'A Different Angle'
Albert Fletcher Desborough enlisted in the British Army in December 1915 from his hometown of Cork. He was unable to join a fighting unit due to varicose veins in his leg and so was attached to the Home Service as a valet for the six commissioned Officers in Richmond Barracks. This was not unusual for Irishmen at the time. Many were motivated by the nationalistic rhetoric encouraged by the British propaganda office, and by the Redmondite Volunteers. These volunteers, led by Irish Parliamentary Party leader John Redmond, believed that their participation in the war was the best way to secure Home Rule for Ireland. Beyond this, many Irishmen joined the army for economic reasons, though dangerous it provided a steady paycheque for their families at home. The lucky ones received Home Service posts like Albert.
On Easter Monday 1916, Albert was preparing his officers for a day at the races, organising uniforms and making sure everything was in order before they left. He recalled in his Bureau of Military History witness statement that there was some apprehension of trouble occurring due to the amount of Irish Volunteer activity in recent weeks. However, this was more of a general feeling than one with any real information behind it. The frequency of drilling and marching in the last few weeks by the Irish Volunteers and the ICA had put the officers on edge.
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As Albert was finishing up his morning’s duties, an alarm was sounded across the barracks. Within the barracks, shouts of “Fall In” could be heard, as the men and the Officers rushed to assemble in their respective companies. It was then, just after 12 o’clock that the soldiers were informed of the ongoing rebellion in the city, the 'Sinn Feiners' had come out in strength.
The soldiers began their march along Inchicore Road towards the city centre. Some of the men, including Albert, were told to halt on the road just behind the South Dublin Union. As with all soldiers, when possible, the men took rest. As the men were resting, the officer corp were attempting to get a lay of the land. One of them was hoisted up onto the wall of the South Dublin Union to get a better view. With a crack, the officer slumped backwards onto the road where he lay lifeless, a bullet hole in his forehead.
The fighting came fast and fierce once that first shot had been fired. Another officer was shot as he tried to force his way in through a nearby doorway, 3 bullets tearing into his side. After that, the decision was made to surround the rebels rather than attack and the men were posted in the houses surrounding the South Dublin Union. Albert was given the order to move on, this time under the command of Colonel Lawrence Owens.
Albert’s own recollections, written forty years on, are a bit hazy on the exact timing of certain events. However, he remained in the city throughout Easter Week and his account provides a fascinating insight into the Rising from a rarely heard viewpoint. One episode remained firmly etched in his memory. Stationed on Marlborough Street, they had sealed it off with barbed wire in response to a gathering protesting crowd. From the crowd an elderly man emerged, drapped in a heavy overcoat with a cap pulled low. He had in his hands a single shot rifle, which he lifted and fired. The soldiers began to shout at him to disarm, but the old man continued forward. As he moved, the men were given the order and three soldiers fired upon him. He toppled forward, dropping his weapon and landing on the barbed wire. He was taken down and covered with a shop shutter where he lay until the end of the Rising. No one knew who he was or if he was drunk or a volunteer. For Albert, this was the first death that he had witnessed up close.
On the morning of Saturday the 29th of April, Albert was just returning from delivering a dispatch to his commanding Officer’s house, when he came across a Red Cross nurse rounding the corner from the GPO, a white flag in her hand. Behind her were six ICA men bearing a stretcher on their shoulders. On this stretcher was James Connolly.
Albert rushed into Colonel Owen, who immediately came out to meet them. Albert was witness to the first instance of surrender by the GPO garrison. Colonel Owen made his distaste be known, demanding to know what Connolly wanted. Connolly was seeking the right for his men to return home unconditionally in return for the surrender of the officer corps. Colonel Owen was stunned in silence. He responded with the threat of total bombardment of the city that night if no surrender was forthcoming. However, he was not responsible for making terms. That order had to come from higher up the chain of command. Connolly was lifted away on the stretcher to resume command of his forces.
Albert was dispatched with a message detailing the meeting to the Vice-Regal Lodge, where the British appointed Lord Lieutenant sat. The response to the message was to continue as they had been doing so, to drive home a victory in the shortest time possible with the minimum losses on either side. Within a couple of hours, the order had been given on the rebel’s side and they surrendered. Their arms were taken from them and they were marched in file between two columns of British soldiers toward Richmond Barracks. Albert had seen the the first meeting of the opposing forces at an officer level, one which quickly led to the rebel's surrender. Even at the time, in the midst of a battle torn Dublin, Albert recalls feeling symapthetic towards the injured Connolly, who could barely hide his pain throughout his discussion with Colonel Owen.
Albert went on to move to England in later years. There is little information about his life after the events of Easter,1916. But, he was compelled, almost 40 years later, to write his own personal record of what he experienced during the Rising, offering us a more unusual angle which serves to remind us how many Irishmen were serving in the British army at the time. The history of these men is only slowing returning into public discussion, after years of being kept beneath the surface.
- Written by Daire Collins