Francis Ledwidge was born in 1887. Leaving school at the age of 14 he worked in various manual labour positions while developing a love for poetry.
Ledwidge was a nationalist who attempted unsuccessfully to found a branch of the Gaelic League in Slane. Lord Dunsany became a patron of Ledwidge’s poetry. Ledwidge was a founding member of the Slane branch of the Irish Volunteers in 1914. At the outbreak of World War I the leader of the Irish Party, John Redmond, appealed to the Irish Volunteers to join the British Army. Dunsany, tried to discourage Ledwidge from enlisting, offering financial support. Lord Dunsany wrote ‘A law should be passed prohibiting poets from joining armies.’ Dunsany joined the new 5th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and Ledwidge also signed up. Ledwidge enlisted on 24 October 1914 in the same regiment as Dunsany, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. He later explained that “I joined the British Army because she stood between Ireland and an enemy of civilisation and I would not have her say that she defended us while we did nothing but pass resolutions”. By fighting Ledwidge believed he was furthering the cause of Irish independence from Britain. He thought it was unreasonable to expect others to fight for the freedoms that he would later enjoy. Another reason in his decision was that he had been rejected by a local girl, Ellie Vaughey.
In late April 1915 Ledwidge and the 10th Division were ordered to leave Dublin and complete their training in England. Ledwidge left behind a lady friend; he had recently formed a relationship with a girl called Lizzie Healy whom he met while on leave in Meath. In that year Ledwidge saw an initial volume of fifty of his poems published as Songs of the Field.
Based in Hampshire Ledwidge wandered the lanes of the countryside with his friend, Robert Christie. Promoted to lance corporal Ledwidge met with his patron, Dunsany, who had rented a house at nearby Basingstoke.
As rumours of a new front in the Eastern Mediterranean began Ledwidge promised one of his friends a fine Turkish carpet as a souvenir. Ledwidge was assigned to fight the Turks and travelled to Gallipoli by an old coal-boat, the S.S. Novian. On the journey he and his friend, Robert Christie, sheltered from the sun under one of the ship’s beams. They played cards, smoked, wrote letters and discussed poetry. In July 1915 Ledwidge landed at Gallipoli and saw action for the first time near Sedd-el-Bahr alongside Australian and French troops, evading daily Turkish sniper fire. Ledwidge saw action at Suvla Bay, where he suffered severe rheumatism. In October, after evacuation from Gallipoli, he arrived in Serbia on the Salonika campaign. Ledwidge wrote: “I consider Serbia, poetically like Ireland – a poor old woman wandering the roads of the world.”
Ledwidge injured his back in the retreat to Salonika and convalesced in military hospitals in Cairo and by April 1916 was in Manchester. His friend, Robert Christie, had been wounded and evacuated to Britain.
While recovering from wounds in Manchester in 1916 Ledwidge was dismayed to hear of news of the Easter Rising and the execution of its leaders. He had so admired Pearse and, especially, Connolly, while MacDonagh had been a personal friend. In May 1916 Ledwidge was court-martialled and demoted for overstaying his home leave and being drunk in uniform. After the leaders of the Easter Rebellion were executed he said: “If someone were to tell me now that the Germans were coming in over our back wall, I wouldn’t lift a finger to stop them. They could come!”
Ledwidge returned to the front and was posted in December 1916 to Amiens. In January 1917 he was promoted back to lance-corporal. The third battle of Ypres began on 31 July 1917. On that day, a group from Ledwidge’s battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers were road-laying in preparation for an assault. While Ledwidge was drinking tea in a mud hole with his comrades, a random shell exploded alongside, killing the poet and five others. A chaplain who knew him, Father Devas, arrived soon after, and recorded “Ledwidge killed, blown to bits.” He was buried close by in Artillery Wood cemetery, Boesinghe, Belgium.
Matt McGoona, a friend of Ledwidge, the poet, was a printer at the Meath Chronicle in Navan. On 31 July 1917 he was working at the newspaper when he heard the familiar sound of Ledwidge arriving on his motorcycle. When he dashed out to meet Ledwidge there he was in motorcycle gear. As he approached him the motorbike and Ledwidge disappeared. A few days later a telegraph arrived bearing the news of Ledwidge’s death on the Western Front at the same time as he had appeared to his friend in Navan.
The poems Ledwidge wrote on active service revealed his pride at being a soldier, as he believed, in the service of Ireland. He wondered whether he would find a soldier’s death. In one of his last works, written in Belgium, dated July 1917, he seemed to foreshadow his approaching doom.
‘On this edge of life I seem to hover,
For I knew my love had come at last;
That my joy was past and gladness over.
May he rest in peace.’
On Saturday night, 29th July 2017 I was honoured and saddened to lay a wreath in memory of the men on Meath who died in the First World War at the Menin Gate in Ypres Ieper. On the following evening, Sunday, Prince William, the King of the Belgians and Mrs May laid their wreaths.