This is another extract from On Another Man’s Wound, by Ernie O’Malley. I posted one here; a post dealing with similar themes appears here. This incident – the execution of three British officers in reprisal for the killing of prisoners – occurred in the same part of South Tipperary as this and this.
We walked into the closing-in darkness, riflemen in front and behind the trap, until we were at a distance from where the officers had been captured. I expected a big round-up in which the countryside would be combed by troops from Cahir and Clonmel – both strong military posts. They would probably converge in the triangular area of which Fethard was the apex.
We came to a farmhouse up in the fields some way off the main Clonmel road. Sentries were posted. The girls and women of the house got ready supper; they did not ask questions. A fire was lighted in the room where the officers were. After supper I went into the room. The blinds were drawn so that they could not look out. It was a large room. They were seated at a table. One had his head in his hands.
‘Would you like to see a clergyman of your own religion?’
‘No,’ said one. The others shook their heads.
‘Would you like a civilian, an imperialist, to stay with you?’
‘No.’ They did not need anyone.
‘Here’s writing paper and envelopes. You can write to anyone you wish. If you give me your words of honour that you won’t mention anything of military importance, you can seal the envelopes.’
Each gave me his word. There were beds for them to sleep on …
… None of us was twenty-four; the youngest officer inside was about that age. One was tall and dark with brown eyes. He had ill-treated prisoners in Tipperary, one of the Rosegreen men said. He had been insulting when on raids. One was stout with a thick neck; his hair was a little thin. He had been more anxious to talk and to remonstrate than the others. The third was quiet and reserved. He had a sensitive face and he did not talk. I liked him best. I was worried about him because he was wounded. It was an accepted convention that a wounded man should not be shot until he was able to walk. I did not bother about the convention, only the presence of the wounded man made its own conditions. I did not see any sense in keeping him for a few days longer. It would be harder on him if his companions went first …
… It’ll soon be dawn,’ said the QM. I knocked at the door. They were seated around the table. Their faces looked worn and drawn. None of them had slept.
‘Have you written your letters?’
‘Yes,’ said the thin, swarthy one. ‘Here they are.’
‘If you would like to send your money or valuables to friends or relatives I will forward them for you.’
‘We would like to send them with a note to our CO, Major King, in Fethard,’ the quiet one said.
I found an empty Fry’s chocolate box on a side table. They put their watches, money and rings inside.
‘Would you like some tea? It’ll soon be dawn and we’ll have to be on our way.’
‘No thanks, we don’t want anything.’
We walked down the sloping fields towards the roadway. The sky was clouded with heavy grey. The light was dim, a cold dawn wind blew across the thick hedges. It ruffled the grass which was shiny with dew-drops. Men with rifles formed an extended five-pointed figure. An officer walked on each side of the QM. I was behind with the third. ‘It’s a mistake,’ he said. ‘It won’t do any good. We could be good to prisoners.’
‘None of us want to do it,’ I said, ‘but I must think of our men.’ I could not see the ultimate implications of our proposed action. The sky lighted silvery grey, the wind dropped. We caught up with the three in front. ‘Stiff banks those for hunting,’ said the tall, swarthy officer. They smiled as if they had thought of horses and a red-brown fox. ‘There’s not much hunting now,’ I said. We had stopped hunting through the martial-law area.
We reached the roadway. There was a wall in front of a church. The three officers were placed on the green grass edge of the dusty road.
‘Do you mind?’ I said, as I placed their handkerchiefs around their eyes. One handkerchief was of silk and claret coloured.
‘This is goodbye,’ I said.
They shook hands with the QM and myself. Their hands were cold and limp. They shook hands with each other.
The six men of the firing-squad stood near the other side of the road. One of the men fumbled for a while with his magazine. He could not click it into place. An officer pulled down his handkerchief and looked at us, then he put it back over his eyes. Perhaps he thought that we were trying to frighten and test them and that we did not intend to shoot. ‘Ram in the magazine,’ I whispered to the QM.
‘Are you ready?’ asked the QM.
One of the officers nodded. They joined hands. ‘Goodbye, old boy,’ they said, inclining their heads.
‘Squad … ready … fire.’
The volley crashed sharply. The three fell to the ground; their arms twitched. The QM put his revolver to each of their foreheads in turn and fired. The bodies lay still on the green grass. We stood to attention. Then slowly we went up the hill across country making for the centre. None of us spoke till we had crossed a good many fields where wind had snaked the rye grass.