William Martin Joseph Casey, class '11
The Meeting Place
The Casey brothers - Willie, Charlie & Henry
Willie Casey, class '11 was the eldest of three brothers who arrived at Knock from O'Connell Schools in Dublin. Justice Charles F. Casey, class '13 and Fr. Henry Casey, CM, class '15 were his younger brothers, and all had a remarkable record of military service for Henry served as a Chaplain in WWII and both Charles and Willie were with the colours during WWI.
Henry and Charles returned home safely and the latter went on to send four sons to SVC: the late Billy, class '49; Frank, class '50; Jimmy, class '59 and Joe, class 63. Willie never had that chance as sadly he was killed in action 23 October 1916 during the Somme campaign, aged just 23. His sacrifice is commemorated at the Thiepval Memorial.
Family lore had it that shortly before Willie was killed, the two brothers accidentally met on the Somme, and in 2010 Charles' son Jimmy and his son Garrett resolved to investigate further.
This is their story:
THE MEETING PLACE
In my Aunts brilliant 1971 note to my sister regarding the Casey family background she talked about my father Charlie Casey being invalided out of the war for a short period in 1916 and then being sent back to France. When he met my Aunt on Dublin docks on the way back to France he expressed concern for his older brother Willie. When the family learned shortly afterwards that Willie had gone “missing presumed dead” my Aunt got the impression that Charlie may already have been aware of that as a likely outcome. He had talked of recently, by accident, meeting Willie in France and we wondered would it be possible to speculate on when and where they met as the evidence indicated they had never served together in the same regiments.
Of course such effort to establish a likely meeting place has to be speculative in that individual soldiers were moved about in a manner that would be impossible to trace but nevertheless by following the movements of their battalions around the months before Willie died in 23rd October 1916 we hoped a plausible theory could be put forward.
Willie served in two regiments as he joined 3rd Bn. Royal Irish Regiment and at some time before he died he was transferred to the 2nd Bn. of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. As my Aunt’s note indicates that the meeting took place shortly before he died we followed the movements of the 2nd Battalion.
Charlie joined the 7th Bn. of the Leinster Regiment and subsequently was transferred to the 2nd Bn. and later to the 6th Bn. the Royal Irish Regiment before eventually finishing the War in the 2nd Bn. of the Wiltshire Regiment. For the purposes of this research we assumed that Charlie was still with the Leinsters in the period from March 1916 to October 1916 as the most likely cause of soldiers being transferred to a different regiment was after breaks for injury or illness. As my Aunt indicated that this was Dad’s first of two breaks from the war We concluded it was likely he was still with the Leinsters in most of 1916.
As both of their battalions were in France from March 1916 we decided to get the War Diaries to establish their battalion’s movements between March and October when Willie was killed.
The 7th Leinsters spent these months in seven different locations in the Bethune area whereas the 2nd Dublin Fusiliers were in eight different locations in the Doullens area approx 40 miles south of Bethune and so we conclude it is unlikely that the brothers met in these months. In these months both battalions appear to have been under fire, with bombs and grenades falling around them and from time to time suffering gas attacks. During raids there was also some hand to hand fighting. However in neither battalion were there heavy casualties.
In June/July the 7th Leinsters were in seven different locations all still in the Bethune area and in general this was a relatively quiet time for them. In June the Dublin Fusiliers moved south towards Albert which put them further from the 7th Leinsters and closer to the Somme front line trenches. They stayed in six different locations near Albert and on 1st July participated in the ill fated attack where 20,000 “British” were killed on that one day. Their attack was at Redan Ridge in the Beaumont Hamel area. They suffered appalling losses. In later July they moved back from the front to Beauval still a good distance from the Leinsters and so we again conclude it is unlikely that the brothers met in these two months.
All through August and up to 3rd September the 2nd Dublin Fusiliers were at or near the Somme front line just north of Albert. Attack, counter attack, ground gained, ground lost a bitter tale of effort, suffering, failure and glory. On 4th September they moved back from the Somme front to Poperinge a town near Ypres. On 17th September they moved back to the Somme area initially to Rainneville which is south east of Albert. Towards the end of September the battalion moved to Daours which is further south east of Albert passing through Corbie (24th) and Sailly le Sec (25th to 28th). It was from Daours in the next month that this regiment commenced what was for Willie a fateful journey back to the front lines.
It was at the end of August that the Leinsters got orders to go for the first time to the Somme and on the 27th entrained at Heilly which put them a short way behind the front lines south east of Albert. On 31st August the battalion received orders to take over the line in front of Guillemont and to do this they passed Carnoy, Montauban, Bernafay Woods, Trones Woods. On 3rd September they attacked from the north side of Guillemont and after fierce fighting Guillemont was captured a feat that had defied Division after Division of British troops. On 5th September the Leinsters were relieved by the 7th Royal Irish Rifles and returned to Carnoy. On 9th September the battalion moved forward again this time to attack Ginchy but this attack was repulsed with terrible losses as the strength and location of enemy guns was completely misunderstood. The battalion was then relieved by 4th Grenadier Guards and this ended the share of the 7th Leinsters in the battles under the generic name of the Somme 1916. On 10th September the battalion moved back from the front through Trones Wood and Carnoy to Vaux Sur Somme south east of Albert where they stayed from 12th to 16th and on 18th they moved to Corbie whence motor buses conveyed them away from the Somme to Abbeville. On 21st the battalion moved to Bailleul well away from the Somme front lines.
It is unlikely that the brothers met in August but it is clear that in September Charlie’s Leinster regiment fought twice at the Somme front and for a short time were in close proximity to the Dublin Fusiliers. After 20th September Charlie’s Battalion was never again at the Somme and so we would speculate that the brothers met as Charlie’s regiment was retiring from the Somme (perhaps at that stage with Charlie wounded by “shell shock”) at the time when Willie’s regiment was in the same area and preparing to advance on the same Guillemont, Ginchy, Lesboeuf Combles area where Charlie had already fought. As to where they met we would be fairly sure it was likely to be south east of Albert possibly in or near the town of Corbie. The timing of their meeting is likely to have been sometime between 17th and 19th September.
What would they have talked about these two young Dublin brothers, Charlie aged 20 and Willie aged 23? We guess their first topic of conversation would have been about the horrors they had experienced over the last few months for which nothing in their background could have prepared them for. Politically the Easter Rising and its aftermath would have left them very confused about their identities being Irish volunteers fighting in a British Army which had a few months ago executed the Irish Easter Rising leaders. Domestically they no doubt would have talked about their mother, widowed 5 years earlier aged 62, then living in 163 Botanic Avenue; their 27 year old sister Mollie working as a nurse in Cappagh Hospital who also would have a struggle nursing British soldiers who in some cases had been fighting in Dublin against the Rising; their 25 year old sister Lillie then a governess in France and their youngest brother Henry aged 19 then studying to be a Vincentian.
It is likely that any initial excitement they had of going to war had well evaporated by September 1916 and that their last meeting (probably the first time they had met for over a year) though initially exciting for them would have been dominated by huge worry about the outcome for themselves, their family and their comrades.
That being said knowing my father we have little doubt the talk would have included the subject of sport and as many of the battalions played soccer against each other we think they probably argued passionately about the merits of their respective regimental football teams; a good laugh in the depth of their terrible worries.
Joe, the youngest son of Charles and his brother in law Terry Browne then picked up the story as following a a collaboration with Howard Crosby (a nephew of Bing's) who was researching Irish WWI stories, this wonderful tribute ensued -
Not resting on their laurels, in October of this year on the occasion of the centenary of Willie's passing, the Casey family returned to the Somme to retrace the footsteps of the Casey brothers and pay their respects to Willie, an uncle and granduncle that none had ever met, but who all hugely admired.
The touring party consisted of Jimmy and his son Gary, and five from America, John and Laurie Casey, Virginia; Ann Marie Haynes, Virginia; Liz Messner, Virginia; Catherine Casey Los Angeles; all descendants of Dr. Billy Casey, Charlie’s eldest son, late of Washington DC.
Jimmy tells the story.
CENTENARY REMEMBRANCE TOUR
Friday 21st October
Gary and I set out for Charleroi courtesy of Ryanair, had an uneventful flight, hired a car and after many false turns mainly arising from my failure to understand how the GPS app worked, we arrived at the Van Der Valk Hotel, which was an excellent choice being both luxurious and inexpensive. To our great relief despite the late hour we were able to get some beer which, as they say, we murdered.
Saturday 22nd October
With the navigator now in full control of the GPS App we made our way without incident to the town of Albert which was to be our base for the next few days. We checked in to the Hotel de la Paix which was a small hotel close to the town centre. With mounting excitement we walked into the centre of town to the Hotel de la Basilique where we hoped to meet our five American fellow travellers. There they all were in reception having just arrived that morning from Normandy. They had arrived in Paris the previous Sunday and had visited a number of sites including Versailles and Chartres before heading for the Normandy beaches, and thus on one trip getting in WWII as well as WWI. I guess coming from the States, and in Catherine’s case California, this efficiency made eminent sense.
The Americans’ hotel in Albert had a wonderful view of the magnificent Basilique, with its gilded statue of the Virgin Mary holding her baby up to God. During heavy shelling by the Germans in January 1915, the statue was left hanging precariously in a near-horizontal position. The British believed that whoever ultimately succeeded in knocking the Virgin down would lose the war, whilst the Germans believed the opposite. In any event, both sides believed that the final toppling of the Virgin would portend the end of the war.
After all the shrieks and hugs and the “you are looking wells,” with typical Casey efficiency we immediately got down to business and Gary and I handed over two books on the Leinster Regiment (Charlie’s regiment) and the Royal Dublin Fusiliers (Willie’s regiment) together with a map showing the movements of these regiments in the critical July to October period of the Somme battles.
To introduce a note of culture to the proceedings Ann Marie provided us with “The Muse in Arms,” a selection of poems written by British and Irish soldiers of the various battles in WWI. The Irish not to be outdone also provided “Earth Voices Whispering “an anthology of Irish War poetry kindly given to the travellers by Helen Maher.
Following a local recommendation, we headed for lunch in a bistro where the food and the ambience were terrific. The owner steadfastly refused to believe Ireland would defeat France at the next rugby match: “New Zealand peut etre, Irlande non”. During lunch we had a summit to decide our itinerary for the next few days. It was agreed that in the afternoon we would visit the Thiepval monument.
All seven of us were able to comfortably fit into the car and with five GPS trackers in the back we made our way to Thiepval where 72,000 of those missing in the Somme battles are commomerated. It was designed by Edwin Lutyens who also designed the WWI memorial in Islandbridge, Dublin.
We found the entry for Willie Casey in column 16c. We visited the graves on the site and many were shown as “Known Unto God” or on the French graves simply “Inconnue,” or unknown.
We then visited the Somme Museum on site and there we could read the individual stories of the soldiers and also view some war film which was very harrowing. Many showed the wounded being carried by their colleagues on various types of makeshift stretchers. Hard at times to see how the wounded or even the carriers could have survived the journey to whatever Red Cross or hospital unit they were heading. This museum gave an honest picture of the pain being endured.
As darkness fell we headed back to Albert where the elder lemon of the trip (me) claimed the necessity of an hours rest before setting out for dinner. Mustn’t overdo it at my age etc. This cri de coeur (very posh in French) was sympathetically received and so fully refreshed after a quick nap we headed back to the Hotel de la Basilique for dinner. Here before too much booze was consumed we agreed that on Sunday we would follow the route taken by both Charlie and Willie at different times from Albert up through Guillemont and Ginchy and on to Lesboeuf.
The dinner which was our main culinary event of the trip was kindly hosted by the Americans and was a great success both from an eating and conversational point of view. The truth is we gave it our best shot and the whole night was simply wonderful. Some of the best parts were the family stories that were told which at times were very funny, at times very moving and often revealed aspects of ourselves we had not been aware of.
Given the circumstances of our visit my memories of my father were a subject I did my best to deal with as I had many great moments with him but sadly I could not enlighten the team on Willie. I knew that 40 years on from his death Charlie greatly missed him but I really had no information on his personality, did he like music, play soccer, was he funny etc. Looking back I can’t understand how I was so foolish not to ask about him as I had plenty of opportunity. I guess the subject of death held too many fears for a ten year old.
Sunday 23rd October
On Sunday we walked back up to the Hotel de la Basilique for our scheduled departure on the trail of the brothers. This was briefly delayed as the whole of the centre of Albert was taken over by a market which each year they have in October and February. This of course could not be resisted to seek out bargains. Eventually we set off with Gary acting navigator in the first car and John in the second.
We made our way to the village of Guillemont where one finds a Celtic Cross outside the local church in memory of the many Irish who fought and died in this area. Both brothers fought here, Charlie in September where the Leinsters succeeded in taking the town after suffering terrible losses. The Leinsters then went on to attack the next town, Ginchy, which they failed to take, again suffering heavy losses. The Leinsters then were relieved of front line duty and they made their way back from the front to Corbie to recuperate and then later to leave the Somme area not to return.
In October, Willie’s regiment, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, moved to the front along the same route taken a month earlier by the Leinsters. They succeeded in taking Ginchy and went on to Lesboeuf the next town.
We stopped here as we knew that this was precisely where Willie was killed on this same date 100 years ago.
The objective of the battle that day was to take the German gun pits just outside Lesboeufs as well as a stronghold beyond them. The war diary for that day notes that all the troops were “in position and ready to advance” at 7 am but due to poor weather, the attack was delayed until 2:30 pm in hopes that visibility would improve. A news article about a sergeant from Dublin who received a Victoria Cross for bravery that day states that at the appointed time, Sergeant R. Downie rushed forward crying “Come on, the Dubs!” According to the article, “This stirring appeal met with immediate response, and the line rushed forward at his call.”
In weather very similar to that in 1916, Gary guided us down a tractor path between two potato fields located roughly where the German gun pits were. Looking back we saw a woods where the Royal Dublin Fusiliers were stationed not more than 250 yards away in trenches named Burnaby, Frosty, and Foggy. The Irish attacked and after heavy fighting they captured the gun pits and the stronghold.
Sadly Willie did not survive this attack.
As we stood in the field, Gary read aloud the war diary for that day. It noted that most of the Irish casualties occurred just in front of the gun pits and in hand to hand fighting in the gun pits, and so the place where we were standing was likely to be within yards of where Willie fell.
This was of course very moving for us all and we mourned individually. What united us was the feeling that it was right to make this visit to pay respect to a man we had never met but who was remembered in his family and in particular through Charlie’s eldest son, grandson and great grandsons being named in his honour. There were many tears and silences at this point in the trip and voices were appropriately hushed.
We then visited two nearby graveyards where many of those buried were unidentified, some from the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, and so it is possible we attended Willie’s grave as the fallen at Lesboeuf would likely have been buried here.
We were swiftly brought into the 21st century by Catherine who announced that she was going to use the Yelp App to locate a suitable restaurant in Corbie, the town chosen for our lunch.
Corbie was chosen because we believe it likely that it was the last meeting place of the two brothers as Charlie’s regiment was leaving the Somme and Willie’s regiment was preparing to advance to the front.
After toasting Willie and Charlie followed by a lovely lunch (the app sure worked a treat), we strolled around the town in a manner we thought reminiscent of the two brothers, updating ourselves on family stories and news until, like the two brothers, it was time to part the ways. With numerous hugs and promises to “keep in touch”, the American contingent headed for the Big City.
Gary and I headed for rural Albert.
We had a quiet meal in a small restaurant where Gary’s French came to the rescue of four hapless Brits and he managed to get them a meal when the owner had indicated the restaurant was closing. They could not have been more grateful and could not believe Gary wasn’t French. When they heard he was Irish I thought they were going to offer to give us back Tyrone. One of their group was on a similar visit to ours as her relative had died on 24th October 1916. A quick stroll around the town and then an early night.
Monday 24th October
Up early to visit the Basilica of Notre Dame de Brebieres. The above mentioned Leaning Virgin became an especially familiar image to the thousands of British soldiers who fought at the Battle of the Somme (1916), many of whom passed through Albert, which was situated three miles from the front lines. No doubt but that both Charlie and Willie would have seen this statue many times.
We set out on the journey to Messines which is near Ypres about 100 miles from the Somme where three battles took place during the war. During some of these battles the 16th Irish and 36th Ulster Divisions fought side by side. At Messines there is an Island of Ireland Peace Park which was opened by President Mary McAleese and Queen Elizabeth a few years ago. This includes a round tower with a beautiful and simple interior where there is a reference to Uncle Willie. Outside in a small garden there are quotations and poems from Tom Kettle, Francis Ledwidge, Wilfred Owen and others generally protesting about the war. One described the war as being fought between the poor of both sides in an effort to further enrich the already rich. Further into the Park is a ”peace pledge” which relates to Unionist and Nationalist undertakings to abhor the use of violence in furtherance of their aims. In view of the current Peace Process in North of Ireland this is a fitting monument to those who believed this was a goal worth pursuing.
We then headed for lunch in Ypres which is a beautiful town. We had a brief visit to the Flanders Museum in Ypres and returned to Charleroi.
James Joyce wrote a brilliant short story called “The Dead” (a great film by the way) which explored the power the memory of people who are dead have, to influence our current thinking. According to Joyce their memory can often appear more powerful than the influence of those living with us. Well on this trip both Charlie and Willie both dead for many years were a constant and strong presence for us all. I think it fair to say we revelled in the company of the dead which brought us the living, together for a few wonderful days.