Thursday, November 11, 2010

One WWI story among tens of thousands - my wife's great grandfather

I read Lucinda O'Sullivan's post on her uncle who died during WWI I wanted to read my July 2009 post on our search for my wife's great-grandfather's grave. Only it's no longer on the system at Irish Central, so I reposted it here.

Cpl. Patrick Conway, d. 28-APR-16
One of the great things about studying family history is that you find that members of your family did things that make you wonder what they were thinking, what drove them. Often they did things that don't fit the general historic themes you learn about in school and through books.

For my wife and I this process started with regards to Patrick Conway back at the end of May when we first found her great grandparents' census form on the 1911 Census web site. Patrick was "head of family", a "bricklayer's labourer", had been married for nine years and had four children. The oldest child, my wife's grandmother, was nearly 7.

It wasn't even that anything we found was all that surprising, but my wife had never really thought about Patrick Conway other than as the man who was her father's grandfather and that he died in the First World War. The census somehow brought him to life.

We have few hard facts, but we believe Patrick served with the British Army in the Boer War in South Africa around 1900. We also believe he was a member of the Citizen's Army - a worker's militia born out of the Lockout of 1913.

Now that's interesting because in Irish history the Citizen's Army and the British Army ended up on opposite sides during the 1916 Rising, but that was all in the future when Patrick Conway enlisted in January 1915.

So, he was in the British Army, left, married, had a family, worked as a bricklayer, joined the Citizen's Army and joined the British Army again. As my wife thought about all these things and the fact that he was around 38 years old when he (re)enlisted in the Army, the main question was: why? Why did Patrick Conway, a 38-year-old husband and father of four decide to go to war?

And really there was only one answer. He must have been out of work. As a friend of mine said to me recently when I told him this story, "What employer would hire a 38-year-old militant trade unionist bricklayer's laborer?" So simple and straight-forward that it has to be true.

They were harsh times and he probably realized that the army at least offered a wage and, even in death, a pension. Something for his family to live on.

That man was the father of my wife's grandmother, somebody she knew well, but who had never talked about these things. This is why my wife had to go to Bethune, France to visit his grave. We were going to be too near to let the chance slip by.

Bethune is only about an hour over the border from Ypres so we changed our plans to include a visit there. Unlike all the other British military cemeteries that I saw, Bethune is a local cemetery, with a war graves section. It is mostly local French people who are buried there. The war graves aren't exclusively British either. Most of them are British, but there are French and German soldiers buried there as well.

The Commonwealth War Graves in Bethune Cemetery
We found Patrick Conway's grave and found that he was buried near four other members of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, who all died within a day or two of each other. We guessed that they were all injured in the same engagement, but we have no way of knowing. More research.