The Wartime account of Washington Shields
By Hugh Logan
Washington Shields was born in the year 1894, in the townland of Parsonstown, Co. Meath. The family home was a farm house known locally as the ‘Mountain House’, a Georgian building situated at a crossroads on the road to the Boyne crossing at Slane. The family were protestant; attending the local Church of Ireland with Washington (or Wash for short) being the eldest of four children, including a younger brother Tom and two sisters Susan and Queenie (who died as a child). Like many Irishmen who were sickened and stunned at the sinking of the Lusitania, he enlisted in the British Army on June 22nd, 1915, at the tender age of 21. As a farmer and someone who could both ride and shoot, he was immediately drawn to the cavalry. Wash joined the South Irish Horse, a yeomanry regiment which was only in existence for 20 years (1902 – 1922). It was as part of this regiment that he arrived in France in time to participate in the allied offensive known as the Battle of Loos, being held in reserve behind the infantry, waiting to exploit the breakthrough that never came.
The following year, 1916; the regiment took a similar role, waiting for the infantry and artillery to punch a hole in the enemy’s line on the Somme through which the cavalry could pour into open country, causing the Germans to pull back all the way to their own borders. Once again the offensive bogged down in the mud of the trenches with the regiment eventually engaging in a number of minor supporting actions as the offensive dragged on.
In September 1917, having decided that there was no longer a future for cavalry on the western front, the powers-that-be took away the regiment’s horses and the South Irish Horse became the 7th Battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment, part of the 16th Irish Division. On March 20th, 1918, the battalion, including the recently promoted Sergeant Shields, moved into the frontline in front of the village of Ronssoy on the Somme front, oblivious to the fate that would befall them the next day.
During the early hours of the 21st the German army unleashed the most intense artillery bombardment of the war as a prelude to the Kaiserschlacht offensive, designed to achieve victory before the build-up of American forces made defeat inevitable. Following the bombardment, small well-armed groups of storm troopers penetrated the British line at various points and pushed on into the rear areas; causing mayhem. The battalion’s war diary for the 21st has the following entry:
‘4.30am. The enemy opened a heavy bombardment mostly with gas shells lasting about 4 hours. The morning was very foggy. 8.30am. The enemy attacked and broke through A&C Coys and reached RONSOY VILLAGE before S&B Coys were aware that the attack had commenced. No one of A&B Coys got back to the rest of the Battn, either being killed or taken prisoners. The enemy had practically surrounded the village before HQ and S&B Coys were aware of it, as he had broken through the Division on the right. At this time all the Officers, with the exception of Capt Bridge had become casualties, also the majority of other ranks. The remainder were ordered to withdraw and fought their way back to ST EMILIE where they arrived about 7pm’.
By March 30th, the battalion consisted of only 1 Officer and 40 other ranks. The rest, including Sergeant Shields, were either dead or captured. Washington himself, incapacitated by mustard gas, surrounded and finding himself miles behind the German front line, was taken prisoner, spending the rest of the war in a prison of war (POW) camp at Gustrow in Mecklenburgh, an area near the Baltic coast that until the fall of the Berlin Wall was part of East Germany. On July 22nd, 1918, Washington wrote a letter from Gustrow to his family in Ireland. The letter reads:
Just a letter card, hoping it finds you all quite well as it leaves me quite alright. I was sick for the past week with a severe cold but I’m feeling alright now. I have not heard from you up to the present date but I am looking forward every day for some sort of mail as I am anxious for news from home or anywhere if only to break the monotony. I have heard you were having conscription in Ireland and that there are Gurkha troops there to enforce it, I hope Tom escapes it, being a mechanic he should be able to avoid military service. I hope you have sent me on the cigarettes I have asked for. I shall be very much delighted to get them provided they arrive alright. I trust this letter finds you all in the best of health with best love to all. From your affectionate son Wash.
After release Washington returned to an Ireland wracked by unrest. By 1919 the War of Independence was in full swing, and those like Washington who had fought for the British Empire were no longer welcome in the new Ireland. On one occasion members of the local Irish Republican Army unit burst into his home. Pointing a gun at Washington, one young volunteer demanded that he hand over the shotguns that were kept in the farm house for vermin control. Looking him in the eye, Washington told him that he had looked down the barrel of a German gun far too often to be scared by the likes of him. Unable to intimidate Wash, the unit left empty handed. After partition in 1922, Washington moved north and settled in Northern Ireland, there he joined the newly formed Royal Ulster Constabulary and lived in the village of Ballyclare in County Antrim.
Marrying a local girl he fathered two sons and two daughters including his youngest child Lorna Shields, my mother. His sister Susan had also served in the war as a Queen Alexandra nurse and was probably one of the first British nurses to be shipped out to the Mesopotamian front (modern day Iraq) where the British were fighting the Ottoman Turks. She later worked at a military hospital in India. As a young boy, my grandfather Wash taught me to count to twenty in German. He also told me stories from the war, of how he was so sick with mustard gas that he could do nothing but lie on the floor of the trench and vomit and of how his staple diet in the prisoner of war camp consisted mainly of beetroot! Washington spent the rest of his life reading books exclusively about the Great War as if trying to make sense of the horrors he had experienced as a young man. He passed away peacefully in 1975.