Monday, July 28, 2014

'The big guns are coughing...': Commemorating Irish lost in World War One

"I am calm and happy, but desperately anxious to live. The big guns are coughing and smacking their shells, which sound for all the world like overhead express trains...Somewhere the Choosers of the Slain, as in our Norse story, are touching with invisible wands those who are to die."

                                                                                                                  —Thomas Michael Kettle, 
                                                                                                                   in the field 8 September 1916.

These words of poet Thomas Michael Kettle, a first cousin in my maternal line, were written in a letter to his elder brother Laurence the night before Tom was killed. Tom's words speak to the experience of many like him who found themselves on the battlefields of Europe during World War One. They are words that emphasize the madness of war, the random nature of death in the field, and the sense that little was within the control of the soldiers as they languished in the trenches or moved through No Man's Land. As we mark the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War One, there is more than ever before an emphasis on commemorating the loss of those individuals who sacrificed their lives for the freedom of Europe.

Since 2010, I have written a number of articles about the Irish and World War One, including those about members of my family who made the ultimate sacrifice during the war. As a part of the first Geneabloggers World War One Challenge, I have chosen seven blog posts and listed the URLs below. I hope you will revisit these stories — just click on the blue titles — along with the stories of the family members of many other bloggers, a listing of which appears on Bill West's blog West In New England.

This call for volunteers appears in
The Daily News and Leader newspaper,
London, England, 1 September 1914.
The war was just weeks old and already
the number of recruits was climbing toward
what would eventually be in the millions. 
1. ’On a celtic cross, a young man in a photograph: World War One’

2. ‘It all began with a bronze plaque: Remembering William Dunne 1880-1914’

3. 'A portrait trimmed in black crepe': William Francis Pell: 1891-1915

4. ‘William Dunne & William Pell: Following the road of my two Williams’

5. ‘Too many names upon these walls’: World War One Commemoration

6. ‘A very special journey with a remarkable book of poetry’: Tom Kettle 1880-1916

7. ‘Commemoration in the landscape: The Irish National War Memorial Gardens’



  1. Poor Tom! to write how he wanted to live on the eve of his death, touched by those invisible wands. Such a mundane idea almost for such potency - coughing guns, as if they were not so fierce.

    1. Thanks very much for your comments Pauleen. It seems as though Tom knew the Choosers of the Slain were coming for him with those invisible wands. All of his letters, beginning around six days before his death, bear the same sort of presentiment. I feel as though I can hear those guns coughing out those shells every time I read those words.


  2. Jenn, an interesting set of post, the first one is still my favorite. I hadn't heard of the choosers of the slain before, an interesting idea.

    1. Thanks very much for your comments Charlotte. I like the first one too. The Choosers of the Slain are — as Tom notes — from Norse mythology. They are said to be the Valkyries who hover over the fields of battle choosing whose souls they will take to Valhalla. I was really struck by the reference to Norse mythology given that Tom was Catholic.



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