An Irishman in the Great War – Essential reading

Why hadn’t I heard of this book?

I was speaking to an English friend, a keen student the Great War, about my interest in the involvement of Irish men in the conflict.

“Of course, you will have read J.F Lucy’s book,” he said.

He was incredulous that I had not heard of There’s A Devil In The Drum, which he described as one of the best books written about the war. Most wartime memoirs were produced by the “officer class”, he explained, but Lucy’s is one of the few examples of books written by one of the lower ranks. As I read it, I discovered that the book is remarkable and unique in another aspect also. It views the war from an Irish perspective and deals with the dilemma of Irishmen serving in the British Army and the tension and conflict which arose following the 1916 rising.

31AZLR+7JMLJohn Lucey was born and raised in County Cork, the son of a cattle dealer. Following the death of their mother while they were in their teens, John and his brother had, in his own words, “gone a bit wild”. There were tensions between John and his father and, after an altercation, he left home with his younger brother Denis. On John’s eighteenth birthday in 1912, they both enlisted in the army for the usual seven years. Rather than join the local regiment, the Royal Munster Fusileers, the brothers opted to enlist with the Royal Irish Rifles, which had its depot in Belfast.

Lucey’s summation of small town Irish life and the impatience of youth is beautifully observed; “The soft accents and slow movements of the small farmers who swarmed in the streets of our dull southern Irish town, the cattle, fowl, eggs, butter, bacon, and the talk of politics filled us with loathing. Blow the lot.”

As Irish men, he and his brother swore to protect the King “with some qualms of conscience” but they set aside any doubts because, as he writes, “we were full of life and the spirit of adventure, and wanted to spread our wings”. Their basic training in Belfast is described in detail as are the occasional sectarian tensions. He contrasts the more tolerant attitude in the south of Ireland to Belfast where “bigotry reigned”. Among the soldiers in the depot, attempts to stir up sectarian tensions were largely unsuccessful and best illustrated by this response by a Limerick born colour sergeant who returned a proffered orange lily with the words:

O let the Orange lily be

Your badge, my patriot brother.

The everlasting green for me,

And we for one another.

At the beginning of the war, the brothers, then aged twenty and nineteen, were promoted to lance-corporal and each had command over eight men. They sailed to France and were soon in action at Mons. Lucy’s description of the French countryside as the army is resting before battle is evocative. “ …… the mellow sunlight of that autumn, and the perfume of the country lanes; the smoke of camp fires in the still evenings, tall trees at their statleist, and the red roofs of little houses nestling in the orchards and the yellow fields”.

The “sleep-marching” retreat from Mons, the battle of Le Cateau where his battalion lost one hundred officers and men, and many other battles are described in great and sometimes heart-breaking detail. Yet one of the great strengths of this book is the recounting of small personal vignettes of bravery, generosity and dignity as well as admissions of fear, doubt and frustration by men who do not know whether they will see another dawn.

The close relationship between the Lucy brothers is reflected in John’s search for Denis’s platoon after battle. “I looked for my brother and found him. His face lighted up at the sight of me. In our relief at finding each other we then did a silly thing. We gave each other nearly all we had in our respective haversacks, and then, realising what we had done, we grinned and punched each other”.

Just over two weeks later, at the crossing of the Aisne river, John Lucey watched in concern as his brother’s platoon received the order to advance. “I raised myself high over the parapet of our cliff, and shouted at him: ‘Take care of yourself’, and I blushed at such a display of anxiety in the presence of my comrades. My brother steadied for a moment in a stride which was beginning to break into a steady run forward, and looking over his shoulder, reassuringly winked at me. The beggar would wink. Forward he went, and out of my sight forever.”

The body of his brother was never found.

By November, Lucey was in combat at Ypres. He estimated that ninety-six men out of every hundred in his regiment had been killed or wounded during the preceding three months. He describes the scene as he stood among the dead. “Proudly and sorrowfully I looked at them, the Macs and the O’s, and the hardy Ulster boys joined together in death on a foreign field. My dead chums. A silence more pregnant than the loudest bombardment stole over the country, the evening silence of the battlefield. A robin sat in a broken bush on the parapet and burst into song.”

A brief period of home leave in Cork in early 1915 understandably resulted in more musing on his position as he sought peace by wandering in the countryside. ”I would have preferred to pledge my body to the cause of Ireland, still in thraldom. It was her’s by every right and every tradition, yet I felt bound in honour to England too, for I had attested on oath, and I was a British soldier as well as being an Irishman and a Catholic”.

He returned to duty in time to witness the arrival of fresh-faced recruits to replace the “old army” which had virtually been wiped out. By now, trench warfare had resulted in the usage of poison gas, flame-throwers and in tunnel building.

In late 1915, burdened by grief and guilt at the loss of his brother and fatigued by the carnage, Lucy was sent home in a depressed state. He was diagnosed with eurasthenia, a disease of the nervous system caused by combat stress and he was hospitalised for a time before going home to Cork to recuperate. He was in Ireland when the news broke about the Easter Rising. The reaction of the Irishmen in the army mirrored that of the Irish people. Their initial lack of sympathy for the rebels turned to “cold fury” upon hearing of the executions. “I would see the whole Empire damned sooner than hear of an Irishman being killed in his own country by an intruding stranger”.

Upon his recovery, he returned to his depot and was promoted to Officer rank. He describes an approach by a troubled English sergeant who had taken part in the executions in Dublin. “He was the first of a number of unhappy Englishmen who tried, and tried vainly, to square their acts against Ireland with me”. The sergeant unsuccessfully tried to appease Lucy by giving him rosary beads which he said, had belonged to the executed Joseph Plunkett. The offer was curtly refused.

The tensions after his return to action were reflected in the fears of a fellow officer that he might be shot by one of the Irishmen in his command in retaliation for his actions in Dublin during 1916. Suspicions later arose when the officer was killed in his first action. As Lucy wrote; “Already the Sinn Feiners were earning a name for never forgetting.”

But any tensions were counterbalanced by esprit de corps and mutual respect as comrades. In October 1916 he was on a brief home leave and was asked by some of his men to bring back some Irish flags with harps inscribed on them. His battalion was due to be transferred to the Ulster Division, which had a reputation for being “poisonously loyal”. They invited the officers of the Ulster Division to join them at a dinner on the night before battle and set up a table which was festooned with Irish flags and national emblems. The visitors “affected no surprise” at the display and all had a very merry evening.

A few days later, a shell explosion left him wounded in sixteen places and close to death. His war was over.

Lucey remained in the army, married, rose in the ranks and served for a time in Bombay and later at Gravesend. Following his retirement in 1935, he was involved in business and journalism in Dublin. His book was published in 1938 and was universally lauded. He joined the army reserve in 1939 and served in France during WW2. He was awarded an OBE in 1945 and died in Cork in 1962.

This book is a treasure and is essential reading for anyone who is interested in the Great War and particularly in the involvement of Irish soldiers. It is a shame that it is not as well known as the many books written about the Irish War of Independence and Civil War. John McGahern described the excellent On Another Man’s Wound by Ernie O’Malley is a book of ”high literary quality” and “the one classic work to have emerged directly from the violence that led to the founding of the Irish Free State”. There’s A Devil In The Drum by J.F. Lucy is a book of comparable literary and historic merit which deals with another group of Irishmen from the same generation who sacrificed themselves just as bravely and honourably and who deserve our respect and our acknowledgement.


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