[You can read all of my “Voices from the First World War” posts HERE.]
On the 11th of November, 100 years will have passed since the guns fell silent in France, marking the end of the First World War. The Great War. The War to End All Wars. Since I’ve been writing historical fiction set in that era, I wanted to commemorate this tragic and momentous period by dedicating my blog each week until the 100th anniversary to the voices who have moved so many of you, the voices who were impacted greatly by the violence and destruction of the First World War and the peace that followed. Although fictionalized, these characters’ recollections evoke a true sense of the devastation and the lives undone.
(Francis Brannigan is a minor character in the first book of my First World War & 1920s trilogy, None of Us the Same, and has a more substantial role in the upcoming third book, No Hero’s Welcome. SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t read None of Us the Same yet, you may not want to read this.)
Francis, can you give me an idea of what your life was like before the 4th of August, 1914, the day the British declared war on the German Empire?
I was a Dublin man born and raised, like my father and grandfather before me. I followed my father as a cooper, makin’ barrels as an apprentice at the big brewery where Da was a cooperage foreman. Lord, we made ’em by the thousands, too, shippin’ off beer to every corner of the world. Suppose I was like all the other young blades, couldn’t wait to get into the excitement and have myself a soldier’s coat. And didn’t we all think we’d be home covered in glory before the Christmastide? The more fools we were.
You were like so many other young men, anxious to get to the fighting. What did your family think when you volunteered?
Well, that was a jumble. My Da fought in the South African War, when it was just my big sister, Deirdre, and me, a baby, left at home with Mam. Da was with the Dublin Fusiliers in South Africa, fought at the relief of Ladysmith and took a bullet to his leg. I didn’t have any recollection of his bein’ away, like my sister did. Didn’t Da go down to the regiment and sign up as a sergeant-major, too? One of his old officers from South Africa was given command of a new battalion formin’ up and asked Da personal-like to come back and serve with the Dubs.
What about your mother? And the other members of your family, like the older sister you mentioned?
Mam was sick with worry for me, but she didn’t want to say anything to make me fearful. I know she must’ve been disappointed that Da decided to go along, too, havin’ already done his bit in South Africa. She knew better than anyone how hard it would be at home, all the waitin’ and worryin’ and prayin’. But she never uttered a word against him goin’ off again, least not that I heard anyways. My sister Deirdre, she was angry as could be. Thought I was a damn fool for runnin’ off so quick to join up. But that was nothin’ compared to how she was with Da. The mornin’ we left to ship out with the regiment, well, I never heard such words said by a daughter to her father. I know that it grieved her fierce later. After we lost Da at Gallipoli, the awful guilt she carried drove her to join the Army nurses. That’s how she ended up on the Somme and saw such terrible things.
You lost your father at Gallipoli?
’Tis a day I’ll not forget should I live to be a hundred. We were to take the beach, right after the barrage from the big ships ended. But the tides and the currents were stronger than expected and the Turks we’re waitin’ for us. Half the men never made it out of the wooden boats that took us to shore. I was hit, and a few of my mates dragged me behind cover. My father was in the next boat. He was machine gunned tryin’ to reach me. I had to watch him die.
I noticed your limp. Is that from your wound?
Yeah, I lost my father and my leg on that bloody beach. (Frank rolls up his right trouser leg to show me the wood prosthesis that replaces his leg from five inches above the knee.) And here the Crown was generous enough to give me a fine new leg. Pity they couldn’t have given me back my Da and kept the bloody leg.
You were lucky to survive. How did they get you off the beach? What was your medical treatment like?
My mates did all they could to keep me from bleedin’ to death. They used every field dressin’ they could find, but it was the tourniquet kept me alive. We landed just after dawn, so I had to lay out on that beach until nightfall. We were on clean sand and were all soaked in seawater, so terrible as my wound was, it wasn’t full of dirt. That kept me from gettin’ the gangrene as takes so many in France. After dark, they took me back in one of the wooden boats, out to a hospital ship. They filled me so full of morphia I’m not sure I can tell what was real from what was nightmare. I ended up at a hospital back on Malta, then they shipped me to a big country house in England they’d made into a convalescent hospital for the wounded. That’s where they gave me my first wooden leg. I spent another month in a military hospital back in Ireland. Then I was invalided out and sent home to my Mam, His Majesty havin’ no use for a one-legged soldier.
With your prosthesis, couldn’t you go back to work at the cooperage making barrels like you did before?
No, the work’s too heavy. Besides, it’s hard enough bearin’ the pity and stares I get on the street. I couldn’t abide that kinda thing from the other apprentices and journeymen. Mostly I spend my invalid pension drinkin’ here and there with other wounded soldiers. Sharin’ stories and a few songs. Least they know what I’ve been through—some of them worse than me, right enough.
Before the interview, your mother mentioned that she was about to buy a pub. Might that not give you a new line of work?
Yeah, Mam has the death gratuity from the Government and the money from the benevolent society that Da paid into from every pay packet. She’s of a mind to buy old Paddy Shanahan’s place over on the Coombe. Maybe there’ll be somewhat for me to do. Since we’re leavin’ the house here to move above the pub, I reckon I’ll have to do somethin’ to help out. And we got the younger ones, my brother Sean and sister Molly. Young Brendan, too. With Da gone, I guess that makes me the man of the house. Although Sean won’t be happy to hear that.
Isn’t that a bit unusual? A woman owning and running a pub?
Yeah sure, but aren’t so many things changin’ because of the War? I hear tell in England they’ve got the women workin’ in factories makin’ all manner of supplies for the Army. Even artillery shells, if you can imagine such a thing. There’s women runnin’ every kind of business here in Dublin, with their sons or husbands or brothers away at the fightin’. No reason Mam shouldn’t do likewise. And once she’s set her mind on somethin’, there’s not much convincin’ her otherwise. My sister all the more so.
You were enthusiastic about the War, Francis. You were one of the first to join up here in Dublin. Has your attitude towards the War changed as a result of all that’s happened to you and your family?
I’m still a soldier of the Crown in my own heart. Always will be. But Ireland’s a strange place, hundreds of years of risings and rebellions. And there’s plenty now disloyal to the King and the Empire, even at this time of danger. But I won’t have the loss of my father and my leg mean nothin’. We’ll see this business through to the end and send the Kaiser back home with his tail between his legs. Although there are those who think I’m foolish, tell me there’s never been a good thing done by an Englishman for the Irish and all that Fenian nonsense. Maybe even my own brother thinks that way. He was just 13 when we lost Da and it’s been terrible hard on him. That’s likely why he blames the English. But he’s too young to know any better, isn’t he?
[You can read all of my “Voices from the First World War” posts HERE.]
(Although the British Government never introduced conscription in Ireland, fearing it might stir up violent protests, 210,000 Irishmen like Francis Brannigan volunteered to fight for the Royal Army. 35,000 of them would, like Daniel Brannigan, never return.)