My grandfather died on 21 March 1918, exactly 99 years ago today. He was just 25 years old. He died in a trench about 75km North of Paris, in the last massive German attack of the so called ‘Great War’. I don’t know whether it was the massive artillery bombardment that killed him, or the poison gas attack, or a German soldier. In any case, like so many soldiers of that era, his body was never found. He’s commemorated on a plaque ‘to the missing’ on the wall of a war graves cemetery in Pozieres, not too far from where he disappeared. He may well be in one of the actual graves, with the headstone that says ‘Here lies a soldier, known only unto God’. But that’s just supposition, obviously.
When I was a kid growing up, there were two frames on the ‘good room’ wall relating to this man. One had the photo that’s attached to this post, and the other had his campaign medals and ‘plaque’. We never talked much about them, they were ‘just there’. I fondly imagined, during my Hotspur and Victor-reading days that these one of these was the fabled ‘Victoria Cross’ or VC. It wasn’t, to my childish disappointment.
The welter of interest in the centenary of the Irish 1916 revolution got me thinking about him again, and I discovered that I could now access his entire military record online. I was lucky, in that a lot of these records were destroyed in the 1944-45 London Blitz, but his file proved to be a real eye opener and in many ways a portal to successively more detailed information that’s now online.
The brief version of a very long story is as follows. He first enlisted in 1908 in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, at the tender age of fifteen and a half (he probably lied about his age). He stayed ‘at home’ in Ireland in the ‘reserve’ from then until 1914, watching the rise of Irish nationalism at home, the ‘lockout’, the citizen army and the Home Rule movement. He re-enlisted in May 1914 for ‘four more years’ as war loomed, married my granny in October, and shipped to France in the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in November 1914.
By May 1915 he was back home, having sustained gas poisoning in the First Battle of Ypres. He recuperated, and in mid-October 1915 was fit enough for active duty again. He shipped to the Dardenelles and Suvla Bay, more commonly known as Gallipoli. Happily for him, most of the carnage there had already happened, and after a few months the Allies pulled out of the area and he shipped back to Marseilles through Egypt. Back to the Western Front, where stalemate was the norm as the armies faced each other across a ruined landscape.
In 1916 he took part in the infamous Battle of the Somme which began on July 1st, and after successive other engagements in late 1917 he was active In the third battle of Ypres, more commonly called Passchendaele. So in effect he seems to have – one way or another – been involved in just about all of the ‘famous’ battles of WW1 that involved the British Troops. In March 1918 he joined the 16th Machine Gun Corps, and on 21 March he ‘disappeared’. The German army had made an uneasy peace with revolutionary Russia, and then brought all their troops back to the Western front. Reinforced, they launched a massive attack on 21 March. They advanced about 50Km (unheard of gains) but then ran out of momentum and, more crucially, supplies. It was their last success of the war.
Patrick Mulhall left behind a widow in Ireland with one child – my mother. By 1918 public opinion in Ireland had shifted away from supporting the ‘war effort’ to the aftermath of the 1916 rising, and a more Nationalist agenda. There was an attempt to introduce conscription in Ireland to ‘feed the war machine’, but it foundered. My granny fell back on her family for support, never re-married, and raised my mother on her own.
And that’s the brief story of my grandfather’s short life. Did he fight ‘for small nations’ or because it ‘was a job’ or perhaps simply because ‘that was what men did’? I’ll never know. And obviously there are aspects of Imperialism and Nationalism interwoven through this also. But I do know a lot now about his history, the times he lived in, the battles he fought in and the ‘story behind the man in the frame’. It’s a fascinating story with so many elements to consider. And I’m still digging and putting the pieces of the jigsaw together, almost a century on from the end-game for Patrick Mulhall, RIP.