Soldiers of the 16th (Irish) Division in trenches in the Loos salient in the spring of 1916 Image Credit: Imperial War Museum

As a young child, I remember an old bachelor relative of my mother would come to our house at every Christmas. When I say ‘old’, isn’t everybody who has more years on their clock than your parents indeed truly ‘old’?

But Uncle Caley was really old — he was my mother’s uncle.

Caley wasn’t his real name, just a family nick name to distinguish him from all the other relatives named Christopher. It seemed as if when christening times came around in the Deegan household, there were just two boys’ names that mattered — Christopher and Michael, or any combination of the two with a couple of Patricks thrown in for good measure.

Caley worked as a lollypop man, as we called crossing guards at local schools back in Dublin then in the 1960s, and everyone who grew up in our neighbourhood or went to school there would know of Caley.

The family lore was that Caley had lied about his age and signed up to fight in the First World War. When he was in France, the British Army discovered his youthful lies in search of adventure, and returned him pronto to Dublin.

As least that’s what I remember.

What I do also remember is that he could fix anything with some wire, a bicycle tube and some glue. He seemed a master of fixes, able to build a kite with sticks, glue some string and newspaper. Or fix a bike with some well-placed wire.

Come to think of it, everyone tried to fix things when I was a child. We rarely threw old things out. Dad was a tinkerer too, and the old family washing machine seemed to last for years, with odd screws and nuts holding things together. I remember he would go to scrapyards and look for things such as motors and rubber rings that made appliances last longer than they were intended.

I guess it’s what you call upcycling nowadays. Or shabby chic. Back then, it was necessity. No one had spare money to replace washing machines or vacuum cleaners. You just fixed them.

Caley’s bungalow — it was an ex-serviceman’s house awarded to former veterans in a north Dublin suburb of Killester — was full of bits and pieces, just like a scrapyard, but all stored inside, for he was a consummate gardener of poppies.

Under our stairs was a secret hideaway — along with the gas meter where the schilling coins were stacked up to keep the stove fuelled up — and it was our Aladdin’s cave. Caley once gave us a peculiar-shaped flashlight he said was from the First World War. It had a red screen as well as the usual white light. We were fascinated, and I guess with hindsight now, it was a signal’s lamp for use in the trenches.

Caley died a long, long time ago. I have yet to find a date. But I was interested in tracking down his war records, which mostly are available.

The centenary of the First World War is almost upon us, and I believe it’s important to remember those who fought and died in the mud and blood of Flanders. And I’d like to remember Caley.

Back in 1914, when the First World War broke out, brothers and uncles, boys from the same street, cousins from the same village or town, city or community, all joined the same local regiment. The curse of it all is that when the killing started in earnest, those relatives and friends died together, over the top in often the same wave, cut down on the same muddy Flanders field, mown down by often the same machine gun, laid to rest side by side in the same cemetery — if their bodies were ever recovered.

And in Dublin, in 1914, boys and men joined the Royal Dublin Fusiliers (RDF) by the hundreds.

I have not yet been able to track down when Christopher ‘Caley’ Deegan joined up, but there are two listed as having served with the regiment then.

Incidentally, the cap badge of the RDF contains the image of an Indian tiger and an Asian elephant, rather unusual for a regiment whose home base in Naas, just outside Dublin, is as far removed from those animals as one could imagine. Not so quick — the RDF was created by the amalgamation in July 1881 of the 102nd Regiment of Foot (Royal Madras Fusiliers) and the 103rd Regiment of Foot (Royal Bombay Fusiliers).

There are two soldiers of the name “C. Deegan” listed on the records of the RDF. One, with the regimental No. 5761, was listed Killed In Action on September 9, 1916. The other, No. 12,333 disembarked in France on December 19, 1915.

He’s my granduncle, Caley.

It’s hard to fathom what must have awaited this young soldier there, and I shudder to think of the horrors and killing fields endured by a boy who lied about his age to join the fray and serve the King and his country.

Those men of the 8th and 9th Battalions, Royal Dublin Fusiliers were part of the 16th (Irish) Division of the British Expeditionary Forces in France, commanded by Field Marshal Sir John French and later by General Sir Douglas Haig. According to war records, the division moved into the Loos salient, and spend the rest of the war on the Western Front.

Caley would have been with them as the men were introduced to the full horrors of trench warfare — the shelling, the mud, the barbed wire, No Man’s Land, the putrifying bodies and the fat rats that fed on them. Death and destruction everywhere.

“Almost the first thing I saw was a human head torn from the trunk, though there was no sign of the body,” Fr Willie Doyle, a chaplain, wrote in a letter home to his father.

But his greatest test would have come over three days at the end of April 1916. Between the 27th and 29th, 532 men died. According to a scene reported in The Irish Times, “those men who were not poisoned by chlorine gas were shelled, shot or bayoneted by the enemy, for whom this battle was equally bloody and futile.”

The German attack began at 4.35am on April 27, when its soldiers used machine guns and artillery against the Irish lines. The Germans knew the Irish would return fire: they would all approach the fire step to respond in kind, the frontline trenches packed with men.

Ten minutes later, and to plan, the Germans released chlorine gas from 3,800 cylinders on to the Irish lines. A “dense cloud of black gas and smoke between us and the sun” drifted across the Irish lines, according to Lieut Col Edward Bellingham, from Co Louth, the commanding officer of the 8th Royal Dublin Fusiliers.

Such was the density and scale of the gas that it poisoned two kittens well behind the lines. It could be smelled more than 20 kilometres away.

Under cover of the gas, the German assault troops entered the fusiliers’ frontline trenches. The soldiers on both sides dreaded hand-to-hand combat most. Shells and machine-gun bullets at least had a degree of anonymity. The dead and wounded lay together often in a congealed mass of blood amid the choking gas, which gave everything a greenish pallor.

In this encounter the fusiliers came off worse. “Nearly all the men were killed or wounded,” Bellingham recorded in the regimental diary. The Germans “were put out again and the line held for the rest of the day by the remnants of the two companies.”

The night of April 27 was spent evacuating the injured and burying the dead, “identifying where possible”.

In two days, 368 men of the 8th Royal Dublin Fusiliers were killed, wounded or missing, of a full battalion strength of 946. The list of casualties, which is included in the regimental diary, stretches to 10 pages.

Farther north, on the front of the 7th Inniskilling Fusiliers, the Germans infiltrated the trenches. In the ensuing outburst of savage hand-to-hand combat 66 men from the battalion were killed, but they held on and expelled the Germans.

The men were complimented for their courage. “You have proved yourselves good men of your country. Ireland can be proud of you,” their brigadier general, Philip Leveson-Gower, told them.

Although they had the advantage of gas and surprise, the Germans too suffered terribly in the trench raids. Their own dead numbered in the hundreds.

The following day was quiet, as the wind meant there could be no gas attack, but the Germans resumed hostilities on April 29, the last day of the attack.

The chlorine gas was carried over to the Irish lines on a light breeze; it took 45 minutes to drift across no-man’s-land. British air reconnaissance noticed that the gas trail left a trail of dead vegetation “down to the last blade of grass”.

The lingering gas killed many more men. “Scarcely a man could survive the attack,” Bellingham wrote. “The casualties from gas poisoning were more severe than on the 27th, owing presumably to the gas clouds meeting and remaining stationary and concentrated over the trenches.”

The 16th (Irish) Division suffered 2,000 additional casualties from May until it moved to the Somme in August 1916.

And Caley?

He was wounded on May 25.

Thankfully, it was bad enough for him to warrant a discharge on July 5, 2016. He never made it to the Somme. So many others did — and lie there still. I guess that little family lore about his age was his way of dealing with what he saw in France, and not having to talk about it to little minds who wanted to know how the world was held together with wire and glue, kites and string.

Another battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers were at Hawthorn Ridge at Beaumont Hamel and went over the top on the morning of July 1 when that great offensive began. They were cut to shreds.

I know now from this research that he would have been awarded the 1915 Campaign Star, the Victory medal and the British medal. And because he was wounded, he was entitled to wear a 2-inch perpendicular gold braid on his uniform’s left sleeve cuff.

He would have carried a Lee-Enfield .303 rifle and a bayonet 43 centimetres long. I just remember him with a lollypop, helping children cross the busy Howth Road every morning.

Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent for Europe, based in Madrid.