Wednesday 12 December 2018

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Cork Independent

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Lest we forget

Wednesday, 14th November, 2018 4:50pm

“The armistice with Germany was signed yesterday morning, and as the terms of the truce preclude the possibility of a resumption of hostilities, the world again enters on the paths of peace. After the appalling years of slaughter, of devastation on land, and of revolting massacre at sea, mankind cannot but find relief in the news that the greatest war in the world’s history is over. The tragedy that convulsed continents has taught many lessons.”

Editorial, Cork Examiner, 12 November 1918

The cessation of hostilities on the Western Front of the First World War took effect at eleven o’clock in the morning - the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918. The armistice was signed between the Allies and Germany at Compiègne, France.

Relief abounded for the families of those soldiers who had made it to the end of the war alive – but vast grief over-shadowed the celebrations, which played out across British and Irish newspapers of the day.

The figure of 49,435 war dead is the one adorned on the Irish National War Memorial, at Islandbridge in Dublin based on the Irish Memorial Rolls drawn up after the war. Unfortunately, the Rolls are full of discrepancies. They detail all those who died in Irish regiments, but many of those soldiers were not Irish, and many Irish who died in non-Irish regiments are not recorded.

The Irish Memorial Roll lists 4,918 dead from Dublin, but First World War scholar Tom Burnell says the true figure is 8,479. Similarly, the official figure for Cork is 2,244, but he puts it at 4,338.

Similarly, crucial work in the book ‘A Great Sacrifice’ (2010, edited by Gerry White and Brendan O’Shea) reveals an under estimation of total figures. When the war ended in November 1918, the Royal Munster Fusiliers had suffered around 2,800 killed with thousands more wounded and the regiment had been reduced to its two regular battalions, a reserve battalion and two garrison battalions.

The other element at play was how to bring the thousands and thousands of soldiers home. The House of Commons on 14 November issued a report detailing the vast swathes of soldiers trying to come home to Britain and Ireland. The report notes that it was impossible to say what was the number of prisoners of war who had found their way to Holland in just three days, but possibly it was in the thousands.

Around 30,000 full kits and 30,000 rations were sent to Holland and all Red Cross workers, voluntary aid detachments, and medical-personnel in Holland were to be retained there in case of emergency. Besides such ships as were available, Westminister were sending ships capable of carrying 9,000 persons.

Similar arrangements were being made in the case of Denmark. As regards kits and rations, it was hoped to affect the repatriation of all prisoners from that country by neutral ships. Steps had also been taken to secure the return of prisoners from Switzerland.

It was thought possible to secure the return of other prisoners directly across the lines in France and Belgium, and instructions had been given to facilitate their passage to the Channel ports, and to do everything possible for their comfort on the way.

The whole question of interned prisoners in Germany would be dealt with under the armistice conditions by an international conference.

As to the prisoners in Austria, the Italian authorities had been asked to make arrangements to secure their speedy return. In the case of prisoners in Turkish hands, Admiral Calthorpe of the Mediterranean Fleet had been asked to appoint a committee of three to attend to their requirements and secure their repatriation. The great bulk of these would be assembled in Smyrna and sent through Italy and France.

All combatant prisoners of war on arrival in England would be sent to reception camps where they would receive medical attention. Arrangements were made to give them leave as soon as possible. Other arrangements would be made for civilian prisoners.

In the Cork context, many soldiers returned to Cork with no jobs to return to. Many enlisted in the Cork Branch (established December 1917) of the National Federation of Discharged and Demobilised Sailors and Soldiers.

The Federation’s principle aims were to secure pensions for wounded ex-servicemen from Government and to promote legislation for them.

On the western end of the South Mall is a memorial to those Irishmen who died in the First World War.

The unveiling of the Cork Great War Memorial erected by the Cork Independent Ex-Servicemen to the memory of their fallen comrades, took place on 17 March 1925. The ceremony was performed by General Harrison, the late commanding officer of the Royal Munster Fusiliers’ Depot, who took the salute from the foot of the Memorial.

Many thousands of ex-servicemen, and widows and orphans of the men in whose honour the memorial was erected, were present at the ceremony. The day’s programme was an elaborate one and opened with parades of ex-servicemen at eleven o’clock.

The two organisations in Cork — the Cork Independent Ex-Servicemen and the Cork branch of the British Legion participated. The memorial is carved in relief on a modest limestone obelisk, sitting on a plinth, is the profile of a Munster Fusiliers soldier in full military uniform, head down, gun at rest.

Kieran’s new book, ‘Cork in Fifty Buildings’ (2018, Amberley Publishing) is now available in Cork bookshops.

Kieran is also showcasing some of the older column series on the River Lee on his heritage Facebook page at the moment, Cork: Our City, Our Town.

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