News

War history of great grandfather that stayed hidden for a century

ONLY recently discovering that her great grandfather, a nationalist living on the Falls Road in west Belfast, died fighting for the British Empire during the First World War, Allison Morris says it is time for nationalists to find a way to honour and recognise their War dead.
 

MY great grandfather Tommy Morris never fought at the the Somme, he died a year earlier, less than two months after he signed up to join the British Army.

Flanders, Fromelle, the Somme, Passchendaele are all places I'd read about in history classes and watched in old black and white movies.

A detached observer of a war, I assumed it had nothing to do with me or my family.

Growing up in west Belfast during the Troubles the only British soldiers I ever had contact with were the ones crouched at the end of our garden path as I navigated my way to school in the morning.

I never once considered my family might have a British military history. It was never spoken about.

The Somme, the memory of which is used by the modern UVF in services attended by paramilitary leaders with the hijacking of the poppy as a symbol, was never going to inspire Catholics to seek out their connection to the First World War.

It wasn't until a few years ago at a family funeral when my father was handed an envelope full of old documents, among them a telegram that coldly informed my great grandmother Rose that her husband Thomas was missing and presumed dead, that we even knew he had been in the army.

The letter now brown and faded, had survived 100 years, stored away somewhere, not referred to or spoken about.

The sectarian division that followed partition, the treatment of a nationalist minority in a unionist dominated Northern Ireland meant that those Catholic serviceman who served in the First World War were not remembered or honoured and at times stigmatised.

What we've since learned is that Tommy was a a member of the 4th battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles, but was posted with the first battalion. Helped by staff from the Royal Irish Rifles Regimental museum I discovered he joined the army on St Patrick's Day, March 17, 1915.

He is reported to have died on May 9, 1915 at a German trench line at Rouge Blanc on his way to Fromelles.

He'd been a soldier for just 53 days; cannon fodder in a brutal bloody war, his death marked only with an inscription on the Ploegsteert memorial that bears the names of 11,000 servicemen who have no known grave

And in an unmarked grave Tommy lay for 100 years, without ever being spoke of. My father knew nothing about it, his father also Tommy, never mentioned it, and he has only vague memories of his granny Rose.

Tommy was originally from Bruce in Co Cavan but the census shows him living with Rose, who was a Monaghan woman, in the lower Falls area of west Belfast.

They had five children when Tommy died. The house was graded 'forth class' the lowest rating possible.

Prior to that the 1901 census shows a teenage Rose working as a servant in a grand house in Warrenpoint, she could neither read nor write.

I wonder which of Rose's children had to read the telegram that informed her of her husband's death.

The letter sent to Rose Morris informing her of her husband's death in the German trench lines of Rouge Bancs.

Tommy's will states he left all his worldly possessions to his wife, £4, eight shillings and ten pence, his payment for fighting and dying for King George.

My grandfather went on to follow his father into the British army and joined the Royal Irish Fusiliers, captured and held in a Japanese prisoner of war camp he survived the Second World War but died a relatively young man, his heart weakened from starvation.

Finding a way for Catholics to honour their dead that also takes account of the role of the British army during our own conflict needs to be debated.

Those Catholic men who walked through muddy fields to their death have gone unrecognised for too long and simply writing Tommy's name is a small step to remembering a man whose sacrifice was a family secret, unspoken of for over 100 years.

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access

News