06 August 2014

My great-uncle's death in the Great War, 6 August 1917

At the grave of my Great-uncle Lawrence Dowd in Potijze Chateau Cemetery, Ieper, Belgium, September 2001. Uncle Larry, my maternal grandmother's older half-brother, was killed on the Feast of the Transfiguration, 6 August 1917. I was the first relative to visit his grave, in September 2001.

 Potijze Chateau  Cemetery where Corporal Lawrence Dowd is buried. 

The Great War, World War I, began one hundred years ago this week and has been marked by ceremonies recalling that awful conflict. Here is something I wrote in 2003 and posted in 2008. There are some minor changes and corrections.


In September 2001 I visited the grave of my great-uncle Lawrence Dowd who died in action near Ieper (Ypres), Belgium, on the Feast of the Transfiguration, 6 August 1917. This happened during the Third Battle of Ypres, often called simply 'Passchendaele', that lasted from July to November 1917. He’s buried in one of many war cemeteries in that part of Flanders. My mother’s Uncle Larry, from County Meath, enlisted in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. To my deep regret, I never asked my grandmother about her brother, but my mother often told me of her father having heard the ‘banshee’ a day or two before the telegram arrived telling of Larry’s death.

I knew that my grandmother, Annie Dowd Collins, was of the second family of her father, Michael Dowd who was left with five children when his first wife died and he was 34 or 35. He then married Mary Geraghty who, as my mother used to put it, 'Came in over five children at the age of 19'. She was my great-grandmother. I had always thought that Larry was a full-brother of Annie but learned form relatives who discovered Larry's grave some time after I did, that he was the youngest in the first family.

I was visiting Ieper to officiate at the wedding of Stefaan Gouwy, from that area, and Joy Ronulo, who grew up in Plaridel, Mindanao, when it was still a Columban parish. She and Stefaan met while working in a factory in Korea.

Stefaan took me to the In Flanders Fields Museum in the old town hall of Ieper, known to the ‘Tommies’ as ‘Wipers,’ from the French name ‘Ypres.’ The soldiers even published a magazine there that they called the Wipers Times. The town of Ieper was totally destroyed during the Great War but the blueprints of its public buildings were saved and they were all rebuilt.

Through an official at the museum, a marvellously interactive one that shows the horrors of the War but that also shows that each one who died was a unique human being, I found where my Uncle Larry was buried. I was very moved when I visited his grave in the Potijze Chateau Cemetery, the first ever relative to do so. I was touched too when Stefaan and Joy, who had come with me, told me they would visit on Remembrance Day, 11 November.

One could not but feel a terrible sense of loss reading the names and ages of the soldiers buried in the cemeteries that are beautifully maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. So many still in their teens. So many unidentified, known simply as ‘A soldier of such-and-such a regiment.’ Most headstones had a cross but quite a few had the Star of David.

The people of Ieper hold sacred the memory of all who died in Flanders, whether Allied or German. One friend of Stefaan who had grown up on a farm next to one of the larger war cemeteries, pointed out to me the corner where some German soldiers had been buried but had subsequently been repatriated. There’s no glorification of war.

On the Menin Gate, built by the British after the War in the heart of Ieper, the names of more than 54,000 unidentified soldiers who fought in the uniform of Britain are listed. They include Gurkhas from Nepal and many from what are now Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, their names and ranks revealing their faiths, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, and their nationalities. There are names from the then colonies of Britain in Africa and the West Indies, countless names from the then dominions, Australia, New Zealand, Newfoundland and Canada, even more from the Irish regiments.

On this occasion the many Irish soldiers who died as members of the British Army - the whole of Ireland was then part of the United Kingdon - were remembered

Every night at 8 volunteers from the Ieper Fire Brigade sound the Last Post at the Menin Gate. I had heard about this and wanted to attend on at least one evening. One of Stefaan’s friends insisted that if no one else could take me I was to phone her. I took her at her word. All traffic stopped for the ceremony. Three buglers sounded the Last Post and then a veteran, who looked old enough to have fought in the Great War, laid a wreath. What brought tears to my eyes was the sight of a young mother beside me with her child who was hardly a week old.

One of those who died on 8 September 1916 in the Battle of the Somme, not too far away in northern France, was Tom Kettle. He was one of the outstanding Irish nationalists of his generation, the son of a prominent land reformer, and a friend of Patrick Pearse, who led the Insurrection in Dublin in Easter Week that same year. Tom Kettle had been MP for North East Tyrone from 1906 to 1910. At the time he enlisted, already in his mid-30s, he was a professor at University College, Dublin. There’s a bust of him in St Stephen’s Green, very near the old campus, with the closing lines of his sonnet To my Daughter Betty, written only four days before his death. Some writings of Father John Henaghan, an Irish Columban priest killed by the Japanese in Malate, Manila, in February 1945, were published four or five years later under the title The Secret Scripture of the Poor, taken from the last line of the poem, one of the most poignant of the many the Great War produced.

In wiser days, my darling rosebud, blown
To beauty proud as was your Mother’s prime.
In that desired, delayed, incredible time,
You’ll ask why I abandoned you, my own,
And the dear heart that was your baby throne,
To dice with death. And oh! They’ll give you rhyme
And reason: some will call the thing sublime,
And some decry it in a knowing tone.
So here, while the mad guns curse overhead,
And tired men sigh with mud for couch and floor,
Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,
Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,
But for a dream, born in a herdsman’s shed,
And for the secret Scripture of the poor.

(Fr John Heneghan, above left, bust of Tom Kettle in St Stephen's Green, Dublin, above right. Fr Laurence Kettle OFMCap, a friend of mine from Dublin who is based in Korea, is a great-nephew of Tom Kettle.)

A wedding in Belgium, a celebration of life, brought me to the grave of my Uncle Larry, reminded me that many people in my native Ireland and in Britain, where I was working at the time, whose ancestors came from the former British colonies, are relatives of those who came to Europe during the Great War to fight ‘for the freedom of small nations'. Their great-uncles, like mine, could make their own the words of Canadian officer John McCrae, who died there in 1918. They Loved and were loved, and now we lie / In Flanders Fields.

(30 November 1872 - 28 January 1918)

Two Irishmen of Note who died in Passchendaele

Francis Ledwidge, Poet, Fr William Doyle SJ, Chaplain

(19 August 1887 - 31 July 1917)

Francis Ledwidge was from the same part of County Meath as my grandmother and, presumably, her half-brother Larry. I don't know if the Dowds and the Ledwidges knew each other. Below is a poem by Francis Ledwidge, Soliloquy.

When I was young I had a care 
Lest I should cheat me of my share
Of that which makes it sweet to strive
For life, and dying still survive,
A name in sunshine written higher
Than lark or poet dare aspire.

But I grew weary doing well.
Besides, 'twas sweeter in that hell,
Down with the loud banditti people
Who robbed the orchards, climbed the steeple
For jackdaws' eyes and made the cock
Crow ere 'twas daylight on the clock.
I was so very bad the neighbours
Spoke of me at their daily labours.

And now I'm drinking wine in France,
The helpless child of circumstance.
To-morrow will be loud with war,
How will I be accounted for?

It is too late now to retrieve
A fallen dream, too late to grieve
A name unmade, but not too late
To thank the gods for what is great;
A keen-edged sword, a soldier's heart,
Is greater than a poet's art.
And greater than a poet's fame
A little grave that has no name. 

(3 March 1873 - 16 August 1917)

I don't know if Uncle Larry ever met Father Willie, went to confession to him or received the Last Rites from him. But it is very likely that he participated in Masses celebrated by him. Uncle Larry certainly would have known of Father Doyle.

Remembering Fr William Doyle SJ is a blog dedicated to this outstanding priest from Dublin that features his writings, including letters to his father from the Western Front, and writings about him, almost every day. 

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