Herbert M. (Bertie) Gillmor, my grandmother’s favourite brother, survived three years with the Irish Guards during WW1. He was born at Boihy near Manorhamilton, County Leitrim in 1893. While in the trenches in France, Annie, his sister worried about him, reading the war poets and poems of that time, following the fortunes of that awful war. Later I often heard her refer to “Poor Bertie”. Hospitalised three times with significant injuries he was finally discharged from the army in August 1918 a few months before Armistice Day. Two years later, as a European settler, he was clearing virgin forest to farmland at Goodfare in northern Alberta.
A formal photograph of Private Bertie Gillmor in the uniform of the Irish Guards.
The second eldest of six surviving brothers and three sisters, Bertie volunteered to join the Irish Guards, an infantry regiment, in November 1915 at Boyle, County Roscommon. A recruitment campaign running since the start of the war was countered by Irish republican activists. In total some 150,000 Irishmen volunteered over the course of the war, and in Ireland and Great Britain combined almost one in four of the male population joined up. The story told here takes place over three years during World War One and is not an attempt to paint Bertie’s hardship and suffering; the facts speak loudly enough for us to imagine the imprint left on a young man in his early twenties.
In July 1916 after completing his training, the tall young soldier travelled by train to Southampton and then by troop ship across the channel to Harfleur, to join the Second Battalion of the Irish Guards at a large base camp near Le Havre. The third phase of the Battle of the Somme was beginning. During the first days of the Battle of Flers -Courcelette in mid-September, his regiment were ordered to attack from their trenches into heavy German machine gun fire. There were many casualties, and Bertie was wounded in his right arm. His injury was complicated by broken bones and with many other casualties he was returned to England a few days later. He spent most of following three months in a South London hospital before being discharged and returned to his regiment.
His comrades meanwhile had been at the front line of the battle, suffering great loss of life. When he joined them towards the end of the year, they had been withdrawn from the front on a rest period and would not see military action again until the following summer.
One night in April 1917 Bertie was in the company lines shaving. The wash house was dimly lit and while passing his glass to another soldier he cut himself deeply on the hand. He was taken to a field hospital and treated. However, the wound went septic, and he was soon on his way back across the channel to Warley Military Hospital at Brentwood. This time it was a short stay, and he was discharged a week later. That was not end of it however, and his superiors suspecting that the injury was self-inflicted, summoned Bertie to a Court of Enquiry the following month at Warley Barracks. Two witnesses to the incident, Private J. Maher and Private J. Crilly were also present in Brentwood, and as a result their testimony together with Bertie’s, the injury was judged to be the result of an accident, no fault of his own.
Stretcher bearers in the mud with an injured soldier at Pilcken Ridge, Ypres, Belguim, September 1917.
By the end of June 1917, he was back again with Second Battalion in northern France where they were deployed in the Battle of Pilcken Ridge near Ypres on the Western Front. He escaped this bloody period with only a minor injury. In August after being appointed Lance Corporal he was sent to Herzeele near Dunkirk for a “bombing course”; possibly his previous injuries coming to bear. The Irish Guards had seen considerable action during first half of 1917 with major losses, and from August to early December they were withdrawn from the front.
In early 1918 Bertie was in action again when was severely wounded in the back, noted on his casualty form as “shell wd back” and “g. s. w. back sev”. After spending two months in a large hospital, the converted Hotel Trianon in Le Tréport in Normandie, he was transported back from a beautiful seaside town to England for the third time. He spent a further two months in The King George Hospital at Waterloo in London from where he was discharged in May and given 10 days leave. He never crossed the Channel again.
While his battalion were involved in the hostilities up until the end of the war a few months later, and continued to suffer high casualties, Bertie he was given a “free warrant” in August 1918 at Shoreham in London and, claiming no disability, his war was over. After some months basic educational training he was demobilized from the Army Reserve in early 1919.
A photograph post card scripted “To Bertie”.
On the back of this postcard of a young woman it says: “To Bertie”. These photograph postcards were popular in the early 1900s. On this one the printed text is in French and English, as was Bertie’s formal photograph above. The handwriting shows a name, possibly “Wyma S Zeare”, the card most likely a keepsake from the young woman he met during his time in hospital by the sea at Le Tréport.
Returning to County Leitrim, the young man of twenty-five, a survivor of trench warfare, may have felt out of place, dislocated. His Protestant community were still reeling after the Easter Rising and the ongoing War of Independence, and then Sein Féin’s landslide electoral victory. A notice in Irish newspapers offering free land in Alberta, Canada to those willing put their backs into it, would again draw him far from home.
The photograph of Bertie copied here is from Christine Jordan, Bertie’s niece. There is a similar, less formal one of Bertie in a collection belonging to my Grandmother which includes the young woman shown here. In this collection there are also a number from Alex Davis, who has appeared in previous blogs, including some from his wife. Many of these are interesting in themselves and will be published in upcoming blogs.
Details of Bertie’ army service, uniform and regiment details and were confirmed and sourced with the help of those volunteers at www.greatwarforum.org