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048 John Condon and the piece of boot numbered 6322

John Condon grave

John Condon grave

The Irish, young and old, are willing to sacrifice

It is Sunday 23 May 1915. It is the 48th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Italy declares war to Austria-Hungary.

With a gas attack the Germans try to capture the ridge of Bellewaerde, but due to a shortage of ammunition the Second Battle of Ypres is going to bleed to death.

Again the Russians lose ground in Galicia.

On the Gallipoli peninsula the Turks and the Anzacs agree on a nine-hour ceasefire so that they can bury their dead.

British submarine E11 under the command of Martin Nasmith, torpedoes several Turkish ships in the Dardanelles.

British prime minister H.H. Asquith presents his new coalition cabinet of his own Liberals and Conservatives.

Winston Churchill is replaced as head of the admiralty by Arthur James Balfour, while Sir Henry Jackson is appointed First Sea Lord and David Lloyd George will lead the new Ministry of Munitions.

22 French airplanes bomb chlorine gas factories at Ludwigshafen am Rhein.

German-Austrian troops attack Przemyśl.

And near Ypres – so the story goes – a fourteen-year-old boy from Ireland is killed, John Condon.

It is perhaps cynical, but a regiment of dead guys in a row creates less emotion than one single boy of fourteen under a white tombstone. ‘Age 14’, it says on John Condon’s grave. You can find it on Poelcapelle Cemetery, not far from Ypres in Flanders. It is a place of interest, not to say a visitor attraction, for which coachloads of schoolchildren regularly queue. After all they could have been John Condon, even though Johnnie came from a Southern Irish seaport, called Waterford.

Johnnie is also neatly buried in a row. And his grave is like any other grave, be it of a soldier or of an officer. A white erect tombstone. The top is slightly convex. It is 81 centimetres tall, 38 centimetres wide and 7.5 centimetres thick. Those are the measurements that go with death for King and Country, even though the poor wretch under is only Known unto God.

Most tombstones are made of stone from the quarries in Portland in Southern England, but if a substitute is needed, the choice is usually Italian marble from Botticino. This type of marble is less easily affected by algae and mosses. The staff of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission guard all these white headstones on 23,000 cemeteries, spread around the world as a remainder of small and great wars. The headstone of an Englishman shows a rose or a lion, a Scot has Saint Andrew’s cross or a thistle, an Irishman a harp, a Canadian the maple leaf, an Australian the rising sun, a New Zealander a fern, a South African a springbok and a Newfoundlander a caribou. Plenty of symbols in the Commonwealth.

There is possibly one grave from the Great War which is better known than that of John Condon, The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster abbey in London. On 11 November 1920 a skeleton without a name was buried there.

The life story behind these bones is not known, contrary to John Condon’s. It seems like it can be told quickly. And that is exactly what the Dutch singer Bram Vermeulen has done in his moving song, Johnnie. Bram imagined himself a reincarnation of a Walloon officer during the First World War. He sang: ‘Vertel van die verschrikking. Maar niet aan mij. Ik hoef niet meer te weten. Ik was erbij’ (Tell us about the horrors. But don’t tell it to me. I don’t want to know more. I was there). Think of it what you want, but it is with good reason that Bram’s songs about the Great War are so powerful. Reliving precedes reincarnation – or the other way around.

This is the first stanza of Johnnie.

When he had lied about his age

he was quite tall, only fourteen years old

But they could use them all, so there

no one would ask for your age any more.

A few lines further down the song Johnnie gets to know the war.

Already a week later Johnnie is numbed

He is completely out

Stunned by the cold, the mud and the bombs

He only wanted it to end.

 When the order came to attack

Johnnie was like an obedient dog

He managed to advance twenty yards or so

When a bullet found his exhausted body

Is that a bullet Bram sings about? Didn’t John Condon suffocate on 24 May 1915 during the last German gas attack in the Second Battle of Ypres? Didn’t he get killed near Mouse Trap Farm and wasn’t he found eight years later by the side of the Ypres to Zonnebeke railway. The body collectors knew that it was Johnnie because of a ‘piece of boot’ which was found near the remains. On this piece of boot was the service number 6322, which belonged to Private John Condon, Royal Irish Regiment. It was the boy who had lied about his age, so they put on his grave: Age 14.

Now apparently they kept a register of births in Waterford. A birth certificate testifies that in October 1896 a certain John Condon, son of John and Catherine Condon, was added to the register. This John Condon junior was not fourteen in May 1915, but eighteen years old. John, however, did have a younger brother, Patrick. Could The Waterford News have been right after all in 1938? They wrote that this Patrick shipped himself to the war as a stowaway and died as his older brother Private J. Condon. The newspaper called it a ‘boyish adventure. Source of the story was Nicholas Condon, the older cousin Patrick was supposed to run away with.

Confusion everywhere. Is it John or Patrick Condon who is buried at Poelcapelle Cemetery? Or neither? After digging it up the number 6322 on the piece of boot was linked to the Royal Irish Regiment, but John Condon’s battalion never fought on the spot where the skeleton was exhumed by the piece of boot. The second battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles, however, did fight there. And a certain Patrick Fitzsimmons was one of its members. Killed In Action on 16 June 1915, and his service number was –you have guessed it – 6322.

Patrick Fitzsimmons is one of the 54,896 names on the walls of the Menin Gate at Ypres, a majestic but pompous memorial to the missing soldiers. It was unveiled in 1927 by Field Marshal Herbert Plumer. ‘He is not missing, he is here’, said Plumer that day about all the soldiers that seemed to have vanished from the face of the earth. But where was Patrick Fitzsimmons laid to rest, ‘Age 35’? As a name on Menin Gate or as a dead body in John Condon’s grave at Poelcapelle Cemetery?

Flemish writer and journalist Geert Spillebeen provides us with some guidance in this matter. Not only did he write a children’s book about John Condon, entitled Age 14, but he also contacted relatives in Ireland. However, they did not tell him what it was all about, but to Spillebeen the story of the fourteen-year-old is still credible. ‘Whatever way you look at it, the case will always be very complex’, Spillebeen hastens to add. ‘One should not forget that they were troubled times for Ireland. Taking part in the First World War in British service was not talked about.’

Of all the questions around Johnnie the most intriguing is still: why would a boy of fourteen choose for war? Perhaps because he was attracted by adventure. Or it may have given him an opportunity to get away from the grey misery of Waterford. Maybe Johnnie’s love for his country, young as he was, was overflowing and in that war he thought he could bring freedom closer to his Irish people.

After all, that had been the message John Redmond and his brother Willie had addressed to all Irish boys. Both brothers were parliamentarians in Westminster. John Redmond had been leader of the Home Rule Party since 1900. This party advocated by legal means Ireland’s independence within the British Empire. Home Rule seemed to be within easy reach on the eve of the Great War. Only few Irish considered an armed rebellion. The Redmond brothers were convinced that the outbreak of the war on the European continent would only speed up the Irish cause. The rule of thumb had always been that England’s problems offered opportunities to Ireland.

But the crack that ran through Ireland could not easily be removed. In the north Protestant Irish opposed the abolition of the union with Great Britain. This had even led to the paradoxical constitution of their own army. If Home Rule had to be prevented, Ulster Volunteers would take up arms against British troops if necessary. The response from the side of the Catholics was immediate. From 1913 Irish Volunteers were ready to defend Home Rule. Tens of thousands of boys from both camps, Ulster Volunteers and Irish Volunteers, flowed to the British ranks during the Great War. It is estimated that over 116,000 Irish fought in the trenches, slightly more Catholics than Protestants.

John Redmond encouraged the Irish Volunteers as follows in September 1914: ‘Go on drilling and make yourself efficient for the work, and then account for yourselves as men, not only in Ireland itself, but wherever the firing line extends in defence of right, of freedom and religion in this war. It would be a disgrace forever to our country otherwise.’ Also his own brother Willie Redmond felt it concerned him. He was already past fifty. Despite his parliamentarian background he had been in conflict with the British law for inflammatory actions a couple of times, but with full conviction he would leave for the front for the British empire. In November 1914 he addressed young people in Cork: ‘I do not say to you go, but grey haired and old as I am, I say come, come with me to the war.’

Willie Redmond was prepared to sacrifice his blood in British service for the Irish cause. That was a radically different choice from the one Irish nationalists behind the Easter Rising of 1916 made. But they, too, paid with their blood. The British mercilessly ended the revolt in the streets of Dublin.

Till the very last Willie Redmond thought a bridge could be built in the trenches between the north and the south of Ireland, between Catholics and Protestants. He goes over the top as a major on 9 June 1917, when the battle of Messines ridge rages. He is immediately hit in his wrist and his leg. He encourages his men to go on and is then taken to the field hospital at Loker. There he dies at the age of 56. His death arouses international emotion. The French will posthumously award major Redmond the Légion d’Honneur.

The grave of Willie Redmond, the old man, a war tourist attraction in the Flemish Westhoek, is less known than that of John Condon, the young boy. The tombstone is different: there is a cross on the grave of major Redmond, a devout Catholic. But it is especially remarkable because it is in a separate place, just outside Locre Hospice Cemetery. This isolated resting place has a symbolic value. Ireland separated itself from England soon after the war. And there is still no place for the boys that put on British uniforms in 1914-18, let alone for the old men who told them to do so.

When in 2003 it was suggested to build a memorial for John Condon in Waterford, there were plenty of protests. There was a letter-to-the-editor in the Waterford Today, that read as follows: ‘As a young Republic, we are a success, so instead of looking back at the mistakes of the men that fought in 1914-18, let us concentrate on making our land fit for heroes. The poor foolish men that listened to Redmond have all gone to their reward. Let them rest in peace.’

And yet on 18 May 2014 the John Condon Memorial was unveiled in Cathedral Square in Waterford, a four-metre-tall sculpture in honour of the ‘boy soldier’ John Condon, of Wheelbarrow Lane, Ballybricken.

Next week: Komitas Vardapet

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

018 Khudadad Khan and the apparent death of Hollebeke

Khudadad Khan

Khudadad Khan

Colonial troops on white battlefields 

 It is Sunday 25 October 1914. It is the 18th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The Belgians flood the area between the river Yser and the railway line to Diksmuide. 

On its six-day retreat Mackensen’s Ninth Army destroys all bridges, roads and railway connections in Poland.

In Sarajevo the murderer of Franz-Ferdinand and his wife Sophie only gets twenty years – Gavrilo Princip is too young for the death penalty.

In South Africa Louis Botha hunts for another Boer, the rebel leader Christiaan de Wet.

The British lose one of their dreadnoughts when on the Atlantic Ocean the Audacious hits a mine.

Turkish ships under German command attack Russian ports on the Black Sea.

Due to these setbacks for the Royal Navy prince Louis of Battenberg has to stand aside for Sir John Fisher as First Sea Lord.

Erich Ludendorff pleads to knock-out the Russians first, but chief of staff Erich von Falkenhayn gives priority to the conquest of the Channel ports.

Indian troops land in British East Africa.

And the British hold out in the First Battle of Ypres thanks to soldiers like Khudadad Khan.

The facts are absolutely heroic. Khudadad Khan received the Victoria Cross for his act of valour as the first Indian for a reason. The Victoria Cross is the highest British military decoration for bravery in the face of the enemy. It was presented to Khudadad by King George V himself.

On 31 October 1914 we see him lying in Hollebeke, a village of a few hundred souls, sitting close to Ypres. When the war is over, Hollebeke seems to be wiped off the face of the earth. But now the battle is still fresh and the ditch where Khudadad Khan is hiding can hardly be called a trench. The front is in full motion. The lines of defence are full of holes.

The Germans are coming on that last day of October, and there are a lot of them. Khudadad and his mates, however, decide not to yield. They man a hole with two machine guns. When the officer of their unit is knocked out wounded and the other machine gun is put out of order by a shell, Khudadad continues to fire at the onrushing Germans indefatigably.

When Khudadad is finally overrun, nobody is alive of his unit, a subdivision of the 129th Duke of Connaught’s Own Baluchis. Badly injured he pretends to be dead and the Germans leave him for dead. Then Khudadad manages to crawl back to his own ranks. He leaves his machine gun after putting it out of order.

There is nothing that can be said against the Victoria Cross for Khudadad Khan. The same goes for the Indian Order of Merit awarded to the Sikh who stabbed five Germans dead with his bayonet. When it broke off, he had picked up a sabre to continue his task. It took a year before the said hero had recovered sufficiently from his injuries to return to India. Also posthumously a lot of colonial honour could be shown. At the end of October 1914 at Mesen near Ypres another Sikh by the name of Kapur Singh went on fighting until even his last comrade had been killed. He refused to surrender and saved the last bullet in the Flemish mud for himself.

The British Indian army used its own terminology and hierarchy. Its soldiers were called sepoys. It also had its own military code. The Indian Corps had landed in Europe at Marseille. The final ride to the front was by English double decker buses.

Khudadad was a muslim Rajput from what is now the Pakistan province of Punjab. But among the Indians there were also Pashtuns, Dogras, Gurkhas from Nepal and Sikhs.

In the First World War British India, which comprised present-day India and Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and parts of Burma, provided about one and a half million soldiers to the British armies. Around 72,000 of them did not survive the war. Indians fought for the British Empire in the Middle East, in Mesopotamia, in East and West Africa and even in China. They found it hard to acclimatize in Flanders and the north of France. The culture shock was big. There is the story of a group of Sikhs who were received by monks in a monastery near Saint-Omer. The Sikhs were told that the images of the twelve apostles represented some kind of gurus to the christians. A war can produce peculiar forms of cultural understanding.

Within a month after the outbreak of the war the Indians were at the western front. It goes without saying that already in India British officers were given command of them. Generally speaking these officers tried to act as good family men with understanding for the typical customs and traditions of their fighters. Sikhs for example were  allowed to honour their five ks, the metal bracelet (kara), the dagger (kirpan), the underpants for fighters (kaccha), the small comb (kangha) and the long hair (kesh).

The death rate among the white commanding officers was high in the First Battle of Ypres, in which also Khudadad Khan got involved. The Indians stayed behind in a daze, in a country they did not know, in a war they did not understand. The losses among the Indians were substantial, not only because of the violence of war, but also as a result of illness. New troops had to be supplied from India. On 15 March 1915 Indian soldiers got entangled in the Battle of Neuve-Chapelle. The Indian Memorial for those Missing in Action is a reminder of this massacre in Northern France.

Over a month later British Indian troops became acquainted with gas as a warfare agent during the Second Battle of Ypres. They were spared nothing. In October 1915 the Indian foot soldiers were transported from the western front to Egypt, before their morale started to sink away in the mud of a new winter. Indian cavalry units were not to be conveyed to Egypt until 1918.

***

Unashamedly the French and British mobilized their colonial reserves. The Germans would not be a party to that. In Africa, however, they did use ‘their’ blacks, called askaris, but to the Germans it was unheard-of to bring them to Europe. Logistically this would also have been an impossible job. When the French deploy Africans after the war to guard the Rhineland, the Germans are utterly outraged. Schwarze Schande, they sneered in imitation of the artist Karl Götz, who chained a naked white woman to a black penis wearing a helmet.

What is racism? Throwing black and yellow races into your global conflict? Or deeming them unfit for the white business of war? As part of their divide and rule politics the British split up their peoples into valiant and unvaliant races. The Sikhs from the Punjab were considered their boldest subjects, who were also brought together in ethnically homogenous battalions as the 47th Sikhs. Maoris, for example, were part of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, be it as pioneers for the true soldiers, but the Australians would not even contemplate to supply their Aboriginals, no more than the half-breeds, with uniforms.

The First World War was essentially a European conflict. The old world could have fought it out themselves, but the Europeans dragged all other continents along into their battle. In 2008 the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres dedicated an exhibition to ‘the multicultural aspects of the First World War’. The compilers counted fifty cultures participating in the battle on Flemish soil. Zulus, Corsicans, Indians, Inuits, Catalans, Maoris, Chinese, Spahis…

Spahis? Desert horsemen from North Africa. Their role was limited to accompanying convoys of prisoners of war, but as they looked so colourful, they were photographed countless times. Also the Zouaves, North Africans of French origin, who held their own in the first two battles of Ypres, were quite a picture.

The New Zealand Maori Pioneer Battalion, which was sent to Gallipoli, was furthest away from home. Not only Maoris, the indigenous population of New Zealand, were part of it. Bits of land in the Pacific Ocean like Niue, the Cook Islands, Fiji and Tonga also sent a couple of hundreds of men. But the commander of the Samoan Expeditionary Force insisted that the Maoris with their alcoholic excesses were kept away from his boys. The Maoris were also suspected of spreading tuberculosis and other diseases among the ranks. There were also intercultural frictions of rather a trivial nature. The Maoris for example complained during their training about boots that were not suitable for ‘Native wear’.

Travelling from an island in the Pacific to a West Flanders trench, only Neil Armstrong’s trip to the moon is more breathtaking. Only one or two people have given this tragedy within a tragedy some thought: dying for somebody else’s native country. at the other end of the world. The Flemish priest Cyriel Buysse made the following reflection in the summer of 1917: ‘Later, when everything has passed, Belgian and French women will come and pray at the tombstones, adorned with fresh flowers, of their fallen  husbands and sons. But who will ever kneel at the abandoned graves of Mohammed or Ibrahim in Flemish earth?’

Buysse has not been fully right. Canadian Indians held a calling home ceremony in Ypres for their fallen ancestors in the first decade of the 21st century. Relatives of a Maori who was executed in Flanders visited his grave in 2007. They had brought a waka huia, a wooden box in which Maoris keep ceremonial objects. In the past few years Sikhs have been conspicuously present at the memorial services on 11 November, handing out leaflets with texts such as ‘Never forget the Sikh sacrifice for Europe’s freedom’. And Nepalese Ghurka, who were on a peace mission in Kosovo in the beginning of this millennium, visited the graves of their fellow countrymen in Flanders on the war mission of 14-18.

A sense of sadness may come over you on a desolate Flemish field, at the foot of a grave in a corner of a British cemetery which has Chinese characters on it. The Chinese were not supposed to fight, but worked behind the front. If a Chinese wore a ponytail, that would be the first thing he had to leave at home.

***

After his act of heroism Khudadad Khan rose from sepoy to subadar, a rank to be compared with that of captain in the British army. He recovered from the injuries he received at Hollebeke in an English hospital, after which he returned home and lived a long life. When in 1956 the recently founded Victoria Cross Association is having a tea party in Westminster Hall, Khudadad Khan comes along and draws up a chair as one of the 24 members, wearing the medal of honour on his chest. He dies in 1971 at the age of 84.

At home. Far away from Hollebeke, where in 1999 a memorial is erected for those strange men wearing turbans, baking big pancakes and singing strange songs together when darkness fell.

Next week: Maximilian von Spee

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

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