops with artillery support. So it lasted a week, and uh some of Mum’s relatives were in that too, about 125 of them were sentenced to death, and 16 of them were shot. 112 Had their death sentences, it was such an outcry communicative light imprisonment, and one of them was my mothers uncle. And he survived that, he later became one of the big figures in the Irish Government. It’s a long story I could go on for hours.
Me: Is there anything else about your father?
Brian: Well let me think about that, he survived the bubonic plague after being wounded and gassed, and uh as I said they had to wait between 18 months and 2 years before they got a berthe on one of the big transports coming back to Australia.
Brian: And he and mum took off and the came back to Australia via Durban, South Africa. I’ve still got photos of her, in rickshaws yknow. And they came ot uh Australia, settled in Sydney. Dad was a school teacher, and they settled at Wahroonga in Syndey, which is now all built up it would have been a country hamlet then. and they had a first child called Phyllis, but she was a cot death, she died. Mum was so upset Dad said we’ll go back and see your father, so she took my eldest brother Ted who was then about 4 back to Ireland for a year, to see her people. Then they came back to Australia again, but uhh that’s what people were like then, one fella said when he heard this story people in those days trusted one another, yknow?
Me: Did he ever personally kill anyone in the war?
Brian: He was on these 18 pounders, he used to get very upset, his shell was killing people in these battles yeah. In his old age it used to upset him a bit, yknow because he’d seen the carnage, he knew that they were being killed and they were killing, and he had a conscience and didn’t like it.
Me: All right well, thanks very much. If you think of anything else let me know
Brian: If I think any stories as we go along, it’s so long because I’m 88 now, and I first heard these stories when I was about 12 you know, its a long time ago.
(Later on Grandad remembered one more story)
Brian: It was quite famous, there was a battle in there and there was so many shells, so many killed, they’d built a ramp of wooden planks and he had photos of it and it turned a corner and went like that and it was called Hell’s Corner, and if they were going past they had to crouch because they were in the firing line and they had to go there, they couldn’t get off the wood because so many shells were falling all the earth was like quicksand, it was full of bodies. And if you went off it you were likely to sink down in the stench of all the bodies there was so many. And that place has a name I’ve seen it on documentaries since he talked about it it’s quite well known and he had a couple of photos, I recognize the photos they took of it he had taken them himself. Hell’s Corner it was called, and I think it was something, the battle might be called something like that, if I see it again it will come to me yknow, and it was in northern France if I remember right, or Belgium either of those two. Bloody terrible place the way he described it yknow, the carnage.