One hundred years ago, on Aug. 23, 1914, my Grand Uncle Patrick Walshe was taken prisoner of war by German soldiers on the battlefields of Mons, Belgium; a day so brutal that it left 1,500 British and 5,000 German soldiers killed, wounded or missing.
Because of the dramatic events that took place in Ireland and Europe in the period of the First World War (1914-1918) people often forget that on Sept. 18, 1914, Ireland’s Home Rule Bill became law. But it was automatically suspended for a year, or for the duration of the war.
Patrick Walshe was my maternal grandmother’s brother. He enjoyed carving hedgehogs out of hawthorn sticks, whistling in harmony with his father’s canaries, composing satirical poems and singing Irish rebel songs. He saved a fox from the hunt and she became his pet. His party piece was singing “The Bold Fenian Men.”
He lived in Bagenalstown, a railway town on the Barrow River in County Carlow, Ireland. As the trains steamed into the station, the animated voices of young Irish men going off to fight the Germans made his heart beat like a hammer. Before he was 16, he ran away and joined the British Army. With minimal training, he was shipped to Mons, and was captured within hours. He spent the next four years in a German labor camp. Due to insufficient clothes, blankets and boots, frostbite destroyed his hands and feet.
When he was released from the labor camp, he was shocked to find Ireland was still under British rule. When he needed a place to stay, we’d hear him singing “The Bold Fenian Men” as he made his way to our house. He sat nodding at the fire with his hands outstretched, and I was afraid of his deformed, withered fingers. He couldn’t work and was in constant pain, which he numbed with whiskey.
Uncle Patrick was my entertainment. A slight figure with sea-blue eyes, he drummed his knees to keep time while he taught me the many verses of “The Bold Fenian Men.” He sent me to buy his Woodbine cigarettes. When I’d bring them back, he always said, “Keep the change.” He kept an old letter folded into a small square in his breast pocket. Sometimes, he’d read it at the fire. I often asked him who it was from, but he wouldn’t tell me.
When he became bedridden, he was warehoused in the Carlow County Home, run by nuns. He died there at age 57 in the arms of a nun. “All he left is his little bundle of clothes and this frayed old letter was in his pocket,” she said. I unfolded it and read:
Buckingham Palace 1918
Pvt. Patrick Walshe 507
The Queen joins me in welcoming you on your release from the miseries and hardships you’ve endured with such patience and courage. During these many months of trial, the early release of our gallant officers and men from the cruelties of their captivity has been uppermost in our thoughts. We are thankful that this longed for day has arrived and that back in your own country you will be able once more to enjoy the happiness of a home and to see good days among those who anxiously look for your return. George R. I.
The hand-written letter was from King George V of England, the one person who acknowledged the hardships Pvt. Patrick Walshe had endured. It’s now displayed in a place of honor together with his Mons Star medal.