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Family painting a picture of Patrick

The end of the Troubles has allowed a new examination of a forgotten regiment of the British Army. CHRIS THORNTON examines the story of one Catholic soldier who fought in World War I

Patrick Kane was one of the forgotten. A Co Down man who enlisted in the British Army at the outbreak of World War I, he survived some of the worst battles of modern warfare, only to die at the hands of comrades two days before the war ended.

And then, apart from the lasting grief of his mother and immediate family, the tides of history closed over him.

Only now are they beginning to part. After decades in which the sacrifices of Catholic soldiers were ignored across Ireland, some families are beginning to recover their history - discovering items like Patrick Kane's notebook, which bears the lyrics to his favourite songs and a hole where a bullet finally pierced his heart.

The story of the Ulster Division, which fought with distinction at the Somme, has long been celebrated by Protestants. But the end of the Troubles is allowing greater examination of forgotten Irish units, like the 6th battalion of the Connaught Rangers, made up of hundreds of Catholic men from Northern Ireland.

Private Patrick Kane was among them. Enlisting shortly after the war broke out, he was shipped to France in December 1915 - an apparently confident 22-year-old, carrying a silver-tipped swagger stick with the crest of the Rangers - the harp and crown - and his initials carved into it.

Just over a month after arriving in France, he was in the trenches. Before 1916 closed, he had survived the carnage of the Somme, only to fight in other hellholes like Passchendaele, where soldiers drowned in mud and mustard gas was unleashed for the first time.

He also came through the battle that virtually wiped out the 6th Connaughts, when they suffered more than 50% casualties during the final German offensive at the Somme in March 1918.

The unit's survivors, including Private Kane, were transferred into the Leinster Regiment. The 6th Connaught was never reformed.

Eight months later, pursuing the retreating Germans through northern France, 25-year-old Private Kane was returning from a night patrol near Le Quesnoy.

A sentry, Private Penrose, had not been told of the patrol and fired a machine gun burst at them when they returned. Patrick Kane and another soldier, Private Bousfield, were killed. Two other men were wounded. The war ended two days later.

The Leinsters' commanding officer, Colonel Frederick Ernest Whitton, said later that the two privates were the battalion's "last and saddest casualties of the war".

Nearly 90 years on, Private Kane's family are now rebuilding a picture of the life lost to them.

His great nephew, Simon Artherton, said their interest was awakened with the rediscovery of a letter sent to the family in 1970, informing them that Patrick Kane's grave had been moved from a small churchyard because of development in the area.

"We knew we had a great uncle killed in the war, but it wasn't talked about that much," he said. "It was only relatively recently that we talked about it and my uncle got out the letter about his grave. The letter was the start of it all."

Family effects were scoured and photographs of Patrick were turned up, along with the swagger stick he carried and - perhaps most movingly - the notebook and prayer book he carried, apparently ripped by one of the bullets that killed him.

The notebook includes French phrases, details of his pay from the end of 1917 until shortly before he was killed, and the lyrics of some songs.

One of the songs is an Irving Berlin number, called When I Leave The World Behind. Patrick Kane copied it out, including the chorus:

I'll leave the nighttime to the dreamers,

I'll leave the songbirds to the blind,

I'll leave the moon above to those in love,

When I leave the world behind.

In his prayer book, called A Simple Prayer Book for Soldiers, he wrote inside the cover: "Let me not forget Thursday 15th Aug 1918 at the little chapel in Calias (sic) feast of B.V.M."

"You're just left wondering what happened to him there on August 15," said Simon. "I guess we'll never know."

The discoveries continue - only this week the family learned that Patrick had been killed by friendly fire.

Simon said that learning more about Patrick has had a "big time" impact on the family. "I named my wee boy after him," he said.

Several relatives also went to visit the grave.

"We couldn't believe when we found it," he said. "It was quite emotional, considering we were the first to go to it.

"It was a wild sad place just to look at - everything was flattened by all the bombing that went on. Even after this time you can see that."

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph