Noel Coghlan, class '57, the Poelkapelle 'nephew'
Where are they now
Noel Coghlan, '57 (centre) in Poelkappelle
Donal Coghlan, class '27 came to us from Newtownbarry and spent two very happy years at Knock. A rather 'colourful career' followed until a late vocation saw him embrace the secular priesthood leading to his appointment as a much loved parish priest in Lucan. It was at his instigation that two nephews followed him to Knock.
The first nephew, Peter Coghlan, class '41, came to us from Rathmines but sadly fell to the dreaded TB as reported in the 1939 Chronicle:
It is with deep regret that we announce the death of Peter Coghlan, which took place in December, 1938. Many boys still in the College can well remember the bright little lad, with the inquiring mind, who was so happy with us. He was only fourteen years of age when he died, and his loss is a great sorrow to his parents and relatives.
His father, Major Jack Coghlan, a decorated war hero, was heart broken and never really recovered from the loss. The second nephew, Noel Coghlan, class '57, came to us from Swinford and he bore a close physical resemblance to the late Peter, a phenomenon that induced Major Jack to "adopt" him as effectively a surrogate father and a very good surrogate father at that.
On account of that bond and conscious of the biblical injunction that to give is worthier than to receive, Second Lieut. Noel Coghlan, after graduating from the London School of Economics passed his brief military career in the Royal Artillery. On leaving the army, he joined the Economist Intelligence Unit and thence progressed to the World Bank before moving to the European Commission in 1973. After retiring to Lucan, again following in an uncle's footsteps, Noel now lives in Brussels with his long time partner, Yuriko Ito. In retirement, he remains a contributor to a variety of journals and active in the voluntary sector – he was a Director of the Debt and Development Coalition, a Patron of the Mayo Peace Park and a regular speaker and co-Director of the Humbert International Summer School.
A small part of Flanders now also plays a large part in his life for the good folk of Poelkappelle tracked him down as every year on the second Saturday of October they commemorate his uncle and their hero, Major Jack Coghlan, MC, Royal Irish Regiment, then on secondment to the Tank Corps and subsequently the Royal Flying Corps.
The way Noel tells it:
Glorious, if not quite Victorious.
Major Jack Coghlan, MC
Hero of Poelkapelle
It all began badly. For a start the weather was absolutely abominable. Worse still, the route was virtually impassable. What remained of the mud covered cobblestone road that notionally joined the village of St Julian to its near neighbour, Poelkapelle, was blocked by a series of fallen trees and swept periodically by machine gun fire with the occasional whizz-bang thrown in for good measure.
Such was the state of affairs on that fateful Tuesday, October 9th, 1917 when, in heavy fog and a torrential down-pour, the officers and men of D Company, 11 Battalion, Royal Tanks, mounted up at 00.30 hours, bent on recovering the little Flemish village of Poelkapelle for King and Country.
The stillness of the night was shattered as the mighty Daimler motors of their Mark IV tanks simultaneously roared into life. Well perhaps not quite simultaneously, but they did eventually succeed in starting them, for so it is written. Those who muttered about the loss of an element of surprise, so vital to an offensive, were dismissed as wimps, unworthy of the badges that adorned their head gear, in short a disgrace to their Regiment. And quite rightly so. Germans, it was well known, were heavy sleepers.
With a friendly incline and a solid tail wind they quickly gained their cruising speed of three miles an hour. For three of that gallant band the march proved somewhat shorter than foreseen. Roughly a mile down the road N° 3 tank skidded on a mixture of mud and animal carcass; N° 4 tank, unaware of this unhappy turn of events, collided with the stalled tank blocking the route completely.
Happily the commander of N° 5 tank was a man of initiative and took his tank off the road, intent on going around the obstruction. Alas, ‘the best laid schemes of mice and men gang oft agley’ and so it was on this occasion, for his driver miscalculated and side swiped N° 4 tank, disposing of his de-ditching bar in the process. As their tank sank slowly into the mud the crew managed to jump to the relative safety of the road. Many are called but few are chosen.
Meanwhile the chosen ones, mercifully unaware of the chaos to their rear, marched steadily forward. Quite literally so in the case of Lieutenant (acting Captain) John Coghlan, MC, and sundry other pieces of decorative metal, late of the Royal Irish Regiment, commanding N°2 tank, D29, appropriately named Damon II.
This gallant officer, unable to see anything through the visor of his tank, had hopped out and was guiding that wonder of military technology with his cane. All was well until he reached the cross roads at Poelkapelle. There, spotting the remains of a pub, De Zwan, he decided to halt to steady his crew and find his bearings. Alas, for Lieut. Coghlan and his valiant band, the German artillery had already registered the bearings of De Zwan and with a single shell disposed of Damon II. Clever chaps, these Germans.
Einde goed, al goed, as our Flemish friends say. The people of Poelkapelle warmed to the young Irish officer who had lost his tank outside their village pub in a gallant, albeit not quite successful attempt to free their village, or what little was left of it, from the depredations of the marauding ‘Hun’. The walls of De Zwan, newly reconstructed, sprouted photographs of the good Lieutenant and his warriors bold. After the war, in the interest of promoting tourism, the tank was moved to the new Market Square, where for the local children it was a favourite play place where they regularly received pennies from the tourists. However, it was removed by the Germans in 1941. Not quite appropriate to the New Order they declared.
But our Belgian friends are not ones to take matters lying down. The Major’s next of kin, his daughter Mary and his nephew Noel, were run to earth, no mean feat for a small Dutch speaking community, and invited to join in the commemoration of their distinguished forebear’s gallant attempt at driving the unwelcome stranger from their midst. But that was not all. A monument to the Royal Tanks was erected on the village square in 2009 and a full scale replica of Lieutenant Coghlan’s tank, Damon II, is under construction. Hopefully it will be ready for the annual commemoration of this glorious, if not quite victorious, action on Saturday, October 8th, 2017.
I speak Dutch, the language of West Flanders, and try to repay his many, many kindnesses by participating in the annual commemoration of his deed glorious if not quite victorious in Poelkapelle and acting as an interpreter and general factotum for the village on this splendid occasion; as "de neef van de Tank Kommadant" (the nephew of the Tank Commander), you get no points for guessing that I do not lack for "een piljse" (pint) on the day!
Happily Peter was survived by his younger sister, Mary, who lives in quiet retirement in Oxford, the well deserved conclusion of a distinguished career as a consultant psychiatrist. Mary participates in the annual commemoration to the extent that her now limited mobility permits; we both remember Peter as we lay our wreaths to his distinguished father.
Major Jack remained a mentor and inspiration to Noel for the remainder of his days, and indeed since. He passed away in 1963 at his home in Templeouge, His brother Rev. Donal, class '27 presided at the funeral and he himself passed away in 1996 and was sadly missed by his devoted parishioners to whom his many eccentricities endeared him.
Any Knock man who happens to find himself passing through Poelkappelle, should stop and doff his cap in memory of Major Jack Coghlan, MC, the 'father' of two 'sons' who went to Knock.
We are indebted to Noel for 26 Oct 2016 he travelled from Brussels to join us for the WWI Commemoration Evening held out at College and gave this illuminating talk centred around the family on his illustrious ancestor - Major Jack Coghlan.