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Standing in front of my great-uncle’s grave, we thought: I’m so sorry it took us so long

10 November 2018

9:00 AM

10 November 2018

9:00 AM

The story is part of family lore. How, during the Battle of Mons, on 23 August 1914, two long columns of men from the Royal Field Artillery passed each other. One column was withdrawing from the frontline, the other heading into what was the first action between the British Expeditionary Force and the German army in the first world war. A shout went up: ‘Is Mulholland there?’ A reply in the affirmative from somewhere along the lines; a swift exchange of greetings between two brothers, Danny and Patrick; a mutual exhortation to ‘look out for yourself’ — and then they moved on. In opposite directions.

It was the last time they saw each other. Only one would return home.

Last month I stood in front of a white headstone in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery at Niederzwehren in the state of Hesse, central Germany. My sister and cousin were present too, and we shared one unspoken thought: Danny, we’re sorry it took us so long.

We were the first family members — as far as we know, the first visitors ever — to stand at his graveside in the 100 years since he died, aged 24, on 14 November 1918 — three days after the Armistice. On his last postcard to Alice McKenna, the girl waiting for him back in Belfast, he’d written that he’d be home ‘in two days’.

We are not a family given to sentimentality, but this occasion seemed to demand more than our presence at the grave. So we laid silk poppies, read aloud the tributes that we’d gathered from relatives — the youngest just nine years old — and at last gave fitting acknowledgement to the man who was our closest link to the Great War.

Many of the 1,797 first world war servicemen buried or commemorated at Niederzwehren were held in the nearby PoW camp or at a larger camp outside the town of Giessen. The hilltop cemetery is surrounded by open country on one side and a copse thick with trees dressed in every shade of autumn on the other. It looks down on a valley and up to steep wooded slopes. On that day, in warm sunshine, under blue skies and fluttering leaf fall, it was easy to believe that the men buried here really did rest in peace.

But melancholy lingers too, and not just because of so many lives cut short for king and country, the heartbreaking proof of their youth carved into each rectangle of Portland stone: ‘aged 18… 19… 22… 25.’ One in three men in Britain who were between 19 and 22 in 1914 died in the conflict.

The cemetery, although well-tended, is, I would guess, rarely visited. The spiders’ webs strung between the perfectly ordered rows of headstones were long undisturbed, the grass unaccustomed to footfall. There were a few weathered wreaths on some graves, the Royal British Legion’s small wooden poppy crosses at others, a black and white photo here, a faded handwritten note there. But the majority were bare. During our time there, we saw just one other family — from Surrey — who had come to lay a wreath on behalf of friends.


There has been a sorry absence of visitors to graves like Danny’s. It is understandable given the passage of time and the location. But I find it unbearably sad that these men who died so far from home now lie in places that attract so few visitors.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission commemorates — in 23,000 locations around the world — the 1.7 million men and women of the Commonwealth forces who died in the two world wars. As part of its observance of the centenary of the Great War, it has been encouraging people to visit less frequented war graves. But there is no way of knowing how successful the initiative has been; numbers are monitored only at the bigger sites such as Tyne Cot in Belgium, where nearly 12,000 Commonwealth servicemen from the first world war are buried.

In our family’s case, a pilgrimage to Danny’s grave had been deemed an impossibility for much of the 20th century because of the belief that it was located in East Germany. This proved to be mistaken; the nearest city to Niederzwehren is Kassel, famous as the birthplace of the Brothers Grimm and now capital of Germany’s ‘Fairy Tale Route’. It was on the borders of the Eastern Bloc, but part of the Federal Republic of Germany.

No matter: by the time of reunification in 1990, Danny’s four sisters and his brother Patrick — my grandfather who had gone on to serve in Gallipoli and survived the war — were long dead. And so it fell to the next generation, nephews and nieces… and then the next, we who are great-nephews and great-nieces for whom the internet has brought even obscure European locations close. Planes, trains and automobiles and a place to stay at the click of a mouse.

Danny had been honoured in the family in a quiet way (two descendants bear his name) but he was always more myth than man. Now he is real, especially to the youngest generation, his great-great-nieces and nephews, and his story gives special meaning to this Remembrance Sunday.

So what do we know of his story? Danny was born in Belfast in 1894, the oldest boy of six surviving children, and had become head of the family in his mid-teens. Their father was a farrier at the city’s biggest market, St George’s. One night he’d hitched a lift on the back of a cart, jumped off as it reached his house but slipped on the cobbles and was kicked by the horse, sustaining a fatal skull fracture. Their mother, then in a sanatorium being treated probably for TB, never recovered from the shock and died a year to the day later in January 1911.

Aged 16 and 14 respectively, Danny and Patrick got jobs in the market but as soon as they were old enough, they joined the British army before the outbreak of the first world war. Employment prospects were limited for young Catholic men in the city back then. Their older sister, Minnie, went into service while the younger ones, Maggie, Sarah and four-year-old Bella, were sent to a convent orphanage. The day after that chance encounter between the brothers at Mons, the 119 battery of the 27 division with whom Danny served as a driver, engaged the advancing enemy near Elouges on the Belgian border. Two officers and 48 men were killed or wounded, while four were reported missing.

Danny was listed as having been taken prisoner that day. It is likely that he and other PoWs were marched hundreds of miles into Germany and over the coming years moved around various camps. He wrote regularly to his sisters and to his sweetheart, Alice, courtesy of the Red Cross. Some postcards survive, written in the elegant copperplate script so similar to my grandfather’s.

One postcard is dated 1916 and together with Danny’s annotated prayer book — later returned to his siblings — they suggest his initial internment was at a camp in Limburg an der Lahn in central Germany where there was a large contingent of Irish soldiers. Indeed, it was here that the Irish nationalist Roger Casement came seeking recruits to form an Irish Brigade to fight with the Germans against the British in the cause of Irish independence. According to reports, from among the many thousands held in the camps in the region, he found just 57 takers.

A later postcard from Danny, sent in October 1918, was from the PoW camp at Giessen and, as far as we know, that is where he died. He was a victim of two momentous events; the war, of course, but also the global Spanish flu pandemic that ravaged PoW camps too, claiming the lives of so many in the closing months of the war and early 1919. Men who had survived battlefield injuries, harsh conditions and gruelling labour for years, were unable to cope with a virus that attacked young adults with the greatest ferocity.

As I stood at the graveside I imagined — for the first time, I’m ashamed to admit — the impact the news of his big brother’s death had on my grandfather. With them having both, almost miraculously, survived the carnage to the end, he had every expectation of being reunited with Danny and of them fulfilling their ambition of returning to Belfast to provide a home for their sisters.

Instead the family would remain forever fragmented. The youngest sister, Bella, was 21 and working in the notorious convent laundries by the time the nuns granted her permission to leave — and then only because my grandfather had married and could at last offer her a home.

And I imagined, too, the despair of Alice McKenna, eagerly awaiting Danny’s homecoming in just ‘two days’. She never married and stayed close to the Mulholland family all her life. The sadness, of course, cannot be erased, but a century on, our family feels that it has made its peace at last with a man we never knew but whose presence had never faded entirely.

And I have found a suitable place for my ‘Tower poppy’. I’d bought one of the 888,246 ceramic blooms — a poppy for every Commonwealth serviceman and woman who died in the Great War — from the stunning installation, ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ at the Tower of London in 2014. But I’d managed to drop it, so it smashed beyond repair, shortly afterwards.

I could never bring myself to throw the red petal shards away. Now they nestle in the grass in Niederzwehren below Danny Mulholland’s headstone.

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