The English Soldiers who came to crush rebellion

Sherwood Foresters badgeThis piece was originally published in “An Cosantoir” (The Defender), edited by Wayne Fitzgerald and appeared in the 1916 -2016 Commemoration issue of March 2016

Who were they and where did they come from, those stern English soldiers, marching now towards the city, marching from Kingstown, marching through the spring Dublin sunshine, into the second city to their empire, to crush rebellion. They looked, to the mostly cheering citizens, so young, more like cadets than experienced soldiers, but they were the teeth of an Empire and were marching to be unleashed upon those who would dare to question that Empire’s rule in Ireland.
They were not, of course, cadets, but they were young, terribly young. And terribly inexperienced. Some amongst their ranks had not yet fired their weapons on the rifle ranges let alone in anger, against a determined foe. Most did not have that soldier’s familiarity with their rifles that comes with training and use, almost none of the privates were experienced in war and absolutely none of them, none at all, in the urban warfare towards which they now approached.
They were all volunteers. Kitchener’s volunteers. But it was France that they had volunteered, not for Ireland. They had seen the casualty lists from the Western Front and were prepared to die in France or in Belgium, but had not dreamed of a death in Dublin.
For the military they were the North Midlands Division. 59th North Midland Division shoulder badgeThey came from the English Midlands, a great slice of England running from the fishing villages and seaside towns of the East coast in Lincolnshire, across the great agricultural plains of that county, till the plains began to rise into the coalfields of Nottinghamshire and the hills and dales and textile mills of Derbyshire and then down into the industrial heartland of England, Staffordshire, Birmingham, the black county and rising again now, towards the boarders with Wales.
In civilian life they were fishermen and potato pickers from Lincolnshire, Shepard’s and mill workers from Derbyshire, from Nottinghamshire, hewers of coal, loom workers from the lace factories and textile mills, dyers, bleachers, mechanics from the bicycle factories, cigarette makers from Players, agricultural labourers from the farms, and boatmen from the river Trent. And from Staffordshire, the black country, Burton and Birmingham, black with smoke from a thousand forges where they made the anchor chains for the Titanic and half of the Royal Navy’s fleet, they made guns, fine instruments, clocks and pots and plates and jugs and mugs, they brewed beer and from all these trades, and from none, came the men of the North Midland Division, now, clad in karkhi and marching, to their destiny, marching on Dublin.

Many would have been as poor as the poor of Dublin. They came from overcrowded industrial slums or primitive rural cottages, they were stunted by deference and class, most did not have a vote and played little role in the civic and democratic processes of their counties and towns, they were cannon fodder for Flanders, but they were loyal enough to die, and knew in their hearts that many would fall in France. But Dublin? To die in Dublin would not have crossed their loyal minds and now, they marched with loaded weapons towards the Risen city.
The Sherwood Foresters led the march. They were without machine guns and even if they had had them, they were mostly without the training to use them. They were without hand grenades or mortars and even if they had had them they had not the training to use them. But they were men, soldiers. Numbers would count in the crushing of rebellion and they were numbered in their hundreds. Imperial hundreds.
The officers were exclusively public school, for by this year of the Great War the English public schools had effectively become officer factories for the front, such was the rate of casualties being inflicted in the trenches. Their adjutant, laden with maps and binoculars, leading the march through the leafy suburbs, was married to an Irish girl. No one knows how they had met, what fate had brought them together. She played hockey for Ireland, her family were wine merchants, her brother had died on the Somme, only the month before the Rising. She was home with her mother. She and her two small children, home for the Easter, in their grand house in Blackrock. And she saw the soldiers, marching, stern, determined coming along the coast road, rifles on their shoulders, bayonets flashing in the spring sunshine, marching, and goodness me, it cannot be, it was her husband. What was he doing in Dublin? She thought he must have been in France but he was here! Look! Children, its daddy, in his uniform, oh isn’t he so handsome!
And the adjutant fell out from the marching ranks and held his dear wife and his dear dear children and kissed them on the coast road at Blackrock, and they held each other, for war had kept them apart and the fates had now conspired to bring them together. It was but a too brief embrace, for the captain must re-join his marching soldiers, but they would meet? Soon? He would be home perhaps. A few days of leave, for tea on Sunday? And he rushed to the front of his battalion finding his step, waving goodbye, marching now to his destiny in Dublin town.
His marching soldiers would have smiled a bit at their captain’s luck, wished him well, hoped he could get away quickly to be with his children. There would have been some smart remarks, some coarse banter as re re-joined their marching ranks.
The Sgt. Major would settle them. A firm word, no need for him to shout, they were not on the parade ground now, they were marching into battle, quietly, firmly, “settle down lads”. And on they would march.
Their Sgt Major had worked as an apprentice in the cloth trade before the war, taught at a Methodist Sunday school, played in the band. He was twenty two years old.
You wouldn’t make corporal by that age in most armies. It was the war, the Great War. It was destroying men on an industrial scale, great cohorts of NCOs and officers were being systematically wiped out in the trenches, and new men, experienced well beyond their years, were being promoted to ranks they would never attain in a peacetime army. Twenty two! Sgt Majors should be veterans, feared on the parade ground, mentors in the field, mature, wise, experienced, and reliable, looked up to by both the officers and men. If the senior NCO of this marching army, now advancing on Dublin, was but twenty two then god bless and god save the young, the youths, who were his Sgts and corporals and privates that he now steadied on their march into the city.
They were careful now, they were being told that rebels were nearby. Shots had been fired at their marching ranks; ineffective shots from isolated rebel guns, but enough to march now with care, as they approached the edge of the city.
What would they have thought of Northumberland Road? It is such a pretty part of Dublin, a quiet leafy avenue of grand houses. It could be anywhere in England. There were places just like it in Nottingham. The adjutant lived in just such an avenue of fine graceful period houses, where lived barristers and doctors and well to do businessmen with servants, well-tended gardens and an air of prosperity. What on earth were they doing, advancing down this, so British looking, idyllic, peaceful place, holding loaded rifles, many of the men unfamiliar with the long awkward metal and wood of the weapons. They were still marching, albeit with a certain care, but the place, the prettiness of it, the ordinary familiarity of it, would have relaxed them. Their care would have been that which attends a pedestrian crossing a busy road, not that of those who are about to die.
There is a particularly fine house at the corner of Haddington Road with Northumberland Road. Number 25. In fact it is a beautiful house. It stands square and private and noble and commanding and you know in your heart that whoever lives there will be a lover of music and books and will be wise and educated and civilised. They will take sherry in the afternoon and go regularly to church. It is an innocent and delightful place.
Thy may have admired number 25 as they now marched towards Mount Street Bridge. They most certainly did not see and did not notice that the windows had been barricaded. They certainly did not suspect, nor did they expect, that such a handsome house would be occupied by rebels.
The Adjutant was in the lead. We can be sure he was alert and was concentrating on his command but perhaps he also had a thought for the children on the coast road for it had been such a joy to see them again.
He was the very first Englishman to be hit by the volley of shots that erupted from number 25. Ten Sherwood Foresters fell in the leafy avenue and suddenly, unexpectedly, the ordinary, the pretty the so very British Northumberland Road, was wet with English blood.
The soldiers scattered into the gardens and doorways of the grand houses, looking for where the shots had come, shouting orders, retuning fire, pulling the wounded and the dead from the blood wet road into safety and cover. The adjutant died quickly. His family would not have heard the shots or known at all that he would not be home for Sunday tea. His remaining officers drew their swords and prepared to rush number 25. Drew their swords! What on earth were they doing wearing swords in Dublin? What kind of soldiering was this! But swords drawn, they led their men in a frontal assault on the beautiful corner house. They may not have been very well trained soldiers, but they lacked nothing in their foolish bravery. If a fight was wanted then they were up for it, and never mind the fear, never mind the families back home, never mind that mum won’t like it, the officer has his sword up; charge!   Shots poured down upon them. The rebels could not miss and now other rebel volunteers, five hundred yards away, in Clanwillima House, across the Mount Street Bridge opened up with their Howth Mausers, catching the inexperienced valiant, brave Englishmen in a deadly crossfire. And they fell and they fell. They could do nothing when they reached number 25. They had not bombs to blow open the barricaded door, nor grenades to toss into the windows nor ladders to reach them.
How inexperienced where they? A fat artillery officer, from Athlone, the Clongowes College educated Captain E Gerrard of the Royal Field Artillery recorded that he found himself in Beggar’s Bush barracks under fire from rebels holding the railway line. He was accompanied by a small group of the English Foresters. “They had never fired a service rifle before” he would say, “they did not even know how to load them, we had to show them how” “They were the untrained undersized products of the English slums”.
In the end it was numbers that defeated the brave rebel fighters in number 25 and in Clanwilliam House. Overwhelming numbers, assisted by the bombs and machine guns that were eventually supplied to them by the Dublin garrison. The young Sgt Major, Methodist Sunday school teacher, died in a valiant charge, across Mount Street Bridge. Altogether the regiment suffered some 240 casualties before the rebels were crushed.
Some of the soldiers would go on to form the execution parties that shot the rebel leaders in Kilmainham Jail. If they had been unfamiliar with their rifles when they first marched into Dublin then by the time of Kilmainham they knew their weapons with that rare intimacy of soldiers blooded by battle. They would know the weight of the Lee Enfield, the smell of rifle oil and cordite, the feel of the wood, the oiled click of the steel bolt, the heavy kick of the brass plated butt and the sharp crack of its shots. But as they lifted their barrels to aim at the small white cloth pinned above the rebel heart, then you could forgive them if some barrels trembled or some faltered in their duty. They were fighting soldiers not executioners and the shots they were about to fire would echo, not just round the breakers yard of Kilmainham, but across the world. They would herald the end of the British in Ireland, and perhaps, for it is not too far-fetched, they would signal the end of the British Empire itself.
And after all the killing they marched away from Dublin in its smoke and rubble, to barracks in the town of Naas from where they would finish their training, through the summer months, in preparation for France, marching through the Irish countryside, digging trenches across the Curragh, preparing for gas attacks.
France would prove far more deadly for the Sherwood Forester’s regiment than had Dublin. Dublin had cost them some 240 dead and wounded. In Flanders over 10,000 would fall.
So should we, in this centenary year, remember these English soldiers? There is many an old fat artillery officer and a lot of armchair republicans who would be horrified at the very idea, although the Irish who had fought, the rebels, those of 3rd Battalion of the Dublin Brigade of the Irish Volunteers, Dev Valera’s Battalion, those who had held Mount Street Bridge for so long against so many, had not the slightest such reservation. In 1966, fifty years after the Rising, De Valera, now the aged President of a free Ireland, invited the English officer who had taken the surrender of the Battalion in 1916, to return to Ireland. They took tea together in Áras an Uachtaráin and then travelled together and stood together, on Mount Street Bridge, with the surviving volunteers of the 3rd Battalion, and remembered, together, those who had fought and those who had fallen, Irish and English.
We do not need to celebrate them, or seek to justify what they did, or to honour their sacrifice, all we need to do is remember them. And perhaps it will be left to those of us who have been soldiers, or who are soldiers still, to acknowledge that in the end they were just soldiers, and we will remember them.