\"WWI

WWI in the trenches. 1916.ie invites public to contribute materials from the era.

Online archive of WWI letters gives glimpse into the Irish experience of war

\"WWI

WWI in the trenches. 1916.ie invites public to contribute materials from the era.

A large archive of letters from the frontline of WWI is being built at letter1916.ie and the public is being invited to contribute materials from the era which may have been passed down in the family.

Professor Susan Schreibman of NUI Maynooth who is assembling the archive told the Irish Independent: "It's a crowd-sourcing project that depends on public participation. Not only do we value material sent in, but people can go online and transcribe the letters."

It is a new approach to mapping history, made possible by technology.

"It's the big data approach. We can hit a search for all the letters posted on a particular day and gauge the mood of the country,” she said.

By the time of the Battle Of The Somme in July 1916, 100,000 Irishmen had signed up for the British army since the war had begun two years earlier. Soldiers interned in the German POW camps were given standard postcards on which to write home for supplies and to say thank you for favors received.

Many of these postcards contained simple messages of gratitude to thank those back home for supplies. One postcard, from Joseph Connolly of the Connaught Rangers to JM Dane, says: "Madam, I am today in receipt of two breads sent by you for which I desire to thank you and yours."

Augusta Crofton Dillon, better known as Lady Clonbrock of Galway, was 75 years old at the start of the war. Lady Clonbrock worked closely with the Irish Women's Association to send care packages of basic necessities to Irish POWs. Surprisingly, many of the letters back from the POW camps make discreet and not-so-discreet inquiries about the faithfulness of wives and sweethearts who had fallen out of touch.

In one missive, a soldier named B Maguire writes Lady Clonbrock that he has not yet received cigarettes that he'd been told were on the way. He added that while other men in the camp were receiving bread from Switzerland, he was not getting any. He asks if the good Lady could look into both matters. Maguire also tells her that he has not received a letter or parcel from his wife for 18 months. He asks Lady Clonbrock to visit his wife to find out what's the matter.

Some letters in the archive also address the Easter Rising of 1916. At the start of hostilities, Ireland’s Catholic nationalist majority had already been guaranteed Home Rule once the war was won, the Irish Independent reports. Tens of thousands of nationalists had marched off to fight for Britain with Irish independence as the end goal. To them, the rebellion was an act of treachery.

Just weeks after the 1916 Easter Rising, Gerald O’Driscoll, a sailor on the HMS Temaeraire, wrote to his father Denis in Ireland: "I was of course shocked by the Dublin rebellion and indeed not a little anxious for the safety of those near and dear to me. I was worried and restless. The possibility of Maggie and Barbara being in the danger zone, and this coupled with the temporary stoppage of mails and communication of every description, increased my solicitude.

"But I will not waste time in dogmatising on such madness. We and our fellow countrymen at the front felt it all the more keenly. It would seem as if the temple of glory built by our brave Irish regiments had been pulled down by their own kindred. In a paper that Maggie sent me I notice the name and address of Dot's brother as one of the rebels deported. I wonder what his own brother Jack will say when he hears the news at the front. That half-demented, crazy, misguided fool Willie Halpin is also one of them. Patriotism! My God! And he knows as much about Irish history as a Fiji cannibal. The outcome of it (the Rising) was death and sorrow, and the destruction of the finest and statliest street in Europe – a street that every Dublin man must have been justly proud."

Also in the archive is a collection of letters from a mother, Mary Martin, to her son Charlie, who she could not locate. Martin’s daughter Marie was also serving at the front as a nurse. Mary acted as a news relay between her two children, keeping them apprised of the updates that both were sending back from the lines.

In late 1915, new came back that Charlie had gone missing in action against the Turks of the Ottoman Empire and that he had also been wounded.

Mary, who hoped her son may have been captured and imprisoned in a POW camp, began writing letters she would have sent to him in a diary began on the first day of 1916.

In one entry, dated January 13, she tells the missing Charlie of a letter she received from his sister Marie.

"Marie said she had not got any news from home for some time, which is curious as I wrote constantly. She was anxious to have news of you. Was glad to hear Tommy was with us for Xmas. She was very grateful to him for sending a cheque [check] for her special men. She was able to give all the 5th Connaughts & 6th Dublins in the Hospital a special present with his best wishes. A pipe, cigarettes, tobacco and some sweets to each.

"They were delighted and thought themselves the luckiest of men. In fact she gave all the men in her block a very good time with the money we collected and sent out. Another nurse also got some money so they were able to do things well. She took some of the men out for a drive the next day, which was a great treat to them. She told me she had a great escape of being poisoned with an injection of typhoid. Most of those who had it got ill."

Mary’s diary of letters to her missing son ends in late May 1916. Two months later, she received notification that her son was dead.

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