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  • Writer's pictureStephen Callaghan

The Great War and the McDonalds of Birr, County Offaly

The McDonald family of Birr.

A few years ago I came across a single 1914-15 Star awarded to Private Frederick McDonald of the 2nd Battalion, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. Some basic research showed that Frederick was born in Birr, and that he’d been killed in action during the Great War.

Further research unravels a forgotten story, which gives insight into the life of Frederick and his family. A story not too dissimilar among the many lower class Catholic families in Birr, as serving in the British Army was a source of steady employment and a means to support a family.

Frederick was born in Birr on 4 August 1894, his parents were George McDonald and Mary McDonald (née Jones) of Sandymount Street. George was a generally labourer and an active member of the militia, the 3rd Battalion, Leinster Regiment having joined in 1884. Mary was born in either England or Wales and worked as a laundress.

Frederick was one of ten children, he had four older brothers. With his brothers he was educated in the Presentation Brothers School at Moorpark having been registered as a pupil on 5 August 1897. His attendance was quite poor only being 3 days for his first year, no attendance in his second year and 136 days in his final year.

With the outbreak of the Second Anglo-Boer War in 1899, the British Army urgently needed reinforcements to fight the conflict in South Africa, this resulted with the local militia volunteering for active service overseas, which resulted in George being absent from his family for two years, the militia returning in May 1902. Mary would have had to look after her family by herself, perhaps with assistance from older children.

Once Frederick finished with school it is likely he would have ended up working as a labourer, as his family wouldn’t have had the means to further his education, especially with the death of his father in 1909 and later death of his mother in 1911. This changed when another option opened up to him, when he became old enough to join the army in 1913. The army would have been something Frederick was quite familiar with having grown up in a garrison town and seeing soldiers about the place. His is dad and their neighbours in Sandymount such as the Edward Long and Anthony Nevin had also served, his older brother Henry had also only joined the army in 1908, this would have no doubt influenced Frederick’s decision to join. This would provide him with regular meals a roof over his head and a steady income. Although still only 17 he would have been easy able to lie about his age to the recruiter. Frederick enlisted in Birr and joined the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, a fine historic regiment of the British Army, his service number being 10555 put his date of enlistment around early to mid 1913.

With the outbreak of the Great War there was a huge recruiting campaign for Lord Kitcheners New Armies, which drastically increase the fighting capacity of the British Army for a large scale industrial war, the likes of which the world had not seen before. With this in mind it is not surprising that two other McDonalds joined up, John serving with the Royal Field Artillery and Edward in the Royal Irish Rifles.

Frederick landed in France with on 24 November 1914, he was part of the 2nd Battalion, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. At his stage of the war Frederick was probably aware that his older brother Henry and his sister’s husband also named Henry, whom were both soldiers in the 2nd Battalion, Leinster Regiment were missing in action. Both were later confirmed as having being killed in action on 20 October 1914 during the Battle of Armentières, where the Leinsters were part of the attack on the village of Prémesque.

The Inniskillings endured a difficult cold winter in the trenches. In May 1915 they took part in a major battle, the Battle of Fesburbert. This was the first battle where the British would be attacking at night as the previous daylight attack on 9th May had failed. Before the assault a 60 hour long artillery bombardment took place to soften up the German lines along the planed 3 mile front. The night of the 15th May the attack was launched, the Inniskillings gaining significant ground during the attack but also suffering heavy losses. Private McDonald, one of the casualties on the second night of the battle. The word back at home in Birr would be that he was missing in action, later being presumed killed in action on the night of the 16th May. In total 252 officers and other ranks died, and several hundred wounded over the nights of the 15th and 16th May, an enormous loss for the battalion. The village of Fesburbert was ultimately captured after renewed attacks, but the cost was not light with some 16600 British causalities.

The two remaining McDonald brothers were more fortunate and survived the war. Private McDonald’s name is commemorated on the Le Touret Memorial, France, his brother Henry and brother in law Henry are both buried in Canadian Cemetery No. 2 cemetery, Neuville-Saint-Vaast, France.

This is just one story of many, which revealed itself from the name impressed on bronze campaign medal.

Private McDonald's 1914-15 Star

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