Third Battle of Ypres centenary: Remembering the Ilford brothers killed at Passchendaele
PUBLISHED: 09:00 31 July 2017 | UPDATED: 09:15 31 July 2017
There was scarcely a family who emerged unscathed by the First World War, but the O’Donoghues experienced a double heartbreak.
Sons Reggie and Dennis, the only siblings to sister Gertrude, were both killed, with Dennis missing in action before later being confirmed as a fatality.
The brothers enlisted when war broke out in 1914, and survived through multiple campaigns. But they lost their lives on October 30, 1917 at the Second Battle of Passchendaele, part of the Third Battle of Ypres, which began 100 years ago, on July 31, 1917. The Passchendaele campaign is known for its particularly horrendous conditions, with the combatants fighting in heavy rain and thick mud.
“I died in hell – (They called it Passchendaele),” wrote war poet Siegfried Sassoon in his work Memorial Tablet.
Reggie was the youngest of the O’Donoghue children, born in 1895 (as Reginald Charles) to Charles Dennis O’Donoghue and his wife Elizabeth.
The parents had moved to Ilford from Cornwall in the late 1880s, when teacher Charles left the Merry Meet National School. He managed to secure a teaching position at London County Council.
Reggie’s brother Dennis Alfred (known as Fred) was born in 1893. We know from the 1911 census that the family, including then 15-year-old Reggie, were living at 85 St Albans Road, Ilford (now Seven Kings).
The children all studied at Downshall School, which opened in 1899 in Meads Lane and Aldborough Road, close to the family home. The brothers went on to Ilford County High School, with Reggie working at the Whitechapel branch of the London Provincial Bank following graduation.
Many people enlisted when the Great War broke out in August 1914, and the two young men were no exception, joining the 1st/28th Battalion, London Regiment (Artists’ Rifles). Many middle-class men who served with this regiment went on to train as officers. Both brothers became lance corporals.
They served at the 1916 Battle of the Somme, with Reggie writing a letter on the day the campaign began, July 1. An extract reads: “We were occupied all night carrying stores in heavy boxes, I struggled along with one myself up a trench knee-deep in mud and felt pretty fed up with life afterwards...
“I fell asleep but was awakened two hours later by a shell bursting outside the entrance of the dug-out. A good many more followed it.”
The brothers survived until the autumn of the penultimate year of the war. A letter from Reggie’s commanding officer, sent to his parents and published in the Ilford Recorder of November 16, read: “It is with the deepest regret that I have to inform you that your son Reg was killed in action on the 30th October; also that his brother Dennis is missing after the same action, and I fear there is little help.”
Dennis was later confirmed as having been killed. He and Reggie had both been in their early twenties.
Their parents and sister visited the Passchendaele battlefield in 1921 or 1922; it is thought they toured places depicted in sketches Reggie had sent home.
It was not unusual for families who had the means to do so to travel to France or Belgium after the war to see for themselves the places where their loved ones had fought and died.
More than half a million soldiers were killed or wounded in total during the Third Battle of Ypres.
The First World War continued into 1918, only concluding with the signing of an armistice on November 11 that year.
A touching tribute to Reggie and Dennis was arranged by the South Park Swimming Club, which the brothers attended. A trophy displays both of their names, as well as those of seven other members killed during the conflict.
With thanks to Redbridge Museum, which holds a large archive of oral histories, revealing the stories of a wide range of residents. Numerous articles on the First World War, including the experiences of soldiers who were killed, can be found at redbridgefirstworldwar.org.uk.