We can be proud of our military heritage

King George V: Endeavoured to avoid civil war in Ireland.

King George V: Endeavoured to avoid civil war in Ireland.

On June 12 1922 a very special ceremony took place at Windsor Castle, near London. Following the establishment of the Irish Free State the previous December, five Irish regiments, including the Connaught Rangers, the Royal Irish, the Leinsters, the Munsters, and the Dublin Fusiliers, which had served the British army with exceptional valour at times, were disbanded. It was a day of special significance for both the participants and onlookers. It was reported in the London Times.

The Connaught Rangers, which had been recruiting men from Galway and the West of Ireland since 1793, was the most important source of employment in this area. The army provided opportunities for travel and advancement, giving pride and purpose to ordinary men who, if they didn’t work the land, had little prospects other than emigration. The Rangers fought in Egypt, India, South America, particularly in Portugal and Spain against Napoleon; at the Crimea, South Africa, and suffered great losses during the Great War. In just over a week’s fighting at the Somme (September 1916 ), the Rangers’ 6th lost 23 officers and 407 other ranks. During the German breakthrough at St Emilie on March 21 1918 that same battalion was ‘practically annihilated’ when, following a fierce bombardment, the order to withdraw did not reach them, leaving them exposed to the onslaught of two fresh German divisions. At least 2,500 Rangers were killed between 1914 - 1918. Yet their marching anthem, Its a long way to Tipperary, cheered the hearts of thousands during those dark days. The remains of the Rangers who never returned home can be found in small and large graveyards in France, Belgium, Germany, Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria, Egypt, Palestine, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, and England.

No doubt many Rangers felt a sense of betrayal at the 1916 Rising, which added to the confusion and their discomfiture when they returned to a ‘different’ Ireland. But it also took courage when on June 28 1920 private James Daly led a protest at Wellington Barracks, Jalandhar, in the Indian Punjab. He and his 88 mutineers refused to soldier in protest against harsh British measures during the War of Independence at home. After a firefight they were captured and dealt with severely. Nineteen men were sentenced to death. The rest received long prison sentences. In the end only Daly faced the firing squad; the last member of the British armed forces to be executed for mutiny.

Supported Home Rule

On that June day 89 years ago, the band of His Majesty’s First Guard escorted the procession of the disbanding regiments’ commanding officers and Colour parties up the hill to the castle. Each regiment Colour, which is regarded with an almost sacred sense of possession, is inscribed with the names of the battles they have been engaged in for more than 200 years. They are deeply symbolic to the regiments involved. The band played the march past of each regiment in turn, including Tipperary. When they arrived at the entrance to St George’s Hall the tune suddenly changed to Auld lang Syne. The regiments’ Colours were then handed over to the king, for his safe keeping.

King George V* (wearing the service uniform of a Field Marshall ), stood with Queen Mary, and their daughter, the Princess Mary, accompanied by the highest ranking dukes, marshals and lords of the land, on a platform at the end of the Hall. The king was particularly moved by the occasion. George V was very supportive of Home Rule for Ireland, and had done his utmost to move the aspiration forward. He had visited Ireland in July 1911, and was delighted with the warm reception he received. Even though he was prohibited from taking any political role in the drama leading to the third vote to pass the Home Rule Bill in the House of Lords, he appeared to encourage John Redmond and the Irish parliamentary party to persevere. But when in 1913 well-drilled Ulster Volunteers were marching regularly in the streets of Belfast, and a nationalist response took the shape of the Irish Volunteers in Dublin, he became alarmed. He did not want a civil war. Matters really came to a head when a substantial quantity of arms was landed at Larne, making it clear that the Ulster Volunteers would fight rather than accept Home Rule from Dublin. In a final attempt to get some kind of compromise between Dublin and Ulster the king offered Buckingham Palace as a meeting place. On July 21 1914 John Redmond and John Dillon for the nationalists, Edward Carson and James Craig for the Ulster Unionists, HH Asquith and Lloyd George for the Liberals, Boner Law and Lord Lansdowne for the Tories sat down face to face. But there was little change in ever hardening attitudes. Within a week however, Germany invaded Belgium, and the King’s attention was on the appalling tragedy that was about to overwhelm Europe.

A sacred trust

I was reminded of Ireland’s military past, and how proud the men and women are who wear our Irish colours when I saw the exemplary manner with which our soldiers met Queen Elizabeth, and escorted her and our President last week. It was impossible not to admire Capt Laura Keane, 2nd Cavalry Squadron, who was the escort of honour, Capt Tom Holmes, 5th battalion McKee Barracks, requested and escorted the queen to inspect the guard of honour at Áras An Uachtarain; and Capt Derek McGourty who led the military duties of the cadets (drawn from the army, navy and air corps ), at both the Garden of Remembrance, and at Island Bridge. Ireland has a magnificent small but effective armed force. It adds the appropriate gravitas to ceremonial occasions, but is also dedicated to helping fragile communities maintain peace in trouble spots around the world.

George V showed that he appreciated the military mind when he received the regimental colours that day.

“ We are here today in circumstances which cannot fail to strike a note of sadness in our hearts. No regiment parts with its Colours without feelings of sorrow. A knight, in days gone by, bore on his shield his coat-of-arms tokens of valour and worth. Only in death did he surrender them. Your Colours are the records of valorous deeds in war and of the glorious traditions thereby created. You are called upon to part with them today for reasons beyond your control and resistance. By you and your predecessors these Colours have been reverenced and guarded as a sacred trust, which trust you now confide in me as your King. I am proud to accept this trust, but I fully realise with what grief you relinquish these dearly prized emblems and I pledge my word that within these ancient and historic walls your Colours will be treasured, honoured and protected as hallowed memorials of the glorious deeds of brave and loyal regiments."

Outside the Hall the band played the regimental slow marches: Oft in the Stilly Night, The Harp That Once Through Tara's Halls, Let Erin Remember. Inside the Hall, to this evocative music, each Colour party marched forward in succession, led by its commanding officer, and handed their Colours to the King.

And there they remain today.**

NOTES:

*The succession to the British throne after Queen Victoria is as follows: Victoria married her first cousin Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. She died 1901, and was succeeded by Edward VII (he visited Connemara and Galway in 1903 ), died 1910. George V (visited Ireland in 1911 ), and died 1936. Edward VIII (abdicated in 1936 ), then George VI (‘The King’s Speech’ ) died 1952, succeeded by his elder daughter Elizabeth II.

George V was the first cousin of Tsar Nicholas II, and first cousin of the German Emperor Wilhelm II who started World War I. George V dropped the German part of his name, Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, and changed it to the House of Windsor.

**An earlier set of Connaught Rangers’ Colours can be seen at the Collegiate Church of St Nicholas, along with several stone memorials to fallen members of the regiment. There is an interesting museum at Dún Ui Maoilíosa (Renmore Barracks ) showing quite a lot about the Rangers’ history. Entrance by appointment.

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