The Heart-Breaking tale of James Lennox, 12th Royal Irish Rifles
The Somme Offensive which opened on the 1st July 1916 and its traumatic effects are well documented, new tomes on the actions of the combatants at every level appearing in a relentless stream. Only rarely, however, does information come to light which brings the awful tragedy of that bloodiest day into a local perspective; even less rarely is the 'big picture' cleared away so that one can see the tragedy of war at an individual level. One of these latter individual stories, a tale of tragedy for one young man and his family from Ballymena, has become known in our time, and all because of an English nurse whose name until recent times was unknown in the town. The nurse was Edith Elizabeth Appleton; the soldier was 1925, Rifleman James Lennox, 12th Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles.
James Lennox, just 24 years old when he died, was from Ballymena. The 1911 Irish census shows the family living in Alfred Street, Harryville. His father James was then 36 and a weaver, his mother Sarah a 39 years old housewife. The couple had been married for sixteen years and they had had eight children, six of whom were still alive in 1911. James, their eldest surviving child, was aged 15 years, and he already worked as a weaver in the Phoenix Weaving Co. Ltd, its premises but a short walk from his home. His sister Mary, 13 years old, was also a mill worker, a doffer, one of those girls who removed the full bobbins of thread from spinning machines in a textile mill. Sarah, Hugh, Catherine were 11, 9 and 5 years respectively, and William was an infant. The family were Anglicans, St Patrick's Church at the end of Castle Street being their place of worship and one of the places James is commemorated.
The Great war led to massive enlistment by the men of Harryville and James, then living in the family home in Edward Street, joined the colours in October 1914, just over two months after the outbreak on the conflict. He was, by 1916, trained and in France, one of the men waiting to go over the top at 7.30 am on the morning of July 1st.
The attack was described by C Falls in his History of the Ulster Division, page 53. He says,
On the left the 12th Rifles had worse fortune. The wire round the German salient over the hill-brow, less easy to observe, was less completely destroyed than on the rest of the front. Many gaps were cut, but machine-guns were trained upon them. Beaten back at the first rush, and having lost the barrage, the remnants, of the battalion were twice re-formed by devoted officers under that withering hail, and twice again led forward. It was of no avail. ... The attack north of the Ancre was a failure, though gallantry every whit as great as that of the battalions on the left bank was behind it.
Somewhere in that maelstrom of bullets, shell splinters and explosions, 1925, Rifleman James Lennox was hit. He was brought into the trenches and was soon to arrive, probably by courtesy of ambulance train to Etretat Railway Station and by an ambulance from there, at No 1 General Hospital. There he was eventually to meet Nurse Appleton, a QAIMNS (Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service) Nursing Sister. She was a remarkable woman, one who kept a diary.
Sue Light, a Great War researcher who focuses on the role played by nurses during the conflict, examined the material, once online but to which access is now restricted, and “made a link between Edie’s account of the dying days of Rifleman James Lennox".
The tale is harrowing. 'My ill boy', as he is referred to initially, had no hope of survival - he appears to have had bad chest wounds - and on August 3rd Nurse Appleton said he had 'got a surgical emphasema', which that indicated that 'destruction is going on' and that 'he cannot put up a fight against that' . Next day she records receiving a letter from Lennox's mother and, betraying her anguish in far away Ballymena, she asked 'that he may write just a few words to her' and Nurse Appleton 'helped him do it'. She said it was 'a poor little five word scrawl' but she hoped it would please Mrs Lennox's 'poor soul'.
James Lennox languished many days, and Nurse Appleton was affected by his suffering. She said he was 'so utterly weak, that even to turn his head is hard work' and she sorrowed that in his relentless pain and hopeless suffering he seemed 'to be chained to the earth'. She wrote another letter for him because she knew his mother 'was in the gravest anxiety' and it said, 'I am no stronger at all' , but 'I have tried my hardest to take all my food and medicine, & to get well'. He told her, 'Yes - say just that, I wanted her to know just that'. On that day, the 8th August, she wrote 'I don't think he will be detained long', but James lingered in increasing pain and by the 20th August she thought 'only his heart & eyes are alive'. However, his agony continued until the 22nd of the month.
'Lennox died soon after 8 o'c last night. Never have I seen such a slow painful death', that he 'seemed chained to earth for punishment'... 'I am glad for the boy to be away'.
Lennox was buried in the nearby Etretat Churchyard, his unfolding anguish revealed in these brief extracts at an end. We can only imagine the suffering in Ballymena among the close-knit Lennox family, suffering that probably went on for years. This was the legacy of war for so many.
The girl in 8 Patrick Place, Harryville, a hundred or so yards from Edward Street, lost all three of her brothers; the McGowan brothers died together on the 1st July; Mrs. Michael Hughes, Suffolk Street lost her only son, Private James Hughes, in 1918; and the Darragh family at Ballymarlow lost their three boys in the course of the war. The pages of this website will show hundreds of families who knew in 1914, 1915, 1916, 1917, 1918, 1919 and beyond the same pain as Mrs Lennox. There is even the story, possibly apocryphal, of one Harryville lady who wore her black mourning clothes until the day she died and who kept the original wooden cross from her son's grave in Flanders mounted in her home.
The Great War was a catastrophe for the young men sucked into it and it brought untold heartache and misery for those they left behind. As Private Arthur Wrench, Seaforth Highlanders, wrote in his diary in November 1916, 'it strikes me there is not much glory these days in dying for your country'.
Poet and soldier Wilfred Owen said it eloquently in his poem Dulce et Decorum Est, thought to have been written between 8 October 1917 and March, 1918, and a relatively short time before his own death in Flanders. Referring to his daily experience of the horrors of the Great War, he said that if all men knew war as he did, they
... would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
(Dulce et Decorum Est pro patria mori - It is a sweet and right/beautiful thing to die for your country)