As a native of Liverpool, with Wexford roots from my maternal grandfather, I grew up with stories of the family farm back in Ferns, and stories of my grandfather, Henry Gahan, a Liverpool man, who was a veteran of the trenches of World War One.
As a member of the Royal Engineers, he would crawl out into no man’s land-that very dangerous space between the British and German trenches-to try and intercept German messages on their telephone lines. However, at the end of 1916, as a result of the wet conditions of the trenches, he became ill and was discharged from the army and returned to his job as a post office telegrapher in Liverpool.
A hundred years ago on 11 November 1918, he was on duty in Liverpool’s main post office, in his role as a telegraphist. He was responsible for receiving and sending messages via morse code-a series of dots and dashes-along radio lines, one of the main methods of electronic communications a century ago.
That Monday morning, at his desk, at 10.26 am he received the following message from London:
“Prime Minister Makes Following Announcement. Armistice Is Signed At Five O’Clock This Morning And Hostilities Are To Cease On All Fronts At Eleven Am Today”
So ended the First World War, the war it was hoped would be over by Christmas 1914 and the war it was hoped that would end all wars. The war claimed the lives of over sixteen million people.
I was telling this story to one of our Irish Chaplaincy Seniors volunteers, Anne Harding, who told me the story of her grandfather, Richard Evans, also a native of Liverpool, also with links to Wexford, this time Saltmills, where his wife was from, who died in the First World War and is buried in Fouquieres Churchyard Extension in Northern France.
In 1914, waiting to go to war Richard wrote these words in a letter to his wife Annie:
“My darling wife, Just a few lines hoping and trusting that, as the weather gets warmer, you will get well and be your dear old self again.
I am afraid dearie, you must be prepared to hear that I am going to France next week,without leave. Everyone in England has to go without leave. I would give my life not to have to tell you this but God help me it must be done and you must face it bravely, as you have often faced trouble before and for our children’s sake. You must forget me being out there and think of me still in England. You can’t do me any good by worrying and if I know that my own little girl is quietly and calmly waiting for the day when I return I shall be contented, for I am coming back. I feel that I shall before this year is out. The war will be over and I will be united to you once more and forever more. Won’t that be grand?
Annie dear, promise me you won’t worry – the time will soon slip by. I am going again to Holy Communion on Sunday and will offer it up for your health, so cheer up love and I will look forward to us being lovers once more. Heaps of love and kisses to your dear self and our sunny children.
From your loving and devoted Husband. Xxxxx
Xxxx Xxx I will send a wire at the last minute.”
My grandfather apparently never talked of his experiences of war, and it was only following his death, that his wartime diary came to light and what he had done. He finished his diary with the stark statement that volunteering for the army was “the worst days work I ever did”.
Anne’s grandfather Rifleman Richard Evans of the King’s Liverpool Regiment paid the ultimate price, laying down his life on active service.
It is poignant indeed to think that a century later, two of us here at the Irish Chaplaincy, both have Irish Liverpool grandfathers with Wexford links who were both caught up in that shattering conflict.
This Remembrance time, let us remember all who have suffered and still suffer as a result of war and renew our efforts for a peaceful world with justice for all.