Peering into the black hole of Irish history
Philippe Mingels recalls the exact summer when his interest was first piqued in the role of Irish regiments in the Great War. A keen cyclists he was 17 years old riding a mere 20km from his home up to Messines, a town perched on top of a humpback hill, with a watchtower view over the expanse of flat terrain below.
“I was interested in WWI as a youngster and I saw there were a lot of graves with Irish signs,” he says referring to the harps on the headstones.”
The year was one that stands out in modern Irish history too.
“I think you will recall that period too - I'm talking about 1981: the period of the Hunger Strikes,” he says, of the summer when Bobby Sands and nine republican comrades died in a bid to have their political prisoner status recognised.
The trauma in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh were reported on the Belgian news he watched on his family’s black and white TV which had “only one button”. That button was to turn it on - there was no button to switch channel because there only was one channel. He couldn’t miss the Hunger Strikes.
“I followed that period quite intensively. I linked both things together in a way and I tried to find out what was the story behind the [WWI] graves and the fact that Bobby Sands and the inmates in the H-Blocks did what they did.”
Now a young 59, Philippe’s been engrossed by Irish history in the intervening 40-plus years, and not just WWI which triggered the revolutionary period. In an hour long chat he brings up curious links between Flanders and Ireland, such as Alice Kyteler the first woman convicted for witchcraft.
The reason why he focussed his studies on the Great War however is understandable: “WWI is so present in the landscape where I live, that there’s always that connection.
“I’m living let’s say on the German side of the WWI frontline, and there’s even a concrete bunker in my garden - these things are there, you are living in a landscape which is coloured by historical things, you can’t miss them.”
War was declared August 4, 1914.
By the end of October 1914 the trench-scarred front lines had solidified with a sliver of Flanders on the Allied side and the Germans holding the high ground. This stalemate persisted until September 1917.
The week long Battle of Messines - June 7-14, 1917 was the first big campaign to break the stalemate with the Allied forces in Flanders to trying to wrestle the tactically important high ground off the Germans. This was the first in a three step plan that would see them target the city of Roeselare, north east of Ypres to stymie the German supply chain, and finally onwards to the city port of Bruges where U-Boats landed.
“That later got the name of the Battle of Paschendale,” remarks Philippe of the operations north of Ypres.
First thing first, clearing the Germans off the high ground, and this is where all those Irish graves come in.
“Both Irish divisions, the Ulster Division and the Irish Division were put together as a spearhead in the attack,” says Philippe.
The plan was informed by earlier battles.
“The British military corps saw that during the Battle of the Somme both divisions reached their goals.”
The 36th Division [Ulster] reached all their goals but the Divisions either side were unable to meet their objectives, which led to fatalities.
“The same thing happened with the 16th Division - they made all their goals, but they lost a lot of men because the other divisions weren’t able to make their goals.
“The idea came through - if we put both these divisions together as the spearhead of an attack, what would that give - knowing that both divisions had different ideas about the future of Ireland and that they will fight like hell to prove they are better than the other one.”
At home the major figure in Irish nationalism was John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party who had Home Rule within their grasp when war broke out. Redmond’s younger brother Willie Redmond MP (but still in his 50s) fought and died in Messines.
“He thought that if we were able to fight together, we should be able to live together - that’s the political idea behind it.”
Philippe adds: “We are talking about two divisions - one unionist and the other nationalist, doing things together that they would never do in their homeland.”
Examining diary entries and letters sent home by the soldiers provide an insight into how the military odd couple got along.
“During those testimonies you find out that they had a lot of contact, and friendly contact in between - they even played football, one against the other,” he says adding the officers even had parties together.
The Celt wonders if the distance from Ireland that permits these new bonds to form. Philippe however points to their “common enemy”.
“That’s the difference,” he asserts. “If you put them together in Ireland you’ve got trouble, but if you put them together in a situation where they have a common enemy they are able to forget their differences - that’s what they did if you look at their diaries and letters you will see they were able to fight together and live together.”
Of course in Messines that common enemy managed to claim the lives of “many thousands” of soldiers from the 16th and 36th Divisions, whose graves can be found in the same haunted landscape
“The cemeteries are very close to where the men fell. In some occasions you can say they really are buried where they did fall.
“Some cemeteries they speak to me like a calendar does because the men are buried in the chronological order in which they were shot,” he observes.
Early on in studying Irish history Philippe couldn’t help but notice the Hiberno-amnesia at play when it came to its WWI role, and its many thousand veterans.
The day he noticed the “black hole” he says was the “day that I really started to make the connection” between WWI, Republicanism and the Hunger Strikes.
Illustrating the WWI omission, he says that aside from biographies, the first “good book” on the topic written by an Irish author that he came across was published in 2008.
“So we are talking almost 100 years after WWI,” he marvels.
It seems that Irish historiography had only one button.
“The fact is that in Ireland, history was rewritten, once the Republic was almost settled, and 270,000 families who were related in one way or the other with WWI, their story was lost. Because of what happened in [Easter] 1916 and following years, a big part of Irish communities lost their history.”
He observes that veterans of conflicts to this day often struggle to speak of what they endured and inflicted. He relates this back to the Irish WWI veterans.
“They came home to a new political reality, and they were not only unable to talk, they were not allowed to talk,” he says adding they weren’t regarded as “good citizens”.
Philippe Mingels will give the talk ‘Footsteps in Flanders Fields’ in Cavan County Museum, Ballyjamesduff on Friday, November 17 at 6pm.