By Hugh Keane :
Many thanks to Hugh for sending this in.
New Zealanders in the 1916 Irish Rebellion By Hugh Keane :
A small silver cup awarded to Corporal Alexander Don is a poignant reminder of the involvement of a small group of New Zealand soldiers in the Irish Rebellion during the First World War. Much has been written about the 1916 Easter Rising, but the involvement of these five New Zealanders who assisted in the defence of Trinity College Dublin has never been widely known.
Figure 1: The Trinity College Commemorative Cup presented to Corporal Alexander Don NZEF
The Rising commenced on Easter Monday, 24 April 1916 when the new Irish Republic was proclaimed from the steps of Dublin’s General Post Office. The Irish force was composed of the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army, supported by Cumann na mBan (Nationalist Women’s League) and Na Fianna Eireann (Nationalist Boy Scouts). The Irish Nationalists, numbering around 1,500, quickly occupied buildings in the city centre causing widespread confusion to the public and British forces.
Key buildings occupied by the rebels included the General Post Office, the Four Courts, Boland’s Mill and the South Dublin Union workhouse. Lack of numbers prevented the occupation of other strategic buildings in Dublin. The rebels also advanced on Trinity College and the nearby Bank of Ireland, but the quick actions by university porters and Officer Training Corps cadets prevented the seizure of these buildings. By denying the rebels Trinity College, the staff and cadets also prevented the capture of 300 rifles from the university armoury.
The five New Zealanders who assisted in the defence of Trinity College were Sergeant Frederick Nevin from Christchurch, Corporal Alexander Don from Dunedin, Lance Corporal Finlay McLeod from Wellington, and Corporal John Garland and Private Edward Waring from Auckland. Both Nevin and Garland were medical orderlies, but their non-combatant status did not prevent them from picking up rifles. The other Dominion soldiers who assisted in the defence were six South Africans, two Canadians, and one Australian. The defenders of Trinity College initially numbered around 30 but their ranks increased to 160 the following day as university cadets reported for duty. The garrison would later be reinforced by British troops.
Don, Garland and McLeod had letters published in New Zealand newspapers soon after the Rising which are assessable on the National Library of New Zealand website. Corporal Don had served on Gallipoli with the New Zealand Field Artillery and was evacuated ill to England. He was convalescing in Ireland when he got caught up in the insurrection. A letter he wrote to his father was published in The Press in July 1916:
“On Easter Monday morning I was walking past Dublin Castle, and everything seemed all right, when a couple of shots rang out, and two Tommies who were in front of me fell over. I thought I must be dreaming and went over to where they were lying and saw that one had got it through the head and the other through the neck. Then I looked up and saw a couple of men in green uniforms and slouch hats, [with] rifles and bandoliers, regarding me from the housetops. It was my hat that saved my life because it seemed to puzzle them, being so very like their own although, of course, not green. Then I went on up the street and had a couple of shots at them from the nearest corner – l always carry my revolver. That was the first intimation that I and many others had of the rising of the Sinn Feiners, this sniping of unarmed soldiers being a sort of specialty of theirs.”
Don’s slouch hat appeared to confuse the rebels, enabling him to escape. His description of insurgents in green uniforms and slouch hats suggests he was fired on by members of the Irish Citizen Army. He next made his way along Sackville Street where he observed the rebels preparing the General Post Office for defence.
“After going up the street a little way I saw more rebels walking on the houses [rooftops] and only for the crowd I would have been shot… At the Post Office I saw the Commander-in-Chief Connelly standing with folded arms in a doorway. I could have shot him from the crowd but would have got two or three into me, as rifles and green could be seen from every window. I was just turning round to come away when I saw two New Zealanders. They were on holiday. The rebels started shooting at them, so I said to them to come along with me.”
Don probably witnessed a significant event in modern Irish history: the formal declaration of Irish Independence by Pádraig Pearse from the steps of the General Post Office. The two New Zealand soldiers he helped to escape were Sergeant Nevin and Corporal Garland from the New Zealand Hospital Ship Marama who were on leave in Dublin.
Lance Corporal McLeod had served on Gallipoli with the New Zealand Engineers and his letter home was published in the Feilding Star in July 1916:
“I noticed a very bitter feeling against England. Soldiers were even jeered at and on April 22 a man was arrested for threatening to shoot anyone in khaki. On Monday April 24 the Sinn Feiners rushed through Dublin, and captured several buildings including the General Post Office, St Stephen’s Green in the heart of the city, and hoisting the Republican flag. Then they started on the soldiers, and I and an Australian were fired on, but the fellow was a bad shot. Two officers were shot just ahead of us. We then walked back and volunteered.”
McLeod’s letter supports Don’s account that the Rising began with rebels firing on British soldiers. The Australian soldier with McLeod was Private Michael McHugh. Both men volunteered for duty at Trinity College that Monday afternoon.
Corporal Garland had earlier served during the New Zealand occupation of German Samoa in August 1914. Garland’s letter to his father was published in the Auckland Star in June 1916:
“We were standing in the main street (Sackville Street) about 2pm just about 100 yards from our hotel. Shots were being fired and a soldier from the Dublin Fusiliers was killed while walking with his young lady. There were thousands of people in the streets and all of a sudden a large motor-car whizzed past us. In it was the noted Countess dressed in a green uniform. As she went past she fired two shots at us. One went above our heads, the other caught an elderly man in the arm. It seemed to be a signal to the other Sinn Feiners for bullets started to whizz all round us. As we were un-armed and had our Red Cross badges on we went for our lives to the Soldiers’ Club. The proprietor of the place told us that all the soldiers had gone over to Trinity College which is the headquarters of the Dublin University Officer Training Corps.”
Garland’s encounter with Countess Markievicz illustrates the chaos of Easter Monday as the rebels rushed to seize key buildings in the city amid the public confusion. Corporal Don continues:
“We were passing Trinity College when one of the porters called us in unlocking the gates for us… That night we kept the rebels from taking the Bank of Ireland, firing from the top of Trinity College. There were only about 30 armed men in Trinity that night, and as it occupies a whole block it took some holding, and we were right in the centre of the rebels.… from Monday to Thursday one could hear all the time the rattling of rifles in every part of Dublin and the boom of our artillery. I had seven hours sleep from Sunday night to the following Friday as we were shooting from the roof the whole time and house-to-house searching. It was very dangerous work too, and if information came to the officer in charge of the Dublin University to the effect that a sniper was on the roofs opposite, the cry was for the ‘ANZACS’ numbering five New Zealanders and one Australian!”
The letters by Don and McLeod confirm the six Anzac soldiers at the university formed a sharpshooting squad, probably because the majority of the garrison were university cadets and staff. Armed with rifles from the university armoury, the Anzacs took up positions on the roof of the university buildings where they exchanged shots with rebel marksmen over the following three days.
Garland’s letter provides more detail on the university garrison and of the ensuring battle:
“We reported there at 3pm. There were only about thirty of us and we filled sandbags from 5 pm until 9pm. By that time our strength had grown to nearly sixty including five New Zealanders, one Australian, five from South Africa and two Canadians. At 11pm they woke us up and took the colonials whom they called Anzacs (although there were really only six Anzacs) up to the roof where we were to snipe. We remained on that roof from midnight Easter Monday till midnight on Thursday without a wink of sleep – exactly 72 hours. From the roof we could command a view of the main streets – Sackville, Grafton and Dame. Four of us were on the front parapet commanding Dame Street, also part of Grafton Street.”
Early Tuesday morning, Anzac Day, the Anzacs shot at three rebels on bicycles as they hurried past the university. Volunteer Gerald Keogh, a 22-year-old, was killed and another rebel wounded. Keogh’s body and their discarded weapons were recovered and brought into the university. The two other rebels escaped.
figure 2: Irish Volunteer Gerald Keogh, killed by Anzac sharpshooters.
Garland wrote an account of the event:
“We got our first bag on Tuesday morning at 4am when three Sinn Feiners came along on bikes evidently going from Shepherd’s Green to the G.P.O. The men on my left, as soon as they saw them coming, told us to mark the last man and they would get the first two. We all fired at once killing two and wounding the other. When they were brought in, the chap we killed, he had four bullet marks on him which meant that we all got him, and that he must have been killed instantly. A peculiar thing had happened. After he was killed he still sat on his bike and continued on for about 30 yards on the free-wheel. In fact, I thought we had missed him when all of a sudden the bike swerved and he came off. This chap was a platoon leader and on him they found a list of the names and addresses of the members of his platoon, and two despatches, together with some money that he had evidently taken from the G.P.O.”
Garland’s letter also recounts how over the next three days the Anzacs shot at armed rebels in the streets and at buildings surrounding the university.
“On Wednesday we got two more in Sackville Street. They were armed with double-barrelled fowling-pieces [shot guns], and had taken the small shot from the cartridges, replacing it with four slugs of lead about three-quarters of an inch by a quarter of an inch. We were troubled by a sniper on our left in the direction of St. Andrew’s Church, but as we were not quite sure, we did not like to fire on that building. On Friday, after we had been relieved from the roof, a man living opposite the church came over and said he had seen rifles pointing out of the belfry, so we six Anzacs were sent across to his house and from his kitchen window we put about 100 rounds into the small triangular window they were firing from. Half an hour after they had ceased firing we decided to climb the tower. On the way over we were fired on by our own men who mistook our slouch hats for those of the Sinn Fein. When we got to the belfry we found two men. One was already dead, the other so badly wounded that he died an hour afterwards.”
Alexander Don also described this action at St Andrew’s Church. Garland’s next assertion, about the Anzacs shooting a woman insurgent, is not verified by published accounts:
“On Saturday morning we killed a woman who was sniping from a hotel window in Dame Street. When the R.A.M.C. [stretcher bearers] brought her in we saw she was only about 20, stylishly dressed, and not at all bad-looking. She was armed with an automatic revolver and a Winchester repeater. Altogether we Anzacs were responsible for 27 rebels (24 men and three women).”
The Rising is a well documented event and no armed women insurgents are recorded as being killed. The Irish Citizen Army reputably had 15 armed women in their ranks, however Garland’s claim that the Anzacs accounted for three women snipers can only be considered fictitious – it is not mentioned in either account by Don or McLeod.
Rebel resistance weakened towards the end of Easter Week due to overwhelming British firepower. On the Friday McLeod described how the Anzacs ventured from Trinity College to clear nearby buildings including the Westland Row Railway Station. Again, Garland’s account of an alleged bayonet struggle cannot be confirmed by published accounts:
“On Saturday afternoon the colonials were given the honour of capturing Westland Row Railway Station. We entered the Grosvenor Hotel which faces the station, and by means of a ladder climbed over the Railway Arch and then over to the station. We got four there and I had a narrow squeak. Two of us were going through the ticket office and as soon as we entered, the Sinn Feiners tried to bayonet the chap behind me. They just missed him and caught me in the hand – just a mere scratch. Then we both got him together with our bayonets.”
Both Garland and McLeod claim that the Anzacs accounted for 27 rebels, however this number is suspect given the total rebel deaths for Easter Week was 64. It is probable in the smoke and haze the Anzacs misjudged their tally.
During Easter Week, Trinity College became the headquarters of Brigadier-General Lowe, and university buildings were reinforced with machine guns as the British forces surrounded and isolated rebel positions. The end came on the afternoon of Saturday, 29 April, when Commandant-General Pearse formally surrendered all Irish Nationalist forces in the city.
The week-long Rising left the city centre in ruins and an estimated 426 people dead with another 1,000 wounded, most of who were civilians. Sixteen rebel leaders were later executed by the British authorities.
Garland describes the aftermath of the rebellion:
“Of course by this time the town was in ruins, and bodies of soldiers, horses, civilians, and Sinn Feiners were lying about Sackville Street until Saturday. The looting that was going on was simply terrible. Small boys of 10 to 14 who were brought in and searched had cameras, watches, diamond tiepins, etc. The rebels themselves did not do much looting. Several of the chaps from Gallipoli reckon that one had a far better chance of getting off with his life there than in the Dublin riot for the reason that these rebels were posted in twos and threes in almost every house and shop in the city. As it was, there were 700 casualties on our side while there were only about 500 on the other.”
Garland’s estimation of casualties is inflated. The Irish Nationalists had accounted for 142 British soldiers killed and 381 wounded. Civilian deaths from the crossfire are estimated at 220 men, women and children, with another 600 wounded.
In the immediate aftermath of the Rising, Irish Commandant W.J. Brennan-Whitmore described the compassion shown to him and other rebel prisoners by a cheerful “Australian sergeant” from Trinity College. Frederick Nevin was the only Anzac sergeant at Trinity College so it must have been him who gave the prisoners a tin of biscuits and a jug of cold tea before they were marched off to internment. Brennan-Whitmore also congratulated the Anzacs on the accuracy of their shooting.
Figure 3: Dominion soldiers leaving Trinity College after the rebel surrender.
The above newsreel single-frame photograph shows Sergeant Nevin and Privates Waring and McHugh in slouch hats walking from Trinity College after the surrender. The complete footage can be viewed on the Imperial War Museum website.
After the surrender the New Zealanders rejoined their units in England to continue the war against Germany. In August 1916 commemorative silver cups were presented to members of the Officer Training Corps for their defence of Trinity College. The 14 Dominion troops were also given commemorative cups.
Edward Waring later served on the Western Front with the 6th Hauraki Company, Auckland Regiment and was invalided back to New Zealand early 1918. He succumbed to influenza in November 1918 aged 26 and was interred in Auckland’s Papakura Cemetery.
Frederick Nevin and John Garland rejoined the Hospital Ship Marama for a return sailing to New Zealand. After the war Nevin rejoined the New Zealand Railways and died in 1953 aged 58. He is buried in Christchurch’s Waimairi Cemetery. John Garland died in Wellington in 1960 aged 66 and today rests in the Returned Soldiers section of Karori Cemetery.
Alexander Don served on the Western Front with the New Zealand Field Artillery and was ‘reduced to the ranks’ in 1917 for striking a superior officer. He was selected for officer training in 1918 but the Armistice stopped this. He returned to New Zealand in 1919 and became a schoolmaster. Don served as a captain in the Masterton Home Guard during the Second World War and died in Wellington in 1954 aged 57. He also rests in the Returned Soldiers section of Karori Cemetery.
Finlay McLeod was gassed on the Western Front in 1917 and was invalided home to New Zealand. The army service files of all 5 New Zealanders make no mention of their active service in Dublin during Easter Week. McLeod later settled in Australia where he claimed his bronze commemorative Gallipoli Medallion and Gallipoli Veteran’s lapel badge from the New Zealand Government in 1967. He was still living in New South Wales in 1980.
A century has almost passed since a small group of New Zealanders assisted British forces in suppressing the first attempts for Irish independence during the First World War. The New Zealanders’ letters provide an intriguing and new perspective on events and their accounts suggest they had little understanding or sympathy for Irish Nationalist politics and the wider Home Rule debate. As soldiers of the British Empire the New Zealanders would have considered it their duty to assist in restoring law and order in what New Zealand newspapers of the day referred to as ‘The Dublin Riots’.
- 1916 Rebellion Handbook. The Irish Times
- The Easter Rising A guide to Dublin in 1916. Conor Kostick, Lorcan Collins
- Australian War Memorial. Call to Arms: Australian soldiers in the Easter Rising 1916. Jeff Kildea
- 1916: The Easter Rising. Tim Pat Coogan