Rabbit Hole

Been down any rabbit holes lately? Research invariably leads to rabbit holes – those fascinating distractions that you think will involve a couple of minutes diversion but then take you on a long convoluted journey into the warren.  Why have I written this blog?  No reason other than it justifies the time I recently spent in a rabbit warren and someone might want to have a wander in it!

I’m increasingly dipping my toe into family research and having three great uncles that served in the Great War I often rue the fact that our family has no idea where their campaign medals are located. Were they discarded in a bin, are they in a stranger’s collection, who knows?  Thinking about this a few days ago I was reminded of messages I exchanged with an online acquaintance regarding the sale of medals of his distant relative. I can’t remember how the conversation came about and have since deleted my original Twitter account, which means the message exchange has gone too.  Anyway, in an idle moment, or rather a moment when I was fed up with the task in hand, I looked up the sale of the medals of Major Valentine Joseph Farrell, DSO, MC and Bar.

These medals, along with those of his brother Lieutenant Colonel John Arthur Joseph Farrell, DSO, both of the Leinster Regiment, had been sold twice.  

On 1st December 1993, Major V.J. Farrell’s medals were sold at auction.  Seven years later, the collection of Michael McGoona, who served with the Irish Defence Force between 1954 and 1995, was sold at auction on 28th June 2000.  Two hundred and fifty lots of medals to the Leinster Regiment collected by him, including those of the Farrell brothers (and also some campaign medals with no associated gallantry medals of private soldiers) went under the hammer.

I understand the motivation of the collector of medals, but I do wonder at that of the seller.  Needs must, I suppose, in a lot of gallantry medal cases when a meaningful price can be obtained.

The auctioneer’s description of the Farrell brothers’ medals refer to five of them having served with the Leinster Regiment – in fact it was four brothers, the fifth Farrell was an older relation – their uncle.  At the outbreak of the Great War the 5th Battalion The Prince of Wales’s Leinster Regiment (Royal Canadians) was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Edward Francis Farrell.  At the end of November 1916, following periods of ill-health that started with pneumonia in August 1914, he was placed on temporary retired pay.  Subsequently his name appeared on the Silver War Badge list.

References to one or the other of the four Farrell brothers appear in the history of the Leinsters twenty-eight times.  These, together with other sources such as Ancestry and the battalion war diaries, would enable me to write a mini history, but I will confine myself to the basic details so far discovered.

The Farrells were a Roman Catholic landowning family in Moynalty, Meath and the 1911 census shows that they had eight servants to run the household and a governess for the three youngest children.  Six out of eight Farrell siblings lived with their parents, 49 year old John Edward Joseph Farrell and 44 year old Harriett Susannah Farrell, originally from Kent.  The census indicates that five of their children were born in Australia (Tasmania), with the youngest, aged 5, born in Meath.  Two of the four brothers are not on this census return, but I did find one of them elsewhere.  Twenty-five year old Cecil Joseph Farrell (born in England) was a boarder at an address in a south Dublin suburb and was a student of law – presumably at Trinity College Dublin.  He was following in his father’s footsteps, who was listed as DL i.e. Deputy Lieutenant and JP i.e. Justice of the Peace.  Cecil Farrell subsequently served in the same battalion as his uncle, becoming a captain and his legal brain was obviously suited to the role of adjutant.  The 5th battalion was a depot/training unit and Captain (adjutant) Cecil Farrell does not appear to have served with any other unit overseas.

One of the brothers living at home in 1911 became a career soldier.  The census lists 21 year old John Arthur Joseph as a Lieutenant Special Reserve.  His wedding, with members of the 5th Leinsters present (including brass band), took place on 4th August 1914 just hours before the telegram ordering general mobilisation was received.  As it happened, his older brother (by a year) Valentine (previously a Mechanical Engineer) beat John into overseas service.  The medal index card for Valentine shows he arrived in France with 2nd Leinsters on 28th February 1915, whereas John’s MIC shows him arriving, also to 2nd Leinsters, on 9th October 1916.  Captain John Farrell was awarded the DSO for “fine work” (as per the history of the Leinsters) during the Battle of Messines with 7th Battalion Leinsters, after assuming command following heavy casualties at headquarters caused by a trench mortar.  He was already acting second-in-command and although severely shaken by the blast he at once took charge following the loss of the officer commanding.  During the German Spring Offensive of March 1918, Captain John Farrell was wounded, this being his second wound during his service.  By the time the Leinsters were disbanded in 1922, John was a major and was transferred to the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry.  Major J. Farrell served in India and North West Frontier before retiring from the army in 1935.  In 1939 he was recalled as a staff officer with the RAF.  He was later a temporary lieutenant colonel serving in the Middle East.

The history of the Leinsters notes that during the Battle of Messines, 7th June 1917 (7th Battalion) and also during an attack on Hill 63 in the Ypres Salient in September 1918 (2nd Battalion) there were three Farrell brothers serving together.  Lieutenant Gerald Farrell was the battalion signalling officer during the Battle of Messines and was subsequently awarded a divisional (16th) parchment certificate for conspicuous ability in establishing a report centre in Petit Bois very early in the battle.  During the action on Hill 63, Ypres Salient, the now Captain Gerald Farrell was wounded and one of his brothers, Captain Valentine Farrell, gained the DSO for gallantry.

Captain Valentine Farrell had already been awarded the MC and Bar.  The award of the Military Cross was for actions during the Battle of Ginchy, 9th September 1916.  The history of the Leinsters describes the losses of the 7th battalion and how (then Lieutenant) Farrell (senior officers having been killed) withdrew the survivors to the Guillemont-Bapaume Road: “The difficult task of withdrawing the remnant of the Battalion was executed with great skill by the above officer; for this he was later awarded the Military Cross”.  The London Gazette entry for 14th November 1916 reads: “For conspicuous gallantry during operations. When the senior officers of two companies had become casualties in the firing line he took command, and by his fine example, kept his men together under intense fire.”

Valentine Farrell was awarded a Bar to his MC in September 1918.  He was also mentioned in dispatches in December 1918.  The MID stated that the Bar was for repeated acts of heroism during 1917-1918.  The citation for the second MC in the London Gazette 16 September 1918 states: “For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. This officer led his company forward by night on the flank of a local attack, laid out and dug posts joining up the ground gained under heavy shell fire and very difficult conditions. He overcame all obstacles and completed his task, setting a splendid example of courage and leadership.”

At Hill 63, on 3 September 1918, the 2nd battalion was in front of what General Freyberg described as insurmountable wire. The battalion had lost 180 men, including the wounding of Captain Gerald Farrell,  but Captain Valentine Farrell managed to lead his company over the wire and through the obstacles. For this action at Hill 63 he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.  The citation for the DSO reads:-

D.S.O. London Gazette 11 January 1919. “For conspicuous gallantry and fine leadership in an attack. In command of a company in reserve, he rushed forward at a time when the advance was held up and cleared up several enemy machine gun positions on the flank, thereby enabling the whole line to move forward and reach the final objective. Afterwards he reorganised the whole line and sent back valuable information regarding the situation. He did splendid work.”

Following the Armistice, during the march towards Germany to occupy the Rhineland,  the 2nd Leinsters came to a halt at Braine-le-Château.  From there a party was sent to take part in the official entry of King Albert of the Belgians into Brussels, returning to the capital.  In his memoir Stand To Captain F.C. Hitchcock of the 2nd Leinsters gives a colourful account of the parade in which there were representatives of all the Allied Armies, including two Irish regiments – 1st Dublins and 2nd Leinsters.  The history of the Leinsters says:-

The party was made up by a contingent from each company, Major V.J. Farrell, D.S.O., M.C., being in command, the other officers being Lieutenant Hitchcock, M.C., Second-Lieutenant Mullins and Second Lieutenant Moran.  On the 22nd [November] marched through Brussels, got a wonderful reception, dense crowds, marched past Belgian royal family who were all mounted.”

This brings me back to the motivation, other than financial necessity, of selling gallantry medals.  Perhaps family members of the Farrell brothers, living in an independent Irish state, didn’t place any worth on medals awarded by the British?  If so, there is a certain irony in that a rallying call some of the most ardent Irish nationalists got behind at the beginning of the Great War was for the restoration of the invaded and oppressed “little” state of Belgium, and Valentine Farrell was a participant in the final playing out of that aspiration.  Three years into the war, the Roman Catholic Irish officer commanding 16th (Irish) Division, Major General W.B Hickie, issued an order of the day on Wednesday 6th June 1917 which made reference to the rallying call.  The day before the Battle of Messines during which three Farrell brothers were commended in the history of the Leinsters, Hickie’s order of the day ended:-

Let all do their best, as they have always done, continuing to show the same courage and devotion to duty which has characterised the 16th (Irish) Division since it landed in France, and it will be our proud privilege to restore to Little Belgium, the ‘White village,’ [Wytschaete] which has been in German hands for nearly three years.”

The four Farrell brothers survived the war, the eldest was just in his 30s when it ended.  But they did not return home to a waiting mother as Harriett had died aged just 49, a few months into the war in October 1914.  She had the first of her eight children (presumably there were no others that died in infancy) aged 17 and the last aged 39.  Valentine Farrell married Angela Curran in 1927 and there is more information on the Farrell siblings online.  However, I am now closing that rabbit hole.

While wandering in this warren, I was struck about the lack of discoverable photographs of the Farrell brothers (and the same applies to my great uncles).  The auctioneer didn’t even post photos of the medals for sale.  However, here is some eye candy for those who might be interested i.e. the recently auctioned County Meath Deputy Lieutenant Epaulettes of the Farrell family.

N.B. Thanks to David Ball, Hon. Secretary of the The Prince of Wales’s Leinster Regiment (Royal Canadians) Regimental Association for the photos of the Farrell brothers’ uncle Lieutenant Colonel Edward Francis Farrell.

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