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July 10th 1963: Fraternising with the Royal Irish Fusiliers in Germany

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  • July 10th 1963: Fraternising with the Royal Irish Fusiliers in Germany

    July 10th 1963: Fraternising with the Royal Irish Fusiliers in Germany


    BACK PAGES: IN 1963 Donal O’Donovan went to Celle in Germany to watch a British army ceremony for the Royal Irish Fusiliers and revealed a level of fraternisation between the largely Irish regiment and the Irish Army which would have been unlikely a decade later as the Northern “Troubles” polarised opinion.

    “Warm work,” said Colonel CW Linford to a group of us as he came off the parade ground after he and his battalion had staged the most impressive, colourful and moving military spectacle I have seen. Col Linford commands the 1st Battalion, the Royal Irish Fusiliers, to whom Field Marshal Sir Gerald Templer today presented new colours – the first for 26 years. The new colours embody battle honours won since 1937: the old colours will now be laid up – probably in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh, which is the regimental chapel.

    As the battalion, led by both its pipe and regimental bands, marched on to the square at Trenchard barracks here to the tune of Sons of the Brave , one sensed the pride of these Irishmen in their unit and their history. Virtually all their music is Irish, from O’Donnell Abu through The Top o’ Cork Road to Let Erin Remember .

    The colours blessed today . . . are those of a fighting unit formed in 1793 as the 87th and 89th Regiments of Foot. They have fought in many famous battles since then, but the victory that they celebrated most is the Battle of Barrosa on March 5th, 1811, when they took the Eagle Standard of the 8th French Regiment and made it the basis of their own badge. During the Peninsular campaign, too, the regiment earned the nickname (now its motto) Faugh a Ballagh (clear the way). The motto, which arose from the spontaneous cries of the men during the battle of Barrosa, was not officially granted until the Boer War.

    Now stationed in Germany, the 1st Battalion RIF expects to be posted to Belgium soon. It came here from Tripoli, where the Faughs staged a hectic welcome for the first Irish Army battalion to go to the Congo [on UN duty]\. So good was the party, I am told, that there were “deserters” on each side, and the Globemaster [aircraft] leaving for Leopoldville had eventually to be searched for men wearing black (British) boots spread carefully among those wearing brown (Irish) boots.

    One result of this accidental and happy meeting was that the RIF has pressed for and got from the War Office permission for soldiers who formerly served with the Irish Army in the Congo to wear their UN Congo medals on parade.

    The battalion lives in Trenchard barracks here, in a camp which looks like a campus. It was built in 1938 for the German army – reportedly by labour brought from nearby Belsen concentration camp. Belsen at that time was not the horror uncovered in 1945. It was a kind of corrective labour camp and did not begin to be a symbol of the worst of Nazism until near the end of the war. It had, in fact, never been fitted with gas chambers.

    In barracks, life is full of opportunities that no enlisted man could find outside the army. Each company has its own bar; the men sleep up to only four to a room (Irish Army, please copy). And there are pastimes that many middle-class families cannot afford – riding stables, swimming pools, tennis courts, athletics, a nine-hole golf course on which some of the players are former caddies from Bray and Woodbrook.

    “Hey, Winnie, yer mother wants yeh”. Not from Lower Saxony, but from Drimnagh, the children of soldiers, playing ball under my window in the mess. Strong Dublin accents seemed incongruous first, but a few days with the Fusiliers – who are 90 per cent Irish – convinced me that Ireland is where you find it.

    Looking for Irish Gifts? The Irish Times front pages, available from the first publication in 1859, make the perfect gift for birthdays, christenings or anniversaries. Free delivery worldwide unframed.

    Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. Margaret Mead