Remembering my grand-uncle Michael Ryan killed in the First World War

The First World War ended on this day a century ago. Well actually it did not officially end – an armistice was declared. In other words, a cease-fire. It was a permanent cease-fire. It brought to the end an enormous war that caused the deaths of an enormous amount of people, including my grand-uncle Michael Ryan. He died in a war that he had no reason to be part of.

Who was Michael Ryan?

Michael Ryan was one of my grandfather’s older brothers. Michael Ryan was more than ten years older than my grandfather, Peter. Michael left the family home aged 15 to work. He worked for a while in a shop in New Ross or Enniscorthy. He had a falling out with his employer and left. He could not find a job in Ireland so he took the boat to Australia in 1913.

He lived in Australia for a while trying to settle down. It seems that he did not really succeed so he enlisted in the Australian army in 1915. He probably did this as he was out of work. This unfortunate situation was to lead to his being killed in March 1918.

He spent more than two years as a soldier before he was killed in March 1918. His unit was being moved by train towards the front line. The Germans had launched a huge offensive in spring 1918 and were only 20km from the place where Michael was killed. On the evening of March 27th, the train he was travelling on was hit by a German high-explosive shell. Eleven soldiers were killed instantly. A few other succumbed to their wounds shortly after. It must have been a huge explosion as bodies and body parts were strewn all over the railway station.

Michael was one of those killed in that attack. Hopefully he died instantly and suffered as little as possible. The brutal reality is that his body was destroyed in the explosion. So were the bodies of other soldiers.

It is for this reason that the memorial stone in the military cemetery where he is believed to be buried states “Believed to be buried here”. The teams that dealt with the aftermath of the attack probably could not distinguish or identify the body parts that they found. They put them all in graves in the cemetery unsure of whose bodies they were.

Do I hold it against the Germans?

No. Not in the slightest? Why would I? I live in Germany. I know Germans to be happy, warm, welcoming people. I hold no grudges against them for what happened a century ago. The soldiers who fired the cannon that shot the high-explosive shell that killed my grand-uncle were only following orders. They did not know Michael Ryan. They did not deliberately target him. They did not know who or what they would hit.

What I really blame for his death

I blame poverty for my grand-uncle’s death. He left home at the age of 15 to work. When I was 15, I was a child in school not thinking of what I would work at.

Poverty is what forced Michael Ryan to leave Ireland to go to Australia to seek work.

Poverty is what forced Michael Ryan to enlist in the Australian Imperial Force as he could not get work in Australia. He took part in a war that he had no reason to be part of.

Poverty was the reason why Michael Ryan was killed. If he had work in Australia, he would have been able to have remained there and hopefully have lived a happy life.