100 years ago today, Willie Redmond was fatally wounded during the start of the Battle of Messines.
Born in Co.Wexford, he was a brother of John Redmond, the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party and National Volunteers. In the early 1880s, he was heavily involved with the Irish National Land League, and was a follower of Charles Stewart Parnell. At 21 years of age he served three months in Kilmainham Gaol for the crime of possessing seditious literature, during which he shared a cell with Parnell. He was elected an MP for Wexford Borough and later Fermanagh, all the while raising funds for the land league. He was sentenced to three months hard labour in 1888 for resisting the eviction of tenants.
He spoke out against the Boer War, was a social activist and also a supporter of Female Suffrage. Like his brother, Willie Redmond was heavily in favour of Home Rule.
As one would expect from both his and his brother’s views on Home Rule, he was one of the first to enlist in the British Army at the outbreak of the First World War as part of the Irish National Volunteers. In 1915, aged 53, he gained a commission in the 6th Royal Irish Regiment. He gained a reputation for leading from the front and, whenever possible, mingling with the ordinary footsoldiers. He refused the use of a horse, and carried his own kit (officers were not generally expected to carry their belongings, this task normally being carried out by a “batman” – a type of military servant.)
The 1916 Rising affected him deeply. He believed it to be the death knell for Constitutional Nationalism. However he didn’t give up hope. In December 1916, in a letter to his friend Arthur Conan Doyle, he wrote “It would be a fine memorial to the men who have died so splendidly if we could, over their graves, build up a bridge between North and South…the two sections from Ireland are actually side by side holding the trenches!”
Willie Redmond found himself in exactly that position in the morning of the 7th of June 1917. At 56 years of age, and holding the rank of Major, there was official resistance to his request that he lead his men “over the top” at the opening of the Battle of Messines. He was eventually allowed to do so.
At 3.10 a.m. he led his men in the attack, and was the first over the parapet. He was wounded in the arm, but continued to lead until he was again wounded in the leg. He was evacuated to a Field Ambulance depot by two stretcher-bearers from the 36th Ulster Division, and was transferred to Locre Hospice. There, just before noon on the 8th, he died of his wounds.
Unlike the vast majority of British Army casualties, he was not buried in a military cemetery. There is a persistent myth that his last wish was that he would not be buried inside a British cemetery in protest against the execution of the 1916 Easter Rising leaders. The reality is simply that he was buried near a grotto in the grounds of the Hospice in which he died and, despite requests from the War Graves Commission, his wife refused to have his body exhumed, preferring to have the nuns look after his final resting place.
There were further attempts at exhumation and reburial by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission; Once in the 1960s when a local Belgian priest, Fr Debevere, insisted that Mrs. Redmond’s wishes (that her husband’s grave be left alone) be respected. The Commission tried and failed again in 1977 after Fr Debevere’s death.
It is fitting that Major William Hoey Kearney Redmond’s refusal to conform during his lifetime continues 100 years after his death.