A Trip Through the Trenches

Memories of a 2016 trip to Flanders and the Somme flooded back as Ireland and the world commemorated the 100th anniversary of the ending of the First World War on Sunday last.

At the Royal Munster Fusiliers Memorial in Ypres.

At the Royal Munster Fusiliers Memorial in Ypres.


IRELAND and the world commemorated the 100th anniversary of the ending of the First World War on Sunday.
Regardless of how many hours of commemorative events we watch or how many accounts from the ‘war to end all wars’ that we read, it’s still difficult to fully grasp the enormity of what took place from July 28th 1914 – November 11th 1918. In his speech at a State commemoration at Glasnvein Cemetery on Sunday, President Michael D Higgins referred to a reticence over many years in Ireland to recognise the human reality of World War I and those who fought and died in it.

He spoke of a form of ‘official amnesia’ that had left a blank space in our public memory, but said this had now changed as Irish people had discovered a greater insight.Thankfully, as a nation, we have now given Irish soldiers who fought in World War I the recognition which they undoubtedly deserve.Dungarvan’s fantastic memorial to the Waterford people who died in World War I is welcome proof of this.

The impressive black granite wall, located beside King John’s Castle, is inscribed with almost 1,100 names and became a reality thanks to the work of the Waterford Memorial committee chaired by Fine Gael TD John Deasy.
In February 2016, as part of a group of journalists and travel professionals travelling courtesy of GTI Tours, I had the opportunity to explore Waterford and Ireland’s connections to World War I by visiting various different locations across Flanders and the Somme.

The grave of Waterford’s John Condon.

The grave of Waterford’s John Condon.


One of the highlights of the trip (if you could call it that) was our visit to the grave of Waterford’s John Condon.
The grave of Private John Condon, who died in Flanders in 1915, is the most visited grave in Poelkapelle Cemetery which is located near Ypres in Belgium.At first glance, John Condon’s grave is not distinguishable from the rows and rows of identical white headstones which are located in the expansive cemetery.
However, the inscription on his headstone clearly differentiates him from all those buried around him: ‘J. Condon, Royal Irish Regiment, 24th May 1915, Age 14’.

John Condon was the youngest recorded casualty on the Allied side in World War I.He lied about his age to join the Royal Irish Regiment as a reservist in 1913.He arrived in France in December 1914 and was attached to the Second Battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment.In April and May 1915, he was involved in the Second Battle of Ypres when the Germans used poison gas to attack the Allies’ position.He died in a gas attack on May 24th – the second last day of the battle.For most fourteen year olds, their primary concerns probably revolve around exams and socialising.It’s hard to imagine what must have been going through the mind of 14 year old John as he left his home in Ballybricken and made his way to battle.

As I stood at his grave on a freezing cold day in the wide, open expansive lands of Flanders, I tried to imagine the conditions which must have been endured by those who fought in the War.
The grave alongside John Condon’s in Poelkapelle Cemetery belongs to Private T. Carthy who was 47 when he died.So, here was a fourteen year old boy from Ballybricken fighting alongside grown men, some of whom were thirty (or more) years his senior.While most Waterford people are familiar with the name John Condon, I was delighted to learn that his name is also well-known throughout Belgium.In fact, our tour guide Simon had a vast knowledge of John Condon and informed us of a book by a Belgian journalist based on the soldier’s short life which is popular amongst Belgian schoolchildren.

Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery.

Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery.


It’s fitting that a specially commissioned memorial to John Condon was unveiled in his home city in 2014.
Meanwhile, in 2016, one of the most poignant stories associated with World War I was also commemorated in Waterford.The Collins brothers were remembered by the people of Waterford and the Waterford Civic Trust with the unveiling of a Blue Plaque on the street where the family lived.Six Collins brothers from Philip Street fought in World War I and four of them were killed. – Stephen Collins on 19th October 1914, Michael Collins on 8th of May 1915, John Collins on 9th of September 1916 and Patrick Collins on 29th of March 1918.

The Irish links to World War I can be clearly seen in the numerous Irish surnames inscribed on headstones and memorials throughout the battlefield sites, including many Waterford names such as Foley, Power, Walsh, McGrath etc.Willie Redmond’s grave in Locre cemetery represents another well documented Waterford connection to World War I.Major Willie Redmond MP was a Catholic nationalist politician, a prominent Home Ruler and a former associate of Parnell who was imprisoned three times for taking part in Land League agitation.His elder brother John Redmond was MP for Waterford City from 1891-1918.

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