© Aidan K. Morrissey
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It’s a long way from Tipperary and East Boldon.
The order was passed along the line. A shouted, single command would be useless; the incessant thunder of howitzers and field guns blocked out sound to damaged ear drums.
Since before dawn they stood, huddled tightly at the front of the trench. Shrapnel shells exploding somewhere overhead. Red hot chunks of metal rained down. Keeping close to the mud wall reduced the chance of being hit. Sergeant William Frayne, 8th Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers, should have listened to his own advice. He walked along the line giving encouragement to the remnants of his battalion and others in the Fighting Fifth. The side of his face was taken away, his left eye hanging from its socket. Nobody moved to help him. One more dead comrade amongst the thousands they had seen in the past days, weeks, months and years. ‘It’ll all be over by Christmas,’ they’d been promised, but they never said in which bloody year.
‘I cannat dee this,’ said a teenage soldier.
‘Whisht now Geordie lad, you’ll be fine,’ the comforting Irish brogue of the man next to him whispered in his ear.
‘Paddy, this war isn’t what we wor telt it’d be. We aal signed up tigithor, Pals Brigade they said. Ye’ll aal fight the Boche tigithor they said. They never tell’t us we’d aal effin’ die tigithor.’
The earth shook constantly. The power of the Allied battery, firing two shots a second, was augmented by German artillery coming towards them.
‘You never hear the one that kills you,’ the lads kept saying.
‘They’re right, ‘cos the soond of the otha buggers droons ‘em oot!’ Geordie’s brother, Michael, had said, just before the one he didn’t hear removed most of his right arm.
‘They’re all gone, Paddy. Wey am aa still here? Jack, Billy and Norman were stanin’ here next t’ me and noo they’re somewhere oot thor in the blood, mud and shite. Billy, lyin’ across the barbed wire, caalin for his mam. Thor’s only half of him left and he’s caalin for his mam, Paddy. She couldn’t hear him. The sergeant shot him; kindness I s’pose. Noo he’s deed an aal.’
‘Don’t you be thinking about that now me lad,’ Corporal John Connolly, of the Tyneside Irish, said. He had only met the boy next to him yesterday, but they were already best friends. The trenches and this war did that. Your friends changed every day; if you were alive.
Geordie lied about his age when he signed up.
‘How old are you son?’ the recruitment Sergeant had asked.
‘Well you’d better go outside and have a couple of birthdays.’
He obliged. At the back of the queue, he was quickly joined by his old school pals. In the fifteen minutes it took to get back to the front of the line, they had all aged two years and were happily signed up for King and Country. His mam had tried to stop him.
‘Wait ‘til your nineteen, then go if you must. Our Michael’s already out there, I don’t want to lose the both of you.’
‘It’ll aall be o’er before then, mam. I’ll miss oot. All me marras are gannin’; it’ll be fun.’
It was fun. After basic training and being barracked in their old school at East Boldon, they shipped out to Gallipoli. They sailed excitedly from Liverpool in July.
By the time Private George ‘Geordie’ Wainwright and his school pals arrived off the Turkish coast as reinforcements, stalemate had descended on the campaign. They listened to the stories of those who had been there from the beginning. The devastation of Australian and New Zealand troops in the area known as Anzac. The heroics of the Lancashire Regiments who, despite sustaining sixty percent losses, had established a landing at ‘W’ beach. It sounded glorious, but, only a few months after arriving, it was back on board to set sail for Egypt.
They drove past pyramids and met Bengal Lancers. They witnessed the Bikaner Camel Corps in action and fought successful battles in the hot desert. The war was as they had hoped. Then orders were received to pack. They were heading to the Western front, to the ‘real war’ their officers told them.
The fun ended.
Two years on from the Somme, through which battle Geordie and his pals had all navigated safely, he stood alone, surrounded by others, but desolate.
Geordie’s hand shook as he tried to fix the sword-like bayonet to his rifle. Paddy helped him.
‘Wey am aa still here Paddy? Yesterday we climbed the ladders aal tigithor, marched side by side toward the wire and the Boche trenches, but I walked back on me aan. Aa didn’t wanna leave wor Norman. He looked like he wes sleepin’. If ye hadn't picked me up I’d have stayed thor.’
‘And you’d be dead too. Come on, there’s no point dwelling on yesterday; let’s get through today. This war won’t last much longer, the Germans are giving up. Did you not see how many prisoners we captured? They’re short of supplies and morale. We have to live each day and soon we’ll be going home.’
‘Wey did they die and not me?’
‘Don’t be asking me those questions, lad. It’s God who decides when He wants us.’
‘Reet noo, He’s wantin’ too many.’
The whistles blew. Time to go over the top.
‘You can Geordie and you will. Up!’ He grabbed the teenager’s belt and hauled him onto the first rung. A bagpipe hummed into life; Geordie forgot his fear and clambered up the ladder. Today he was sure he would die and meet with his friends.
The bagpipe player marched, unarmed towards the enemy. In honour of the Irish Tynesiders he played ‘The Minstrel Boy.’
‘That’s me favourite tune,’ Paddy said and he began singing his own version of the words.
‘The Geordie Irish to this war have come,
In the fields of death you’ll find them.
Your country’s war they have taken on, with Lee Enfield there beside them.
Land of Somme, can you hear us come?
For your freedom we are fighting.
The Boche are here but we’ll see them run,
And the sun will soon again be shining.’
‘Haad yor gob Paddy, fer pity’s sake. Ye cannat shoot “coal” man. The pipes wailin’ is bad enough, but with yor voice we’ll aal gan micey,’ shouted Corporal ‘Benny’ Benson.
Laughter followed, but stopped suddenly as rattling German machine guns began raking death to those in front, including Benny.
An artillery round exploded close by.
‘Get down,’ yelled Paddy, jumping on Geordie and rolling him into an old shell hole.
Geordie felt a pain in his leg.
‘Ger off me, ye howfing geet Irish lummox.’
‘Don’t think I can,’ he replied weakly. ‘Perhaps God likes my singing so much he wants me in his choir.’
‘What ye taakin’ aboot? Ger off me, man.’ Geordie squeezed himself out from under the Irish Corporal. He could see the punctured helmet and blood running down the side of his head.‘Medic, medic,’ he began shouting, though no-one could hear him.
The artillery kept up the barrage in both directions. The German machine guns continued their clattering carnage. Hours passed, screams and explosions continued unabated. Geordie kept talking to Paddy, keeping him awake. He didn’t know why he was told to do this, surely it was better to let the man sleep? However Geordie had learned the discipline of soldiers and did as he was told.
‘Where ye from, Paddy?
‘Cahir, in County Tipperary.’
‘What did ye dee before the war?’
‘Me dad runs a chemist’s shop. Lotions and potions, pills for chills, that sort of thing.’
‘Why did ye sign up? Ye could’ve stayed yem.’
‘Could’ve, probably should’ve. It seemed a good idea at the time. Times are bad in Ireland, Geordie. If I wasn’t here, I might be fighting against you English back home. I’ve an uncle living in South Shields. We were visiting him, looking for work, when the war started. It seemed like a chance to make some money. It was only meant to be until Christmas.’
‘I’ve a wife, Mary, and a son Colm. He’ll be six now. I had a picture of him but had to hand it over with my other belongings to the company officer, you know the rules.’
‘Ye’ll see ‘em soon, Paddy.’
‘Not sure about that, lad.’
Eventually the bugles sounded, recalling what was left of the Allied forces. Medics arrived. They saw Geordie’s leg.
‘Your war’s over mate.’
‘So’s this one’s,’ another medic said, carefully removing Paddy's helmet to examine the wound. ‘Looks like he took the one meant for you, bonny lad. He’s still breathing, but only just. Can you walk on that leg, Private?’
‘Dad, did you speak to granddad about the family tree? I need to have my project in by next week.’
‘He’ll bring it over tonight. He says he’s never examined it; it was his brother’s passion, not his. The whole family’s from Ireland so he doesn’t think it’ll help you much. What about your mam’s side?’
‘Me mam’s great, great grandfather was in the Battle of the Somme and the attack on the Siegfried line.’
‘Was he? She never told me.’
‘She didn’t know. I found out online.’
‘They lived in Boldon. Mam’s found out where he’s buried. We’re going up to Boldon Cemetery on Saturday to find it. The council will mark the plot as they don’t think it has a headstone’
‘Perhaps we should get one for him.’
The family sat around the dining table and opened the scroll Daniel’s granddad had brought.
‘There’s you granddad. Patrick Murphy, Born; London 11th January 1956, Married South Shields 2nd July 1976 to Jenny Clifton. Two children, Peter, that’s you dad and me aunty Alice.’
‘We know that Daniel,’ his dad said, we’re supposed to be going backwards.
‘OK. So granddad, your dad, John Murphy, was born in Dublin 1932.’
‘Yeah, that’s right. He came over here as soon as he was old enough to join the RAF.’
‘Was he in the war? Did he fly jets?’
‘Nothing so exciting, Daniel. He was an accountant and the wars were over long before he came here. He was last stationed in Yorkshire. My mam had some cousins living in Shields and Newcastle, so they retired here. He loved walking along the Lees with his dog.’
Daniel’s mam said, ‘Look Daniel, you have the same birthday as one of your great, great, great grandfathers. See, there. John Connolly; Born 21st September 1889.
‘Oh yes, I….’
‘Look everyone, when he died.’
‘Died from wounds; France 1st October 1918’ his mam read out.
‘So he was in the war too. I wonder if he knew your great, great granddad, mam.’
‘Don’t be silly Daniel. There were ten million British soldiers in the war, how could they possibly have known each other?’
‘They might have; how do you know they didn’t?’
‘I don’t Daniel. I just think it’s almost impossible and we’d never find out.’
‘We can see which regiments they were in and where they fought. I have to do that for my project anyway. Did you find me the medals, mam?’
‘Your granny says they might be in an old box of her grandmother’s up in the attic somewhere. I’ll go and look tomorrow.’
The following morning, Daniel’s mam, Katie, was in her mother’s attic. ‘Are you sure it’s up here mam?’ she called down through the ceiling hatch.
‘I think so.’
‘I’ve opened every box and there’s nothing that looks like war memorabilia. There’s a few old suitcases; could it be one of those?’
‘It might be, but I was sure it was a box.’
‘Found it. It’s an old brown suitcase. I’ll bring it down.’
‘Let me wipe that Katie, it’s filthy. Decades of dust on it. Go and wash your hands.’
Once clean enough for Katie’s mam, they opened the case. It was full of papers and trinkets. At the bottom were three medals. A 1914-15 Star, a British War Medal and an Allied Victory Medal.
‘Pip, Squeak and Wilfred, my grandfather called them. I think everyone who got them did.’
‘Can I give them to Daniel to take to school?’ Katie asked.
‘Of course. They’ve been locked away for more than fifty years, I’ll not miss them, but make sure he takes care of them.’
‘What else is in here? There’s some old photographs. Oh look mam, that’s the old East Boldon School. Daniel says it was used as a barracks during the First War.’
‘Yes I know, it was one of the few things my grandfather would talk about in relation to the war. That, his medals and limp.’
‘Ye waddent be here if it wasn’t for a mad Irishman,’ he’d say. ‘Gave me a limp, but saved me life.’
‘An Irishman? Did he ever mention his name?’
‘Paddy I think. Maybe there’s something in there. He wrote a lot of letters to his mam when he was in hospital.’
Katie rummaged, reading old letters and diaries.
‘Look mam,’ she said, handing a letter over.
‘I haven’t me glasses on, you read it to me, pet.’
‘OK. “Hello mam, I’m finally back in England, in a hospital. Well, they call it a hospital but really it’s a big posh house. Lotherton Hall, near Leeds. I’m treated very well and am able to take a few more steps every day. They say I might be home by Christmas if I keep going as I am. I’m still saying my prayers as you asked. You, me dad and Michael are included. I hope he’s coping better with the one arm. I’m also praying for Corporal Connolly’s family. He lost his life saving mine…” Did you hear that mam? Corporal Connolly.’
‘Yes, but what?’
‘We’ve found a relative of Peter’s from Ireland who fought in the war. His name was Connolly; John Connolly.’
‘It’s a common name, there must have been lots of Connolly’s in the war.’
‘Maybe, but it’s such a coincidence. We’ll have to look into it.’
Written in a school exercise book, Private George ‘Geordie’ Wainwright from Boldon, told the story of his last two days at war. Katie and her mam cried as they read it.
Daniel came home from school. ‘Did granny have the medals mam?’
‘They’re on the table, together with an old exercise book and letter. We’ll need your computer.’
Corporal John Daniel Connolly 24th (Tyneside Irish) Brigade. Enlisted: November 1914. Died of his wounds: October 1st 1918.
‘You’re sure there are no other “Connollys” who died on that date?’ Peter was on the phone to someone at the ‘Durham at War’ project. ‘Great, you’ve been very helpful. Thank you.’
‘There was no other Corporal Connolly in the Tyneside Irish. They have records of 3 Privates and one Sergeant. Most had been wounded earlier in the war and were not present in 1918. It has to be him, there’s no other explanation.’
‘My God. Pete, do you realise what this means?’ Katie said. ‘I’m only here because John Connolly, your great, great grandfather saved my great, great grandfather’s life. If George Wainwright had died that day, there would be no me, no us, no Daniel, his sister or this little one.’ She cupped her hands around the bump in her abdomen.
Peter held out his arms, pulled her gently towards him and held her tight. She sobbed into his protective shoulder.
On November 11th 2018, the Murphy and Wainwright families congregated with thousands of others at Littlehaven, in South Shields. The Armistice Day centenary celebrations began with a beacon being lit at 6 o’clock; the same time as thousands of others throughout the country.
‘That’s Tommy the Trumpeter,’ Daniel said, as the host for the evening came on stage.
‘He hasn’t been called that for years,’ his granny replied.
‘It’s still him,’ said Daniel. ‘He’s great. We used to go and see him at the Amphitheatre.’
They listened to the choir singing and a lad with a banjo performing ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary.’ Katie wiped away a tear as she thought of John Connolly, who never made that long, long way back home, nor saw his wife and son again.
They turned towards the sea and watched the firework display, cleverly co-ordinated with wartime songs and marches. Star bursts showered the harbour with sparkles, not shrapnel. Katie listened to the cries of joy from children and repeated “wows” from parents. Amidst the bangs and crackles she thought of a young, dying soldier from Boldon, calling for his mam in the Flanders mud. She thought of a selfless act which brought another Geordie home to his mam, and a future with a family of his own.
When the eleven gun salute fell silent, the bugler had played the last post and the final hum of the bagpipe’s ‘Flower of the Forest’ had faded, they walked onto the beach.
Daniel had made a special paper poppy wreath at school. He placed it on the sand in front of the incoming tide.
‘How true it is that they gave their tomorrows for our todays,’ Pete said. ‘There are at least twenty-five people who have lived or who are alive today, thanks to John Connelly.’
‘I owe my life to him,’ said Katie.
‘Me too,’ said Daniel, ‘and granny Wainwright. We’ll always remember him won’t we mam?’
‘Of course Daniel. How can we forget? You share his birthday and also one of his names. Me and your dad have decided to name your new brother, John. So John Daniel Connolly will live on, in John and Daniel Murphy. He will always be with us.’
‘If we have another baby after John, can we call him George?’
Katie and Pete exchanged glances. Pete coughed.
‘You’re getting a bit ahead of yourself there son,’ Pete said. ‘Perhaps we’ll call this one John George.’