RETIRED British servicemen have paid tribute to the youngest soldier to die in World War 1 – 14-year-old Waterford native John Condon.
A long awaited memorial to the Boy Solider was unveiled in Waterford City in front of members of the British Legion and the Naval Service Reserve, among others.
Condon is the youngest ‘known’ casualty on the Allied side in the war while his grave in the Poelcapelle Cemetery in Belgium is reputed to be one of most visited of any soldier who fell in battle.
The recent ceremony was attended by Condon’s nephew, also named John, who previously told The Irish Post that his uncle had signed-up in search of an adventurous life and in the belief, which was one shared by many of his comrades, that their presence in the ranks would buy future Home Rule for Ireland.
However, within two months the teenager was dead, succumbing to the effects of a German gas attack. He died along with almost the entire 2nd Battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment (RIR).
Condon grew up in the Ballybricken area of Waterford at the turn of the last century. His yearning for adventure may have been stirred by John Redmond, MP for Waterford at the time, and leader of the Home Rule party who encouraged local men to join the Allied ranks.
The Boy Soldier joined the Special Reserve Defence Force and trained in the Army barracks in Clonmel. He clearly lied about his age but according to his nephew he was “a big hardy young fella who looked older than his years”.
In December 1914, the 2nd Battalion of the R.I.R. 12th Brigade 4th Division was posted to Flanders. Some of those who enlisted took comfort from the fact that major conflicts up to this point had been short and decisive. They had no reason to think that this conflict would be any different, with many believing they’d return to Ireland as heroes.
In the Belgium town of Ypres a roll of honour at the Menin Gates lists the names of 56,000 men who died defending the town.
Many men were simply buried where they fell.
John Condon of Ferrybank said his early childhood was littered with memories of older family members making reference to The Boy Soldier.
“It was often recalled that as a child he would run around Ballybricken with a wooden gun telling people he was going to join the army,” said his nephew.
He added that when contacted about his death, the Boy Soldier's family were unaware he’d been fighting at the front. While those lucky enough to survive returned to a country with a dramatically changed political landscape - Ireland now sought total independence from England and returning soldiers were treated with suspicion while their uniforms were something to be reviled.
It took eight years before John’s body was found with his boots and braces still intact. Allegedly, he was identified by his army service number, which was stamped on his boot.
The story of John Condon sat uncomfortably with the Irish Government.
By highlighting his death, they ran the risk of making him a martyr for an English cause, and so it was decided that his story would be suppressed and hopefully forgotten.
A specially commissioned sculpture by artist Paul Cunningham now stands in Cathedral Square in the city.