When the Great War came in August 1914 Lurgan men came in their thousands to enlist in the 15 Irish regiments of the period. Many men went to the regiments their fathers had fought in 12 years earlier during the Boer War, but the majority joined at the recruitment drive at Brownlow House in September 1914.
In all, about 210,000 Irishmen served in the British forces during World War One. Since there was no conscription, about 140,000 of these joined during the war as volunteers. Some 35,000 Irish died. Irishmen enlisted for the war effort for a variety of reasons. Some, just like their fellows in other warring states, joined up for the perceived justice of the cause. But in Ireland, which in 1914 was deeply divided between nationalist and unionist political groups, more local considerations played an important part for many individuals.
The Royal Irish Fusiliers had come to Lurgan first as part of a recruitment drive to raise its quota of 2,500 men. This was achieved within three days alone. It stood as a record for a town of its size. Another regiment which attracted a lot of recruits was the 16th Batt. of the Royal Irish Rifles. Other popular regiments were the Connaught Rangers and the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers.
Many joined to see the far off places their fathers spoke about and many joined for a steady wage, good food and footwear. Talk on the streets was that it would all be over by Christmas anyway! Some were simply after adventure, like Tom Barry, later to become a noted IRA commander, who enlisted in June 1915 'to see what war was like, to get a gun, to see new countries and to feel like a grown man'.
For others there was an economic motive. James Connolly, the socialist revolutionary, said that employment opportunities were so bad in Ireland that men had no choice but to enlist. It was, he asserted, 'economic conscription'. Certainly an unskilled worker might more than double his pay by joining up. By some accounts, Francis Ledwidge, poet, nationalist and trade union organiser, enlisted on the rebound from an unhappy love affair. And yet others, as the historian Philip Orr has argued, may have been borne along on 'a surge of naive patriotism'.
In May 1916 it was decided to go ahead with the ‘Big Push’ an all-out assault on German lines scheduled for July 1st. At 07:30 that morning, whistles blew and men from every street in Lurgan climbed out of their trenches and walked towards the German lines. Many lit their pipes. Some played football as they advanced. There was nothing to fear… after all one of the longest artillery bombardments of enemy lines had just taken place for the past two weeks and surely no German could still be alive…
Not so. The Germans were well aware of the Big Push and sat comfortably in their deep dug trenches until that fateful morning. As the artillery stopped and the smoke cleared they came out of their bunkers and assembled their machine guns and watched as men of Haig’s new army walked towards them in extended lines, their bayonets fixed and each man carrying a personal kit and weapons to a minimum load of 30 Kgs. Ten minutes later it started. The squeal of the machine guns, the deafening blows of the mortars and the cries of young men being scythed down in their thousands. Thirteen divisions went over the top that day. Among them the 9th Batt R.I.F. made up mostly of Lurgan men and, later in the day, the 16th Batt R.I.R.
By the end of the first day 19,000 men lay dead. 57,000 were wounded.
The blood of Lurgan’s youth flowed onto the battlefields of the Somme. As night came the cries for help came from shell-holes. Brother called to brother, father called to son. Many made attempts to retrieve the wounded only to rise to their feet and fall to the snipers’ bullets. The Battle of the Somme raged on until November by which time 420,000 men were lost. German losses stood at about 450,000, many drowning in seas of mud.
It was a week later before the telegrams began to arrive in the town of Lurgan. Few streets were spared the rattle of young telegram boys on the cobblestones. Witnesses remember the cries and screams as the news spread from one street to another. One woman, Mrs Hobbs of Union St. received news that, of her four sons, three were dead and the other missing.
That Saturday night a list went up outside the town hall and all the churches remained open all night. Lurgan men suffered great hardship in every theatre of operation in World war I and stories of the horror of the Somme are equaled in the Daranelles and Gallipoli. Lurgan men are found in all of the 15 regiments of that period and Lurgan’s list of gallantry medals reflect that bravery. In the Great War of 1914-1918, Victoria Crosses were awarded to all arms of the services. 18 of these went to Irishmen. Nothing more needs to be said.
Lurgan’s dead of WWI totals 395. several hundred returned as broken men, gassed maimed and shell shocked. Many died as a result of their injuries within a few months of coming back home. Men from every tradition and from every street serviced together, fought together and died together. They belonged to all of us. The suffering of WWI went on for many years after. Widows tried to raise large families alone, men crippled and unfit for work existed on a pittance of an allowance. Alcoholism was at its highest level. This surely was the darkest period for the town of Lurgan.
Our deepest thanks to Jim McIllmurray for the above account and the records he has provided of the sons of Lurgan who gave their lives in the war to end all wars.
Click on the alphabetical list on your right to see the names of the fallen. We make this information freely available to genealogists and Family Historians, but at no time may this information be used on a pay site or sold for profit.