For almost a century the Irish who died at Gallipoli were largely forgotten.
In the week that their memory was officially honoured for the first time, with Mary McAleese’s visit to the Gallipoli war graves, a series of letters uncovered in the National Archives tells a vivid story of the sacrifice of two Dublin brothers in particular, Jack and George Duggan.
As a Lieutenant with the 5th Royal Irish Regiment, Jack Duggan set sail for the war from Dublin’s North Wall, in May 1915. He left behind him a sweetheart, Beatrice Seymour, “my dear Bee,” as he called her in his regular, jaunty letters.
The first letters told of high spirits at a training camp in England: he had landed a “soft job”, he wrote, and they’d had “topping weather”; on his leave, he went drinking in London with his brothers, also in the armed forces.
In June, Jack was dispatched to the Dardanelles, as the campaign at Gallipoli was known. Even then, he remained upbeat. He was stationed at first on a Greek island, 50 miles from the front. “The bathing is splendid,” he wrote, and he had managed to pitch camp “in quite the best place in the island.”
“What a life!” he wrote to Bee.
Amongst his duties, Jack was responsible for censoring his men’s letters: “Fifty per cent of their letters are taken up with the strange device of crosses, representing kisses,” he wrote.
“I don’t know why they don’t keep them till they get home, like sensible fellows!”
Jack’s good humour survived even his dispatch to the Turkish mainland at Gallipoli. His division, “although badly cut up, did splendidly,” and Jack’s B Company was lucky, suffering no casualties in the landing.
The next day, B Company was assigned to digging trenches “just behind the firing line,” where “there were plenty of bullets flying around and there were snipers letting off at us occasionally.”
Jack’s luck held: while sitting talking to a comrade, a bullet “grazed” between them, hitting a nearby lance corporal in the knee. Later, as Jack was talking to two officers, one of them took a bullet through his shoulder.
Jack was resolutely good humoured. “It is just dawn as I write, about 5 o’clock. The sky is absolutely beautiful, rich red in the East with red tinged clouds and the outline of blue hills all round.”
Jack’s brother, George, with the Royal Irish Fusiliers, had also been posted to Gallipoli, and he made a surprise visit to Jack. The brothers evidently shared a similar attitude to life: George’s regiment had suffered heavily, and George was “the only Captain left in his regiment,” yet he was “certainly looking splendid and cheery,” Jack observed.
Five days later, it was a friend of Jack’s, Mervyn Pratt, who wrote instead to Bee.
“Dear Miss Seymour,” he wrote, “I am afraid I have only got the worst possible news. Jack Duggan is reported killed.”
There had been “a big fight”, wrote Mervyn, and Jack’s B Company had been sent to the firing line as stretcher-bearers. The situation was “a farce”, he said.
Jack was wounded in the face and wrist, but carried on; a further hit later on had killed him.
“The 10th Division is practically non-existent now,” wrote Mervyn.
“All is quiet today,” he wrote, “think it is the calm before the storm, we all expect a big attack on the Turks’ position tomorrow. We must get through, no matter what cost.
“A shell burst in my trench this morning and killed two more of my men… We lost over two hundred men in the last fight so we have some account to settle with the Turk.”
According to an obituary that appeared shortly afterwards, Jack’s brother, George, died on the same day, August 16, and was buried at sea.
Mervyn continued to write to Bee, with more accounts of Jack (his men had said he was “perfectly splendid, but far too rash”), and updates from the front.
“We lost seven more men this morning, three killed and four wounded all by one shell. If they keep on long enough, they are bound to get us all sooner or later.”
But they didn’t get Mervyn, at least not at Gallipoli. Transferred to India, his correspondence with Bee evidently flourished. By the following May, he was ready to take a liberty.
“Dear Beatrice,” he wrote. “I suppose it is awful cheek of me addressing you that way, but Miss Seymour seems so horrid and formal.”
Bee, it seems, responded in kind. Mervyn’s letters record that she invited him to visit her family, and that he accepted “with absolutely indecent joy.”
Did Mervyn ever visit Bee, and did he survive the war? The letters uncovered do not record this. But there was, at least, a moment of joy to emerge from the tragedy that brought them together.
In 1921, a third Duggan brother, George Chester, published a volume of poetry dedicated to his fallen brothers.
“March away, my brothers; softly march away,” he wrote, in his final poem.
“We have come to guard their sleep and their memory,” said Mary McAleese this week, at the Green Hill war cemetery at Gallipoli, of the four thousand Irish who fell at Gallipoli. Finally, the Duggans and their fallen comrades are honoured in their march.
Published in the Irish Independent.
The Jack Duggan letters are included in ‘Our War: Ireland and the Great War’, published by the Royal Irish Academy. See www.ria.ie.