By Sheila Brady
When war broke out, one hundred and sixty-one men from a community of four hundred living in just sixty lodging houses in Altrincham, Cheshire volunteered for King and country. They were, for the most part, Irish men and Anglo-Irish, who had come to Cheshire for work on the railways, canals, mills, and as labourers and tradespeople.
Many were the diaspora from the West, alongside those of the North at a time when Ireland was constituted as part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
Their reasons for attestment were an amalgamation of patriotism, religious fervour and politics. More than half of the men had previously fought in the campaigns of the Boer Wars.
Many answered the call of the Catholic church to ‘Come to the aid of little Catholic Belgium’, after the university town of Leuven, was ransacked by the Germans. Leuven was the Irish capital of culture and language on European soil.
Many innocent people were killed, buildings were razed to the ground, and the entire depository of rare and ancient manuscripts, incunabula and books destroyed.
This deliberate destruction and desecration, perceived as an attack on Ireland and on the Roman Catholic church, caused the Archbishops of Tuam and Galway to responded, by bestowing special blessings on those men who would volunteer for the Crusade.
For many of these Irishmen, the Holy apparition at Knock was in their lifetime; and their faith influenced their actions.
As the war continued St. Patrick’s Day, 1915, saw John Redmond delivered one of the greatest acclaimed speeches of the First World War, in Manchester. It was a keynote speech for an audience of some ten thousand people. It was a passionate and persuasive speech which drew on the history of Ireland, its identity as a nation and its contribution to the history of the British Empire.
In it Redmond gave his backing to the war effort, believing that support for the King and loyalty to the crown, by Irish nationalists, would cause the enactment of the Home Rule Act. Ireland would then gain its freedoms and identity from within the act’s provisions, which he saw as the first steps towards Ireland’s independence.
As volunteers (conscription had not yet eventuated), the men could attest in the regiments and corps of their choice, of the army, navy and air tri-services.
Consequently, they swelled the ranks of: Royal Irish Rifles, Connaught Rangers, Royal Dublin Fusiliers; Cheshire, Devonshire, Lancashire Fusiliers, Prince of Wales’s South Lancashire, King’s Own Royal Lancaster, The King’s Liverpool, and Manchester Regiments; Somerset and Royal Shropshire Light Infantry; Grenadier Guards; Royal Engineers; Royal Field Artillery; Royal Garrison Artillery, The Machine Gun Corp; Territorials, Armed Service, Labour Corps and Pioneers; South Wales Borderers, Royal Welsh Fusiliers, King’s Own Scottish Borderers, Gordon Highlanders; Royal Flying Corps, Royal Marine Light Infantry and the Canadian Expeditionary Force.
They fought in all the theatres and campaigns of war including the Western Front, Gallipoli against the Turks; Salonika against the Bulgarians; Mesopotamia (modern Iraq for the relief of the siege of Kut); the Italy Frontier; Palestine and the Middle East including Gaza, Suez and Jerusalem (which was liberated Christmas 1917, after 673 years of Muslim rule).
A Chapel Street man was present at every battle of the Somme, including the famous Irish victory Battle of Ginchy, where Gibbs states that Protestant and Catholic put aside political and religious differences and came together as one fighting unit.
There were many incidences of gallantry and valour in the field, including the rescue of the future Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, from a slit trench on the Somme battlefield; and that of the future father to be of children’s author, Dick King-Smith, who was rescued as he lay wounded on the battlefield in no-man’s land.
The officer was carried to safety on the back of a private, who braved the heavy gunfire of Bulgarians and the perils of barbed wire. Another soldier became a national hero of Canada, and decorated by ‘Bing of Vimy’, for his part in a famous trench raid, which garnered secret intelligence used at the battle of Vimy Ridge.
Collectively, these men experienced being shot, gassed, shelled, torpedoed and shipwrecked, and captured as prisoners of war in Germany and Bulgaria. More men were recorded as ‘Missing in Action’ than anywhere else in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
King George V recognised it as ‘The bravest little street in England’.