A letter from the Western Front

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Robert DownieNovember's Manuscript of the Month is a letter from the Western Front celebrating Robert Downie, “a Victoria Cross Hero”, 1916. The letter is part of the Monica Roberts Collection, one of the most important World War 1 collections of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers Association and Archive held at Dublin City Library and Archive.

Photo: Robert Downie VC, 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers

At the outbreak of World War 1, Monica Roberts from Stillorgan, Dublin set up “Band of Helpers for Soldiers” which sent care packages to Irishmen serving in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and Royal Flying Corps at the Western Front to boost their moral. Each package was accompanied by a letter, and many of the men wrote back to Monica and a correspondence and friendship ensued.  Over 700 of the letters received by Monica have been digitised and transcribed, and can be viewed at Digital Repository Ireland providing a remarkable insight into life in the trenches and the reality of warfare.

The collection features heavily in our “Dublin Remembers: Battle of the Somme Exhibition” on display at Dublin City Library and Archive until 23 December, and there is one particular letter written by Christy Fox to Monica Robert written on 1 December 1916 which we have selected as our “November Manuscript of the Month”.

Born c. 1883, Christy Fox, 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers was a regular correspondent with Monica Roberts. Between March 1916 and December 1917, he wrote 21 letters and sent her two Christmas cards. Before the war he was living in 24 North King Street, and according to 1911 census worked as a grocer's porter. He was a Roman Catholic, and his warm personality and Dublin wit shines through in his letters, as he expresses opinions on everything from the “Kaiser” to the “Sinn Fein Rising”.

Envelope

RDFA1.02.042 Envelope (click to enlarge)

In a letter written on 1 December 1916, Fox wrote to Monica expressing immense satisfaction that his fellow soldier ‘Robert Downie’ has been awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest war honour in the British empire . He tells Monica that Downie has won four medals for bravery in total, and has become the first member of the second battalion, Royal Dublin Fusiliers to be awarded the Victoria Cross. He explains that Downie was awarded the medal for “wiping out a machine gun section of the Germans and capturing their gun”.

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The London Gazette from 25 November 1916 provides us with further details.  The dramatic event took place on 23 October 1916, when an attempt was made by the British to capture a machine gun position known as Gun Pits to the east of the village of Lesboeufs.  The 2nd Dublins went over the top in four waves, but most of the commissioned officers became immediate casualties and the attack was in disarray. Downie, with utter disregard of his personal danger, re-organised the men whilst under heavy fire. He rushed forward shouting “Come on the Dubs” and personally accounted for several of the enemy and managed to capture the machine gun.

Robert DownieFox, with typical understatement, tells Monica simply “he is a very brave chap. He doesn't care where he goes”. However he does elaborate further on how much pride the entire second battalion had when they heard that one of their own had received a Victoria Cross, “there was great rejoycing when we heard he got it”. Fox does hint that he feels the 2nd Battalion, RDF may have previously been overlooked for the award noting, “mind you it was time to we got one”. He concludes by telling Monica that, “it is about time Dublin got a chance of welcoming home a V.C. hero”.

Interestingly, though Downie was born in Donegal, he was living in Glasgow at the time of his enlistment, and it was the city of Glasgow, rather than Dublin which celebrated his Victoria Cross award on his return from the Western Front in 1917.  He was given a Civic Reception at the Town Hall in Springburn in Glasgow, a special reception the United Irish League, and a gold watch by his former school. He left the army in 1919, and rarely spoke of his war-time experiences or bravery awards. He married and had three children, and worked as a grounds man at Celtic Park. He died in 1968, aged 74.

However the other forgotten “hero” of this piece is the indomitable Christy Fox ans whilst we know he survived World War 1, we do not know how his life unfolded when he returned to a Dublin which was utterly changed by the events of 1916.

With Thanks to Tom Burke, RDFA Chairman for providing additional biographical information on Robert Downie . Relatives of Christy Fox are invited to contact us cityarchives@dublincity.ie with any further information.

Manuscript of the Month

Each month, Dublin City Archives will be showcasing a manuscript from their collections on our blog. Check back next month for the next instalment!

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