While the names of British and Commonwealth servicemen awarded the Victoria Cross for acts of gallantry under fire during the Great War of 1914-18 are known throughout the world, those who received other awards for similar acts are known only to a few. This is particularly the case in Ireland where the part played by Irishmen in the war has until recently, been largely ignored or forgotten.
Over 210,000 Irishmen served with British and Commonwealth forces during the war. Countless numbers of these men performed significant acts of gallantry while serving on land, in the sea or in the skies. Thirty-seven received the Victoria Cross, while more were decorated with other medals in recognition of their courage displayed in the face of the enemy. One such man was my grand-uncle, Sergeant Myles Abraham DCM MM.
Image: Rachel Abraham (on the right) pictured with her cousin, Alexandra Downes (Myles' grand-daughter) at the Royal Artillery Monument, Hyde Park London in 2013.
I first heard of Myles while I was researching my father's family tree. Myles was born on 9 May 1887 in St Columba's College, Rathfarnham, Co Dublin. The college was a Protestant boarding school for boys and it was also where his parents lived and worked. He was the sixth of eight children, and the fourth son born to William John Abraham, a Protestant from Co Armagh, and Mary Clarke, a Catholic from Co Wicklow. The couple spent a great deal of their working lives at the college where William was employed as a coachman and Mary worked as a dairymaid.
St Columba's has a rich athletic tradition and Myles grew up surrounded by all types of sport. Myles developed a love of rugby at an early age and he went on to play with the Clontarf Football Club and Bective Rangers in Dublin. He also played with the Leinster provincial team and between 1912 and 1914 he was capped five times playing with the Irish international team. Myles was also a talented boxer and in 1913 he defeated W McDonald to become the Irish Amateur Heavyweight Boxing Champion.
Image: The Irish international rugby team pictured at Lansdown Road, Dublin, on 30 November 1912 prior to playing a match against South Africa. Myles Abraham is pictured is in the second row, third from the right.
Unfortunately, despite hours of research, I haven't yet been able to find out when Myles joined the British Army. However, I did discover that he served during the war as a member of D Battery, 174th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery. This unit was part of the 39th Divisional Artillery. It was formed in the London municipality of Deptford in May 1915 and deployed to France early in March 1916. It spent the entire war on the Western Front and among the operations it took part in were: the battles of Beaumont-Hamel, Thiepval, and the Ancre during the 1916 Somme campaign; the battles of Messines and Passchendaele in 1917; and the German Spring offensives of 1918.
Myles was wounded on 6 April 1918 and during his time with the 174th Brigade RFA he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, the Military Medal and was also Mentioned in Dispatches. The award of the Military Medal was listed in the London Gazette on 16 August 1917, his Mention was listed on 18 May 1917 and the Distinguished Conduct Medal on 26 November 1917. So far I have been unable to locate the citation for his Military Medal but the following citation that accompanied the award of his Distinguished Conduct Medal later appeared in the London Gazette on 6 February 1918.
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. On two occasions when the battery was heavily shelled while in action he rallied the men, and, in spite of casualties, got his gun into action again. On another occasion a fire was caused in a gun-pit by heavy enemy shelling. He was first on the scene and by his prompt action and disregard of danger extinguished the fire. His coolness and gallantry on critical occasions is worthy of the highest praise.
Sergeant Myles Abraham was demobilised after the war ended and he later returned home to Ireland where he resumed his sporting activities, got married and had a family. It is interesting to note that in 1920 he won another Irish amateur heavyweight boxing title with shrapnel still embedded in his right wrist. Fortunately, on this occasion he used his left hook to knock out his opponents!
Image: Rachel Abraham giving a presentation on Sergeant Myles Abraham to the Dublin Branch of the Western Front Association on Saturday, 20 July 2013, in the lecture theatre in Collin's Barracks Museum, Dublin.
After I found out about Myles' war service I joined the Cork Branch of the Western Front Association. In 2012 we visited London and as part of the journey I left a small personal tribute for Myles at the Royal Artillery Memorial in Hyde Park. I have also given a presentation on the life of Myles to the Cork and Dublin branches, in the college where I work and to a number of historical societies. Recently, I spent some time thinking about Myles' life and how my search for his story had become such an important part of my life. It was these thoughts that led me to write the poem 'Timelines'.
Timelines - a poem for Myles (1887-1966)
I haul you from the battlefield.
The heavy clay holding you fast
Now soft dust on a meadow breeze.
Shrapnel melding within you
Rusts peacefully today in an English grave.
From my library seat I watch
As you severely punish your opponents,
Your left hook uninjured in the war.
The sweat glistening on your skin
Dried up decades ago,
Like the raucous voices
Calling your name
Round the boxing ring.
On the rugby field
I admire your familiar face.
You look back at me
From an old photograph
Curled and worn,
Capturing in monochrome
Over a hundred years ago.
I visit places you have been.
New, tactile paving
For the vision-impaired
Obscures from my eyes
Any trace you left behind.
I search for you
In cold, metallic figures,
Hunched round memorials.
You are not there.
I sigh in relief.
I pull these threads together
In a moving, picture show of your life,
The real story
Lost in transitions
Between each slide.
I am driven,
Again and again
To tell your tale;
This is my only connection
To a man who died
Five years before I was born.
Kneeling at your graveside
It is enough.
Image: Rachel Abraham pictured in 2009 at the grave of her grand-uncle Myles Abraham in Exeter Higher Cemetery, Devon.
Article and images supplied by Rachel Abraham, WFA Cork Branch, July 2014