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.

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Sherwood Foresters who died in Dublin

To the memory of the 31 soldiers of the Sherwood Foresters Regiment who were killed in this and other areas of Dublin during the Easter Rising 1916
-Lest we Forget-

(your can read their story here and here)
L/Cpl Barks (Newark); Private Barnett (Loughbourgh); Private Blissett (Nottingham); Private Bradford (Alfreton); 2nd Lieut. Browne (Nottingham); L/Cpl Chapman (Southwell); Lieut. Daffen (Worksop); Private Davenport (Mansfield); Capt. Dietrichsen (Nottingham); Sgt. Maj. Dixey (Newark); Private Dixon (Nottingham); Private Elliott (Nottingham); Private Farnsworth (Nottingham); Private Forth (Worksop); Private Goss (Nottingham); Lieut. Hawken (London); Private Holbrook (Nottingham); Private Holland (Sutton-in- Ashfield, Notts); Cpl. Hoyle (Nottingham); Private Jeffs (Bulwell, Nottingham); Private Kitchen (Newark); Private Lang (Nottingham); Private Miller (Canterbury); Lieut. Perry (Nottingham); Private Rogers (Whitwell, Derbyshire); Private Sibley (Beeston Notts) ; Private Tunicliffe (Long Eaton, Derbyshire); Private Tyler (Rutland); Private Warner (Mansfield, Notts); Private Wood (Newark); Private Wyld (Nottingham):

SF Colour

For more bits and pieces check out the contents page

Blood on the Streets by Paul O’Brien – a review

Nottingham has been sending fighting troops to Ireland for over 800 years. There is a reference in the 1363 Rolls of Edward III calling upon the Sheriff of Nottingham to ” select 40 of the best and bravest of Archers in Notts and Derby, to assemble at Liverpool, furnished with bow, arrows and other arms, to go to Ireland at the Kings wages for the defence of that land”

But by far the most significant, and the most tragic visit of Nottinghamshire soldiery to Ireland occurred at Eastger 1916 at the time of the Rising when Irish revolutionaries struck for Irish Freedom and the Sherwood Foresters were rushed from their English training depots, to crush rebellion.

Over 300 casualties were inflicted upon the Foresters, by less than 20 Irish rebels. No other regiment has ever suffered greater losses in Ireland. The Englishmen who fell were predominately from Nottingham and from Newark, but their fight and their losses have been mostly forgotten in the long and difficult history of the British in Ireland, swept quietly under the sandbags of the Western Front where the horrendous casualty lists were bloody enough to drown out any embarrassment as to what happened in Ireland.

Paul O’Brien’s new book tells their story shot by shot as they lived and died in Dublin. They were supposed to be marching to Trinity College but came across a carefully prepared rebel position on the banks of Dublin’s Royal Canal, just half a mile from their objective. There they were slaughtered in the leafy tree lined suburb with the roadway and canal bank wet with Nottinghamshire blood. The Rebel Commander was none other than Eamon Devalera, a future President of a Free Ireland. He had placed his twenty or so men with great military skill and care as is evidenced by the casualty lists that followed. The men who marched upon him, Nottinghamshire lads of a terribly tender age, were unskilled soldiers most of whom had not yet completed their military training. Incredibly many had not yet fired their weapons on a range, let alone in anger at an enemy, yet here they marched, the very teeth of the British Empire, onto the rebel guns onto their place in Irish History, onto their destiny.

They are named here; at last, they are named, there are even photographs so you can look into the eyes of these no longer anonymous men. There is the Nottingham Barrister, the son of a Country Farmer, the Sunday School Teacher from Newark, the lads from the factories and mines and fields, schoolboys really. They had volunteered to fight in France these boys, not Ireland. They were prepared, as all the men of the Great War were, to die for their country in Flanders, but not, for Gods sake! Not in Ireland. The barrister, Dietrishen, was even married to a Dublin girl, he’d sent her, with their infant children, back to Dublin to escape Zeppelin raids on Nottingham. His dear dear wife and his dear dear children, to their eternal joy, saw him, cheered him, waved wildly to him as he marched into Dublin at the head of his beloved Robin Hoods. He was the first to die.

This is a graphic and moving story which looks at the battle as much as from the British perspective as from the Irish. Indeed I don’t think there is another Irish book that has ever given so much time to the men of an English Regiment as does this. It treats them with respect, occasionally affection, always as soldiers. It is their testament and if you value the memories of local men, if you wish to know the English history of your town, your people, your nation, your responsibility for what happened and happens in Ireland, then you must read it.

For more bits and pieces check out CONTENTS

A Duty to Execute.

A. A. Dickson

Captain, 2/7th Battalion, The Sherwood Foresters

‘A Duty to Execute’,

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ImageThis is Captain Arthur Annan Dickson of the Sherwood Foresters Regiment. It is the only known photograph of a British Officer who commanded one of the 1916 execution parties at Kilmainham Gaol. What is not known, with any precision, is which of the leaders of the Rising Capt. Dickson’s firing party shot, although it can be narrowed down to one of the four leaders who were executed on May 8th, namely Cornelius Colbert, Edmund Kent, Michael Mallin or JJ Heuston.Neither Capt Dickson, nor his men would have known of the identity of the prisoner they were ordered to execute. And in all probability they did not care. His soldiers, just a few days earlier had seen many of their comrades cut down on Northumberland Road and Mount Street Bridge. They had suffered some 183 casualties, officers and men. Some horribly wounded by soft nosed bullets, many of them dead.  Indeed when Capt Dickson told his men they were to form a firing party it was suggested to him by one of the survivors of the Mount Street Bridge battle that it was un-necessary for the men to dirty their rifles and Capt. Dickson was asked if they could just bayonet the prisoner instead.These were desperately young soldiers, many with less than eight weeks service in the army, still half civilian, but so brutalised by the street fighting they had endured that they had been turned by war, into heartless cynical killers. But they shot their prisoner in the early dawn of the 8th May with cold military discipline.

Capt. Dickson himself had had a narrow escape at the Mount Street Bridge battle. He had been in the thick of the fighting and seen many of his fellow officers and even more of his men fall to the fatally effective rebel fire. He had been shot himself, the bullet entering his tunic and smashing into and lodging itself in the spine of his Field Pocket Book. He ever after kept the Pocket Book as a souvenir of his narrow escape and his luck in Dublin.  

The Pocket book exists still, with rebel bullet still embedded in the spine, the book now placed for all eternity in the Imperial War Museum.  It must  surely be the most evocative Pocket book in all of Irish History for there never was, in eight hundred years of the British in Ireland a more eloquent or dramatic entry into a English Officer’s Pocket Book than that rebel bullet fired from the barrel of a gun from which grew the Irish Republic.

After the fighting and after the surrender of the rebel forces Capt. Dickson found himself stationed at Richmond Barracks guarding the surrendered rebel prisoners. On 3rd May he commanded a detail of soldiers that took some three hundred of the prisoners and marched them through Dublin to the docks and escorted them all the way to Knutsford Prison in Cheshire where they were to be interned. He had tea with the Prison Governor before returning with his men to Dublin to resume their duties guarding the remaining Prisoners.   And on May 7th he escorted another prisoner, this time from Kilmainham Gaol to Mountjoy. The prisoner was marched across the city in the early morning, before the military curfew was lifted,  She marched, according to his memoir, filed in the Imperial War Museum, dignified and determined, walking stoically along the middle of the dingy streets, with half-a-dozen soldiers keeping level on each pavement, her deliberate pace, a slow march for the soldiers. It was the Countess Markiewicz , the daughter of an Anglo-Irish landlord who married a Polish aristocrat and them became a fervent Irish nationalist. She had been second in command of the rebels that fought at the Royal College of Surgeons and was the only woman to be sentenced to death. Her sentence was commuted to one of life imprisonment on account of her sex. Had it not been so she may well have been shot by Capt. Dickson’s firing party.

On the 8th May Capt Dickson commanded his firing squad, firing one of the volley of  shots that were to signal the end of the eight hundred year involvement of the British inIreland.

After, when all the killing was done, the Sherwood Foresters left Dublin, in its smoke and rubble and marched into the country to spend the rest of 1916, peacefully, training in Ireland for the Great slaughter in France. They trained hard, digging trenches across the Curragh and practising for gas attacks in Flanders. Their life in Ireland was not without its compensations. The Officers rode out to tea in the grand houses of County Kildare; there was a concert party for the soldiers in Naas Town Hall. They went to the Galway Races. Their Dublin dead were replaced and their Dublin wounded returned. New drafts of soldiers arrived, now conscripted. They were all anxious to bring the training to an end and to join the war inFrance.

In early 1917 they left Ireland for the trenches. They would find that Flanders andFrancewould take a greater share of Sherwood Forester blood than hadDublin. 10,189 would fall before it was all over, including many who had survived the battles of the Rising.

Capt. Dickson, for the remainder of the war, commanded a Trench Mortar Battery. His Dublin luck stayed with him. In the photograph he wears two wound stripes on the lower left arm. Both from further narrow escapes. His hand was damaged in an artillery bombardment on the Somme.  In the photograph he carefully masks the injury.  And in 1918 he was shot through the neck by a German sniper in the killing fields of Gommecourt, Northern France, a shot which ended his war. He returned to civilian life, to Lloyds bank where he rose to be bank manager in a picture postcard English town.

Reflecting on his war, on his role as an executioner and all who had been lost in Ireland and in France, he became a Quaker and a life long pacifist. He died peacefully in 1979. In the early 1920’s he had written his brief, powerful and important memoir of the war*. It is but a few pages of handwritten manuscript and on his death it was placed in the Imperial War Museum in London, a tribute to the men he had lost and the men he had killed, together with that most evocative Dublin Pocket Book with the spine smashed by a 1916 rebel bullet, the bullet still embedded and making it, perhaps one of the most evocative footnotes in Irish History.

John McGuiggan