WAR DIARY: Soldier court martialled for desertion, and set free thanks to people of Larne

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Welcome to the second chapter of our new occasional series, telling the fascinating story of Larne teenager Robert McGookin, who joined up in 19 May, 1915 and little over a year later would be a soldier at the Somme.

These excerpts are from a remarkable book (IWAS: It Wasn’t All Sunshine) comprising Robert’s war diaries, which were unseen by anyone until after his death, aged 76, on July 3, 1972.

The 18th Rifles were stationed in Holywood Barracks, with Colonel Sharman Crawford, MB in command. I can assure you they were a very mixed lot. The NCOs were mostly old soldiers, the privates were half unfit men and half young chaps under age. This battalion was to supply reserves for the 108th Infantry Brigade of the 36th Ulster Division when they would go to France.

When I joined them, I had a blister on my heel, caused by a new boot on a route march with the 12th Battalion. I went on parades and did not report sick. At that time I thought very little about it. The 12th of July was pretty near and we were all looking forward to a few days at home and I thought if I reported sick it might stop me getting my pass.

I got four days’ leave at the Twelfth. While I was on my leave my leg contracted a form of blood poison, from the sore on my heel, known as erysipelas. I was not outside my own door on the Twelfth day as my leg was so much swollen I could not put it to the ground. So I sent for the doctor and he ordered me to bed for a day or two until my leg would get better. He said he would let the Commanding Officer of the 18th know of my case, so I thought everything would be all right and I was attending him for about seven weeks.

During this time, the Battalion had removed to Clandeboye Camp and I was told by some of the chaps, who were in the 18th that belonged to Larne, that I had been reported as a deserter. So I told the doctor and he said he would send a letter up to the camp.

One evening, when I was sitting at the fire, two policemen came down and arrested me as a deserter. Mark you, my leg was still festering. When I was taken out to the police station I could not help feeling the disgraceful position I was in. With all the neighbours out at the doors, one would have thought I was some kind of terrible murderer or somebody of that kind.

Later in the evening, a sergeant and two men from the camp came down for me and I went with them on the 6.10pm train leaving Larne, wondering what was going to happen to me. I might say here that the sergeant was kindness itself. He took me up to his house in York Street and gave me some tea as we had plenty of time to catch the last train for Newtownards.

Then we had to walk to Clandeboye and when we got there I was put in the Guard Room. There was neither bedding or blankets for me but a chap named Fee, who was in for being absent without leave, let me share his bed with him. I might say here that this man was what the CO would have termed, a rascal. No doubt he was a very rough one, but would have shared his last bite with you, if he took to you.

Next morning I was paraded before the Company Commander, along with a batch of other offenders. When I was brought before him, the charges against me were:

1. While on Active Service deserting His Majesty’s Forces.

2. Through neglect, losing my kit.

I might add here that when I went off on leave, I left my kit in the hut at Holywood and I believe that it must have got lost when the Battalion was moving, or else someone must have stolen it.

I told the CO how my leg affected me and told him about the doctor sending him up a letter about me. He told me he received no letter from the doctor and he also said that I should have got a motor car and come up to the camp hospital. I was remanded for a District Court Martial and was taken back to the Guard Room again.

I lay in the Guard Room for three weeks before I got my Court Martial and I can tell you it was a very musty place to be in. The day of the District Court Martial came and we were all marched up to the Orderly Room.

The charges against me were read out by the Prosecuting Counsel. I learned then that there was about £3.17.6 against me as regards lost kit, also the expense of the escort who apprehended me at Larne.

I was asked how or why I absented myself from Camp, also how I lost my kit. So I told them my story, as I have already narrated here, and how my kit must have been lost or stolen when I left it at Holywood. I could not tell you what happened after that as I seemed to be in a maze.

I was marched back to the Guard Room and I was another week in here before I was ‘read out’ by the CO in front of the whole Battalion.

I can assure you that I felt this humiliating position very much. A punishment of 42 days, Arbour Hill Detention Barracks, Dublin, was imposed upon me for an offence through no fault of my own.

Arbour Hill was a veritable hotbed or, might I say, a hell upon earth. The warders here were devils themselves.

We were awakened at six o’clock and scrubbed out our cells before turning out on parade as clean as a new pin. Breakfast was a pint of boiled gruel and two ounces of bread. Then it was pack drill at the double, rifle drill and firing practice before dinner - a soup with spuds or rice. After, we chopped firewood, which we then bagged.

Though all this, you were never allowed to speak to another man, or you would be paraded before the governor and maybe put on a ration of bread and water.

During this time people in my own town, who knew of my case, were sending inquiries to the Military Authorities until they (the people) convinced them they had put me here in the wrong. So, one morning I was called out on parade and told I was getting out with half my time owing to my good conduct. (I found out that though the efforts of my own townsfolk was the reason for my release). I was told to pack up and be ready to leave at one o’clock. When I heard this I could have shouted with joy.

Next morning I was brought before the Captain of the Company I was posted to, and he made me the most profound apologies that any man could make. He told me was exceedingly sorry for what had happened to me and the proper authorities were trying to set matters right again.

The outcome of it was that my mother received all the allotment money that had been cancelled and I received my pay and ration allowance.

I may add here that all this was done for me through the efforts of Mr. Samuel McMeekin of Larne, to whom I am deeply thankful. It was through him that my case was looked into properly.