Francis Joseph McMahon

 

Francis Joseph McMahon was born in Clough, County Down, in the north of Ireland, on 2 August 1894. Better known as Frank (or later just "Cobber" to his grandchildren), he joined the North Irish Horse as a Private on 13 October 1914 and served through the War, seeing action in France and Belgium on the La Bassée and Ypres fronts, the Somme, Messines, Cambrai and the German Offensive of March 1918 at St Quentin. From September 1917 he served as an infantryman in the 9th (North Irish Horse) Battalion, Royal Irish Fusiliers. He was wounded on several occasions, and once (briefly) captured by the Germans. On 31 May 1919 he was discharged, having reached the rank of Company Quartermaster Sergeant. Frank left precious little of his wartime experiences. These pages are my attempt to reconstruct this part of his life from the fragments that we do have, and from other records of the units in which he served.

 

Pictures

 

In his own words

This is an extract from the life story of Francis Joseph McMahon, written by him late in his life (around 1970). Partly written in the third person, and partly in the first, the manuscript is transcribed exactly as written, with additional notes in italics and square brackets.

It was nearly the middle of August 1914. Frank was on holidays at his uncle's farm. News didn't travel too fast in those days and it was only now people had heard of the war being declared between England and Germany.

It was a real break to holiday here, there was trout fishing, hunting, shooting and the sea was only ½ mile away. And best of all his uncle bred a good quality of horse. Frank was particularly fond of horses and horse riding. This suited him fine.

When he returned home to his native town [he then lived in Newry] which was about 30 miles from Belfast, the town was agog with excitement. It was a garrison town, reservists were being called to the colours and all the young men were eager to enlist. To enlist now was quite the thing, but previous to the war, to enlist was only for corner boys and ne'r do-wells. But now it was "the proper thing to do".

Frank was educated at a Christian Brothers college where he was taught amongst other subjects, French, German and Gaelic. French was taught by an old French priest and Frank was keen on learning French and he found it very useful.

At that time he was indentured to a firm of wholesale and retail, milling and shipping merchants, a job which he hated, but his father had to pay a premium of £100 that he would serve 5 years apprenticeship, starting every morning at 7AM, work to 8pm, and on Saturdays until 10pm, he received no pay but had his meals there.

When he returned from holidays he met a friend of his, Jack McGrath [John McGuigan], who was a good few years older than him, and whom he knew at school. Jack suggested they should run away to Belfast and enlist in a cavalry regiment. The idea appealed to Frank so the next morning they boarded a train to Belfast and proceeded to enlist. They wanted to enlist in the Inniskilling Dragoons [6th Inniskilling Dragoons Service Squadron] but they had closed recruiting and were allowed to try another cavalry regiment. Eventually they enlisted [in the North Irish Horse], were sworn in and received their day's pay of 1/- each. [Frank and Jack joined F Squadron of the North Irish Horse, Service Nos 1308 and 1307 respectively, on 13 October 1914.]

The next day they were issued with a rifle, sword, saddle, blankets and other equipment and were each given a horse, their day was occupied with drawing equipment and all other gear. The next morning Reveille at 5.30am, beds made up, floors swept and then fall in at 6am for physical jerks, dismissed at 6.15am to stables, where one man was detailed to ride one horse and lead 3 for exercise and watering, the remainder of the troop cleaned out the stables, then the exercise party returned at 6.30am and each man started grooming his horse.

They were issued with a curry comb, tail comb, dandy brush, body brush, a sponge (to sponge the horse's nostrils) a cloth and a plaited straw contraption with which you massaged the horse's body after he had been passed as properly groomed by the Troop Sergeant. You were not allowed to use the curry comb on the horse (the curry comb was for cleaning the body brush). If you were caught using the curry comb on the horse you were up before the Troop Officer and were warned by him not to do it again or else. The Sergeant kept warning you to be "careful of that horse, he cost £40, you can get a soldier for 1/-".

After breakfast the recruits were fallen in for riding school. The recruits with their horses formed a large ring in the centre of which stood the riding master, he was a Sergeant with a ram-rod back, a Kaiser William moustache and a fog-horn voice. He taught you the proper way to mount your horse, when you got mounted he gave the order "walk march", after a short time he yelled "trot", the horses were all cavalry trained and on the command "HALT" from the Sergeant, the horses all stopped dead with the result most of the recruits fell over the horses heads. The Sergeant would then threaten those men who had fallen off with disciplinary action, viz "Dismounting without an order".

We continued attending the riding school until the final passing-out test, you got the order "Cross your stirrups over your saddle, fold your arms" and ride your horse over a 4' jump. If you passed the test you were then posted to a troop as a trooper. You were also trained in sword and rifle drill. If you passed your firing test with the rifle you got an extra 6d per day as a marksman.

At the beginning of the recruit's [Frank's] training he had quite a few brushes with the Authorities, but after a few weeks he settled down and began to enjoy the soldiering, the life wasn't bad, you could get a pint of Guinness was 1½d and cigarettes 5 for 1d at the Canteen and you had quite a few good friends and there was always a sing-song in the Canteen from 5.30pm to 10pm. As the regiment was mostly recruited at that time from the north of Ireland, in Frank's troop they were all Protestants with the exception of Jack McGrath and himself. Sunday was a good day for us, we had no church parade, but for the others they hated it. Church parade was all spit and polish, burnished sword scabbard, burnished spurs and a spotless turnout and a lynx eyed inspection by the Sergeant and then after him by the troop officer. The boys used to rouse and say "the next bloody war, I'll be a tyke". As soon as they returned from Church parade, it was change into stable clothes and off to stables, then grooming and saddle inspection.

Rumours that we were going overseas. We entrained for Dublin, arriving in England we found we were billeted in a small village in Hemel Hempstead, after a spell there we were off to Salisbury Plain, a short stay there and we left for France, just after the battle of Loos. [The Squadron arrived at Le Havre on board the Western Miller on 17 November 1915. The Battle of Loos took place from 25 September to 8 October 1915.] Cavalry weren't required, so we went into the trenches, attached to a Middlesex regiment. [F Squadron was attached to the 33rd Division, part of the Fourth New Army, which included a number of Middlesex Battalions. The Squadron's first stint in the trenches was from 11-17 January 1916 on the La Bassée front.] The procedure was 1 man to 3 horses and the remainder into the trenches, those left behind had to groom, exercise, feed etc, they had also to mount a guard at night on the horses.

We had various talent amongst us, University students, 2 Australians, one chap from the Canadian North West Mounted police, boilermakers, farm labourers, grocers, you mention it and we had them.

There was a division of Cavalry all around waiting for the chance of a break through.

We had a chap with us who had been a solicitor in Shanghai, he got 14 days imprisonment in England for "Ill treating one of His Majesty's chargers", viz galloping his horse on a hard road. On his discharge from prison he reckoned that was the end of his soldiering. He bought a copy of the K.R.R. [King's Rules and Regulations] (which were on sale openly in any paper shop) and studied it. When he would be up on a charge, he would quote K.R.R.'s section so and so in his defence and the charge would invariably be dismissed. He was a real headache to the Sgt. Major, so when there was a request from G.H.Q. for a mounted traffic man, the Sergt Major promptly detailed O'Sullivan for the job. His job was to keep the roads clear for infantry going up the line.

One day in Bethune (a large French Town) a battalion of infantry were going up the line, a French civilian in a cart wanted to break into the column, O'Sullivan tried to stop him, but the French man persisted, so O'Sullivan drew his sword and nearly severed the Frenchman's ear. He was charged with insulting a civilian, he got out of it, saying "he was carrying out his orders".

Shortly after this incident, he was riding through Bethune, where a large number of brass of all regiments were stationed, including the General Commanding the Cavalry Division, O'Sullivan saluted the General's Aide-de-Camp, but the Aide-de-Camp didn't bother acknowledging his salute, so O'Sullivan charged him with "not acknowledging a soldier's salute" and the Aide was reprimanded. Very soon after this incident O'Sullivan was returned to his unit, much to the horror of the Sergeant Major. Apparently by pulling strings by the C.O., O'Sullivan was transferred to England. We never knew what happened to him. [The only O'Sullivan recorded as a North Irish Horseman was Private Michael O'Sullivan (1536). He was discharged from the Army on 20 September 1916 on account of 'sickness' (K.R.R. paragraph 392 XVI).]

In the trenches Frank was hit on the head with a piece of shrapnel (there were no steel helmets in the Army at this time 1915), but on account of the shortage of men, a Sergeant just cut the hair around the wound with a jack knife, poured some iodine from a field dressing and declared me fit. [Helmets were first issued to the Squadron on 1 March 1916.] About a fortnight after he was again in the trenches and was again slightly wounded in the arm with a piece of shrapnel and again the same treatment.

The regiment spent Christmas in Bethune and then started off by road to outside of Boulogne for Divisional Cavalry training in preparation for the Somme offensive. [The Squadron arrived at Beauvry near Bethune on 30 December 1915 and remained there until 18 April 1916. From 20 April to 11 May 1916 the Squadron was at Isques, near Bolougne.] This was to be the final? break through of the war, guns were moving up day and night, the Artillery were packed wheel to wheel, Cavalry and infantry were there in thousands, we were to be attached to the 36th Infantry Division (North of Ireland). The 36th were to be given the honour of taking the Thiepval wood on 1st July 1916 (in commemoration of the Battle of the Boyne in Ireland). [The 36th (Ulster) Division comprised the following infantry battalions: 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th and 15th Royal Irish Rifles, 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers, and 9th, 10th and 11th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers.]

They [the Cavalry squadron] moved up behind the 36th Division. The infantry attached after a terrific bombardment on the German trenches which was supposed to cut the German wire. When the infantry attacked the wire wasn't cut, the Germans were in 20' [deep] dug outs, they simply came out of their dug outs with their machine guns and cut the infantry to pieces, leaving 100s dead and wounded. In the mean time the Germans' artillery ranged in on us, by nightfall we had suffered badly in killed and wounded horses and men.

After a rest waiting for reinforcements from Ireland, we moved to the Ypres the Vimy Ridge sector. Again we had a repetition of the Somme and were withdrawn to down near Boulogne, where it was decided to send the horses to Egypt to the Australians. [This passage is a little unclear. The Regiment did not go to Vimy Ridge, but moved to the Ypres sector, spending most of November 1916 to June 1917 there. It was in support at the Battle of Messines ("a repetition of the Somme"?) before being withdrawn to Aix-en-Issart near Etaples and not a great distance from Boulogne, where the Regiment was dismounted and trained as infantry.]

My knowledge of French came in handy, in doing a few deals with the French.

We entrained the horses for Marseilles (we never knew where we were going until we got there) with an officer [Lieutenant T.H.M Leader] and some men were put in charge of the horses, we ultimately arrived in Marseilles where an Indian regiment officered by English officers took the horses from us, we hung around Marseilles for 2 weeks, then joined a ship with 850 horses as usual destination unknown.

We set sail with the ship overcrowded with indentured Indians, returning home. We had 2 Japanese destroyers as escort for the ship, conditions were really tough, bad food, grooming horses and cleaning out the manure at night time, it was essential it was done at night, because the manure floated on the sea and it was a real give away for German submarines.

We arrived at Malta but were not allowed ashore, after taking on stores and water we sailed again and finally arrived in Alexandria (Egypt) where the Australians took over the horses. After a short time in Alexandria we boarded a Ship (destination unknown). Arriving at some Greek islands we lay up by day in these islands and sailed at night (submarine scare), arrived at Salonika in Greece, then Taranto in Italy, entrained in Taranto, crossed Italy by train, held up at Farenzo? [probably Firenze] whilst the brass discussed using us as reinforcements on the Pavo [probably the Piave River], then back through France to Le Havre, transferred to a famous Irish Infantry regiment, then up into the trenches. [The "famous Irish Infantry regiment" was the 9th (Service) Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers, part of the 36th (Ulster) Division. The Battalion had suffered severely during the Battle of Passchendaele, and absorbed much of Frank's Regiment, becoming the 9th (North Irish Horse) Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers.]

Into the battle of Cambrai [where the Battalion participated in the attempt to capture the town of Moeuvres and in stopping the German counterattack south-west of Marcoing], then up to St. Quentin, intensive training for the capture of St. Quentin, the Germans beat us to it by attacking on the 21st March 1918. I with an advance party of 12 men was captured by the Germans, escaped, joined up with a French unit where we were issued with Hotchkiss M[achine]. Guns (we used Hotchkiss machine guns in the British Cavalry). I was shot through the left arm by a bullet, told to make my way towards Paris. Everything was hay wire, Armies retreating and demoralised. I was 10 days on the road walking, no medical attention for my arm. [As an indication of the confusion that prevailed during the retreat, immediately afterwards the Battalion roll listed 422 officers and men as missing out of a total strength of just over 1,200. Another 98 were listed as killed or wounded.]

Ultimately after a nightmare experience, I was sent from St. Omer to Deauville, then to Harfleur where I was convalescent and marked B.3. Got a job as a clerk to the Commandant of a British staging camp for Americans. Whilst I was there the war ended (11 Nov. 1918).

During his time in France, he had met many Australians, and liked them. The Australian and Irish soldiers got on well together, they seemed to have much in common, disregard for unnecessary discipline and a devil may care way about them. The Australians and Irish were all volunteers. From personal experience the Australians stopped a complete rout once on the Somme and again in the 1918 retreat, the Irish regiments were always pleased if the Australians were near them in the trenches.

Frank was demobilized in 1919, returned to Ireland. There wasn't any jobs he could do offering, he went off to Liverpool, but the unemployment was worse than in Ireland. He joined the police force, but didn't like it and after 3 months resigned.

He had sat for an examination as a Railway clerk in Ireland but had heard no word, [so] he took a job as a barman in Liverpool and after a time he received a telegram informing him he had passed his examination in Ireland. He returned to Ireland and was posted to a job as the Locomotive Superintendent clerk. It was a good job £18 per month [sic] with free first class pass to London or Paris for his annual leave.

He stayed at it for 2 years then got itchy feet. He recalled the stories the Australians told him about Australia so decided Australia for him, he resigned from the Railway and prepared to go there. He arrived in Melbourne in January 1922. [Frank arrived at Melbourne from London on 8 January 1923 (not 1922) on board S.S. Benalla, listed as Francis Joseph MacMahon of Markham House, 102 Alexander Road, Manchester, farmer, aged 28.]