A WW1 Soldier from Mallow
Robert Frewen, Ireland
Extreme left – Paddy Kelly
My maternal great-grandfather Peter Kelly (1854-1913) and his wife Anne (nee McDonnell) were from Mallow, Co. Cork and were working in the Post Service in London when they married, during 1881, in Lambeth. A year later they returned to Fair St., Mallow for the birth of their first child Ann. Their next child, Patrick, always known as Paddy, was born in August 1883, named after his paternal grandfather, a licensed victualler, who lived on William O’Brien Street, Mallow.
When growing up Paddy had the reputation in the family of being a “bit wild”, but it still came as a surprise when aged 16 in 1900 he ran off and enlisted in the British Army. Some months later his parents “got him out” and in the belief that an outdoor job rather than school or office work would suit him, arranged for him to join the Telegraph Engineering branch of the Post Office. In November 1903 he again enlisted in the Irish Guards, serving for three years. During his visits home on leave, he would meet his Fitzgibbon cousins, one, Gerald, would later attain the rank of Captain in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and be killed at Cambrai in November 1917. Another family friend was local priest Fr. Christy Sheehan who served and survived the Somme and was decorated with the Military Cross for gallant conduct.
During Paddy’s time in the Guards his mother died and when he left the army he never settled; instead he sailed to America in 1910, initially joining the family of his Mallow-born uncle, James McDonnell in Brooklyn, New York. He worked as a telegraph linesman and was in America when his father died on 10 August 1913.
A fortnight after Britain’s declaration of war in August 1914 Paddy travelled to Quebec and enlisted at Valcartier camp, joining the 13th Battalion, Canadian Infantry – the ‘Royal Highlanders of Canada’. Why the Highlanders is unknown; the Signal Corps would appear more appropriate given his work experience as a linesman, although his past military service would have been a big advantage to the Highlanders. His enlistment papers show him to be well built, tall at six feet and fit, and his only distinguishing marks were a tattoo of a woman encircled by British and American flags and four vaccination marks on his left forearm.
After a few weeks of basic training the 13th Battalion, total strength numbered 45 officers and 1,112 other ranks, boarded the R.M.S. Alaunia and crossed the Atlantic in a 30 ship convoy. One must wonder why Paddy enlisted – duty, adventure, or a means of returning home, expecting – as most did – that the War would soon be over. On the 14th October the troops arrived at Plymouth, later camping on Salisbury Plain, where despite almost incessant rain they underwent more training. It probably was from here Paddy sent his group photograph – with friends in uniform – to his young sister, saying he hoped to visit her if leave could be obtained. She was my grandmother, Nina, then 22, the youngest of the family, living on her own in Mallow while working in its post office; the previous year her father and a brother, Peter, had died, leaving her with only a newly married sister Anne; another brother, Frank, had gone to New York in 1907 where he later became shipping manager for Wrigley’s Chewing Gum.
Paddy’s sisters Ann (left) and Nina Kelly.
Paddy was not granted leave – on February 11th 1915 he with his regiment marched the 60 miles to Avonmouth and boarded the S.S. Novian for France. Shortly after sailing a full gale blew and the ship was forced to heave-to in the Atlantic, as there was concern that the severe rolling would cause injury to the horses that were aboard. Alongside them in the crowded, stuffy holds almost all the men were very seasick.
Arrival in France
On the 15th February the ship eased into the harbour of St. Nazaire, loudly greeted by a big crowd. Fruit was thrown up onto the decks in a gesture of good will, while the soldiers reciprocated with coins and cigarettes. That evening the Battalion took a train for the long journey to the Front. Each man carried his kit, rifle and 150 rounds of ammunition – about 80 lbs. The train slowly crept northwards, with brief stops to give the troops a chance to get some food and to stretch their legs. Exercise stops were as necessary as meals, because the cars were box-wagons, known as “40 hommes, 8 chevaux,” (40 men, 8 horses) and allowed limited space for movement and none for even the most basic exercise.
A “40 hommes, 8 chevaux” boxcar being used in WW2 (Imperial War Museum)
Flanders, four days and 750 kilometres later, was reached on the evening of February 19th. Paddy’s next billet was the village of Fletre, reached after a 10 kilometre march in the rain, the black sky lit up periodically by brilliant flashes, later followed by the rumble of distant guns.
Gas – a new weapon
The rules of the Hague Convention on warfare forbade the use of poison gases launched by explosives or projectiles. A German chemist, Dr Fritz Haber had the idea that chlorine gas could be released from pressurised cylinders when a suitable breeze was blowing, bringing the gas-cloud across the opposing trenches, forcing the troops to leave their positions. Chlorine was readily available in industrial Germany – in the years before 1914 Germany was producing huge amounts for use as a bleaching agent in their paper, textile and dye industries.
At this stage of the war the Front was held by Belgian, British, Canadian and French troops. Six weeks before Paddy reached the Front at the Ypres Salient, by 10 March 1915 German Pioneer and Infantry Regiments had placed almost 6,000 cylinders containing 168 tons of chlorine into position, along with the attendant piping. The Pioneer troops then sat and waited for orders and for the wind to shift to a suitable direction.
On the Front Line
In March it was announced that the Canadians were considered fit to take over a section of the line and they marched the 30 kms. to the reserve lines. From the direction taken it was obvious that the Battalion was headed for some part of the Ypres Salient, which, even at that comparatively early date in the War, possessed a sinister reputation.
On the night of Wednesday, April 21st, the 13th Battalion moved up into the line and took over a series of trenches from the 14th Battalion, Royal Montreal Regiment. Paddy, who had several years’ military experience, would have noted the trenches were rather flimsily constructed for a front line position and not deep – there was a continuous parapet of sandbags, too thin to be bullet proof and useful only to hide movement. There was practically no rear parapet and no shell proof dugouts – any attempt to dig down was frustrated by the presence a few inches below the surface of water and hastily buried bodies from the era of the French occupants. . Conditions were horrible – one Colonel wrote: “The ground on which we are fighting is awful. There is a crust about a foot thick …. but underneath there is bottomless mud. Men standing in trenches four or five feet deep are almost unable to get out, and gradually sink until it takes several men to extricate them.” Rats abounded and in an effort to reduce their number the men used to fix a piece of cheese to the end of a bayonet and then skewer them.
The First Gas Attack
France’s 45th Colonial Infantry Division, which was a combination of French territorial and Algerian troops (Turcos) held the line with the British and Canadians. On the 22nd April the Germans opened their attack with a heavy artillery bombardment, directed at the Canadian and French lines. With minimal protection in their trenches Paddy and his comrades underwent two hours of heavy shelling, after which the Germans released a strange opaque cloud of greenish-yellow fumes.
A gas attack in Flanders
A light breeze from the north-east wafted this cloud towards the trenches. Rolling across the battlefield the cloud first reached the Turcos to the Highlanders’ left. They thought it was a smokescreen to disguise the forward movement of German troops and commenced firing into it. When the gas reached them, the Turcos had no protection. Blinded, coughing and choking many fell in agony and perished miserably. Those who escaped the first discharge would not wait for another – almost all fled, and a Canadian officer later wrote ‘no man has been found to blame them.’ Immediately part of the front line was gone and a 4 mile gap left open in Ypres’ defences.
A German perspective
A German soldier, part of the Pioneer unit in Ypres, later wrote about the event:
That day was a Thursday in April 1915. Finally we decided to release the gas……. It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining. Where there was grass, it was blazing green. We should have been going to a picnic……we sent the infantry back and opened the valves with strings. …… the gas started toward the French, everything was quiet. We all wondered what was going to happen. As this great cloud of green gray gas was forming in front of us, we suddenly heard the French yelling. In less than a minute, they started with the most rifle and machine gun fire that I had ever heard……… I had never heard such a noise. The hail of bullets going over our heads was unbelievable, but it was not stopping the gas. The wind kept moving the gas towards the French lines. We heard the cows bawling, and the horses screaming. ……… Then everything was quiet again. ……..What we saw was total death. Nothing was alive. All of the animals had come out of their holes to die. Dead rabbits, moles, rats, and mice were everywhere. …….. the bodies of French soldiers were everywhere. …… You could see where men had clawed at their faces, and throats, trying to get their breath. Some had shot themselves. ……. Everything, even the insects were dead. ….We started counting the casualties. …..That night we guessed over 20,000 French soldiers, and even more town people had died. ……All of us went back to our camps and quarters wondering what we had done. What was next? We knew what happened that day had to change things.
A British trench after a gas attack later in WW1.
Attack & Counterattack
The advancing Germans were shocked by what they found, with dead soldiers everywhere and others dying, struggling for breath, suffocating in agony and terror. They became so afraid of catching up with the gas as it rolled on before them that they advanced only two miles and stopped. The Canadians, realizing that a German advance could encircle about 50,000 Canadian and British troops, remained in position. Through the night they not only fought hard to close the gap but mounted counter-attacks. The next morning the Germans attacked again – a heavy bombardment was followed by another gas attack. Retching and gasping for air through muddy handkerchiefs, the Canadians held the line. It was in this action that Paddy’s comrade, Lance-Corporal Frederick Fisher became the first Canadian-born man to win the Victoria Cross.
The success of their gas attack was as big a surprise to the Germans as the destruction it caused was to the Allies. The Germans had regarded this first attack as an experiment and although gasmasks had been developed years before for use in industry, none had been issued to their troops. The use of gas on that day changed the character of warfare forever.
Field-Marshal Sir John French in his official despatch wrote as follows:
“In spite of the danger to which they were exposed, the Canadians held their ground with a magnificent display of tenacity and courage; and it is not too much to say that the bearing and conduct of these splendid troops averted a disaster which might have been attended with the most serious consequences.”
The number of French and Algerian soldiers killed that day is estimated to be about 10,000. The number of civilians and animals killed is undetermined. The Canadian Battalion had paid a very heavy price – of its 45 officers and 1,112 other ranks it lost 12 officers and 454 men, very nearly half its fighting strength. Paddy Kelly was not among the survivors. Less than seven months in the Canadian army and four months before his thirty-second birthday, he survived just two days at the Front..
Like many of the other Canadian soldiers who fell in the first three days of the Second Battle of Ypres, Paddy’s body was never recovered. His death is listed on the Menin Gate, Memorial, in Ypres, Belgium.
Notes & sources
Facts and clues from the author’s family records with additional information extracted from the following sources:
Patrick Kelly’s Service Number in the Canadian Army was 24955
General Records Office, Ireland
Register of Church of the Sacred Heart Lambeth, London.
Census records, National Archives, Ireland,
Parish Registers, Mallow, Co. Cork.
Veterans Affairs, Canada.
The Tablet 20th October 1917 page 22. Give more detail on Father C. S. Sheehan,
The 13th Battalion Royal Highlanders of Canada 1914-1919 Edited and compiled by R. C. Fetherstonhaugh Published by The 13th Battalion, Royal Highlanders of Canada 1925
YPRES AND THE BATTLES OF YPRES. Michelin Illustrated Guides to the Battlefields (1914–1918). Published 1919 by Michelin & Cie., Clermont-Ferrand
War Diary of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade, April 1915: Diary of Operations 22nd April to 5th May, 1915 National Archives, Kew, Surrey, England
History of the Canadian Forces in the Great War, 1914–1919. Vol I. Duguid, AF. Ottawa, Ontario, Canada: King’s Printer; 1947.
History of the Medical Management of Chemical Casualties, Benjamin A. Hill Jr, DO, MS, Med.
The Use of Poison Gas in World War I and the Effect on Society. Walter S. Zapotoczny sourced at http://www.wzaponline.com on 21 April 2013