Northern Ireland

Irish soldiers' wills from WWI go on internet

British soldier watching No-Man's land at Oviller during the Battle of the Somme in 1916
Image caption Soldiers kept their will on a page of their pocket book

The wills of 9,000 Irish soldiers who died in the First World War have been put on the internet by the Republic's National Archives.

The documents reveal the last wishes of the soldiers, many of them Ulster men.

Although about 35,000 Irish men died in action, only 9,000 wills have survived.

The fallen never came home, but their wills, which were written in a page of a pocket service book and tucked in their uniform, did.

The wills were originally processed by the War Office in London, then sent to the Probate Office in Dublin and from there to the National Archives where until now they were inaccessible to the public.

"We can only speculate that the soldiers were encouraged to make wills," said archivist Hazel Menton.

"That said, young men heading off to war don't think they have anything to leave, but in fact their belongings would have been sold and the money and army pay given to their family."

Belfast man James Delaney left all of his possessions to his wife Ellen.

"He is unusual in that he was aged 48, a married man with five children, he was Catholic and a labourer," said Ms Menton.

Image caption James Delaney from Belfast was one of the fallen

"His will is quite sad in that somebody has written it for him, and he signed it with an X because he could not read or write."

James Purvis also left Belfast for the battlegrounds of the Western Front.

He wrote a letter to his mother on April 25, 1915 just before he left Portobello Barracks in Dublin.

"He details his preparations for going off to war, the lord lieutenant coming to view the troops and how he got his discs, his dog tags for going off to war, and how they were given their uniforms and their preparation," Ms Menton added.

"There's very little sentimentality, there's no expression of the fact that he might die, and it's all his preparations and excitement of going off to war."

"Dear Mother, we have got everything ready," wrote James Purvis. "The lord lieutenant inspected all the troops that are leaving, he bid us goodbye and wished us good luck, if that counts for anything."

"I hope you will all try and look after yourself and I will write soon."

However, James Purvis was not at war for long.

He died just three months later, joining millions of young men killed in the First World War, 900,000 alone from the British Army.

Ms Menton said the scale of the deaths was "unbelievable".

"They would have thought that as an individual they had no significance, they would never have dreamed that in a hundred years' time we would all be so excited to be able to see this information," she said.

The Irish men who survived the carnage returned to a partly changed country.

"They left a country with huge crowds, bands playing and cheering as they marched off to fight for Catholic Belgium and for Home Rule," explained Shane MacThomais, the resident historian at Dublin's Glasnevin Cemetery.

"They came back four years later to an army that was viewed as an occupational army, that had executed the men of 1916 and suddenly they were in the wrong uniform, they were the enemies.

"That would have been completely different in the north where the unionists still held with the British Army, the atmosphere there would have been much different than south."

The First World War has almost entirely deserted living memory. 

Ms Menton said the Soldiers' Wills project was one strand in efforts to keep what happened alive for those born decades after it ended.

"A lot of people are probably aware that they have relatives who fought in the First World War, their grandmother probably told them about a brother or cousin who went off to war but they know nothing about them," she said.

"I think this is a stepping stone to finding out the history of these people."

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